Content warning: sexual assault, victim blaming

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about victim blaming. As a social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I work with young people who have both experienced victim blaming, and who have participated in it.

Victim blaming refers to when someone questions how survivors of sexual assault or other crimes could have prevented what happened. This implies that it is the victim’s fault that the crime happened in the first place. Victim blaming is a part of rape culture and reflects patriarchal values that harm survivors in very real ways.

Victim blaming has a profoundly harmful impact on survivors. This is because the healing process begins when a survivor names their experience out loud. To gather the courage to speak your truth, and then to have that truth denied, is its own trauma.

But most people who practice victim blaming aren’t trying to inflict pain or uphold rape culture. Instead, they’re instinctively reacting to pain and grief in a world which normalizes rape and discredits survivors.

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to talk about where victim blaming comes from and how we can change our reactions to survivors.

Victim blaming is an inadequate response to a sense of powerlessness.

One young client, Aly*, was raped in an alley by a boy she knew. When Aly told her mother, she didn’t react with compassion or support, but by shouting at her: “Didn’t I tell you not to go there? Didn’t I tell you to stop hanging out with the boys? To stop wearing those tops? Now you see what happens.”

This response (which was understandably and unquestionably devastating to Aly) came from a place of fear and helplessness. Aly’s mother was trying to reclaim some power in a situation where she had no power. She told herself that if her daughter had only worn the right clothes and followed her rules, she could’ve protected her. The truth, of course, is that she couldn’t have. No one can avoid sexual violence by wearing the right clothes or saying the right things (never mind that no one should have to change their behavior in order to avoid assault).

Victim blaming reflects the culture you live in.

A high school student named Alex* told me that his partner had been fondled by an elderly neighbor three different times. Alex’s first reaction was to ask a series of accusatory questions: “How come you didn’t tell the police? Why didn’t you tell me before? How could you have let it happen more than once? Why didn’t you fight him off?”

Clearly, these questions did not come from a place of compassion and understanding. Instead, Alex was reflecting the culture that he grew up in, which told him that victims disclosed assault for personal gain. Alex thought his partner told him about the assaults because she was trying to manipulate him into pitying her, rather than looking for support or healing.

Alex’s reaction also reflected our culture’s limited understanding of how humans react to trauma.

He assumed that since his partner didn’t fight back or run away, she didn’t think the situation was that bad. But in reality, many people find that they can’t move or scream when they are in immediate danger or experiencing trauma. Evolutionarily, this is a survival tactic. Today, it often makes survivors feel guilty, and can be used to discredit them if they go to the police.

How should we react instead?

Instead of blaming victims, we can support them by practicing compassion—for both the survivor and for ourselves. Often, victim blaming comes from a place of deep pain. Practicing self-compassion allows you to acknowledge and accept that pain, and approach the people around you from a place of warmth and empathy.

Tell the survivor that you believe them. Reassure them that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault—no matter what. Listen to them, reflecting what they say back to them.

Be aware of your own feelings. Hearing about someone’s assault can be a trauma on its own, especially if you’ve also experienced violence. You may feel upset, angry, or experience grief. This is all normal. Find ways to process your emotions: journal, run, do yoga, rap, draw, or talk to someone you trust.

Think about the kindest way you can respond. If you’re able, talk to a therapist about the best way to move forward, and encourage the survivor to do the same. Make sure they understand that they are in control.

If you or the survivor is 10-22 years old near NYC, you can make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential healthcare, including mental health services.

*Details and names have been changed to protect patient privacy.

Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW is a clinical social worker with a specialization in children, youth and families, and in treating trauma in adolescents. Zuleyma has worked in community-based preventative services agencies and outpatient substance use disorder clinics, and as a home-based family therapist and school-based clinician. She is currently an outpatient clinical social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.