Tarun Tejpal victim blaming

Tarun Tejpal and the case of victim blaming

She did not look disturbed, reserved, terrified or traumatised in any way even though this was immediately after she claims to have been sexually assaulted,” wrote Judge Kshama Joshi in a 527-page judgment, from a BBC article.

It is not the obtuseness of such a statement that causes so many of us distress, but, because such a callous remark was uttered by a well-educated and informed officer of the court. What could it say about us, as a collective?

What is victim blaming and how do we participate in it?

The above sentiment by judge Joshi is a classic example of victim blaming. Kayleigh Roberts, a writer for The Atlantic, writes “Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim blaming.” This logic inadvertently makes it seem like the victim, in some convoluted way, consented and co-conspired in their victimization.

When we ask victims “why didn’t she say something?”, “why didn’t you scream?”, “why did you dress that way?”, “why did you behave this way and not that?” etc. we are consciously or unconsciously asking the victim why they live life the way that they do because ours is a better way of living. This type of attitude, Roberts says, is due to the fact that we all want to feel as though we live in a just world; where if we do everything “right” we won’t find ourselves in the position of a victim.

What is our duty as a collective in victim blaming?

One of the ways we can care for survivors and/or victims of sexual violence is by being cognizant of our victim-blaming behaviors. Here are some ways we shame and blame victims:

While it is important to acknowledge that victim blaming is a toxic aspect of our culture, we must have tools to counter it. The following are some ways to empower the survivors in your life:

  • Believe her. A lot of victims don’t come forward for fear of not being believed.
  • Affirm her. Use language that shifts focus away from the victim’s behavior and actions.
  • Call out rape “jokes”. Any joke at the expense of a survivor’s trauma normalizes the violence.
  • Break the victim box. There is no one way of dealing with trauma as a survivor. Expecting the survivor to manage their life in the way we expect them to, is an unhelpful tactic.
  • Center the survivor. Prioritizing the needs of the person harmed and giving them a voice at every stage of the prevention and response process empowers victims.
  • Think critically. The media and magazines put out messages that degrade and dehumanize already marginalized people, it is our responsibility to combat such conditioning.

Why do we blame victims?

There are three main theories for why people may victim blame:

  • Just world hypothesis: based on our notions of how the world is: just and safe. People who believe in the world being just, also buy into the idea that good things happen to good people and if some misfortune has befallen someone, it is deserved.
  • Attribution error: there are two categories of attribution: internal and external. The error occurs when people “overemphasize personal characteristics and devalue environmental characteristics when judging other, resulting in victim blaming.
  • Invulnerability theory: people who subscribe to this theory may do so to feel safe in their invulnerabilities. By asserting the victim blaming attitude on the survivor, it hyperbolizes the “clumsiness” of victims thus making one feel safer for not being as “clumsy”.

What are the impacts of victim blaming?

The victim might not come forward for fear of not being believed. The survivor might feel like their personal history will be dissected. Survivors might fear re-traumatization. Trivialization of the violence might end up gaslighting them. Victim blaming sows seeds of mistrust among loved ones. Victim blaming takes the focus off of people who have caused the harm and shifts it unduly onto survivors. But, most importantly, survivors might feel as though they themselves might be put on trial for not being the “perfect victim”.

How do we move forward?

What is the underlying cause of sexual violence? We’ve heard “rape is about power, not sex.” But, what does it mean for a survivor to reclaim her power? How can we allow space for survivors to feel empowered intentionally and authentically?

How can we hold those who have caused such great harm accountable? How can we do so in a way that shifts the paradigm of our current culture to support survivors? How do we end the abusive and vicious cycle of dehumanization? How do we plan for a future where consent education is prevalent and sexual violence is minimized? Essentially, how do we nip victim blaming at its bud?

Niemi, from The Atlantic, suggests that getting to the root of the problem requires us to reframe our thinking about the person who has caused the harm, as well. Mythologizing rape and other acts of sexual violence, makes it seem that no “normal” person would cause such grave harm. When in reality, in a culture where we aren’t taught consent, brutal acts of sexual violence are used as a measure for our tolerance to the more insidious ones.

– Sanjla Perumal, Associate

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