Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization. While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.
In September 2018, after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford revealed to an unforgiving world that Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, survivors of sexual violence took to Twitter in droves with a new hashtag. They were responding to President Trump’s suggestion that if Ford’s abuse had been “as bad as she said it was,” she or her parents would have immediately notified the authorities.
In 280 characters or fewer, thousands of survivors, reeling under the weight of their own painful memories, explained why they hadn’t reported to law enforcement after their assaults. Their reasons ranged from confusion and self-doubt, threats, and fear of retaliation to lack of resources, the potential of disownment by family members, and experiences they were too young to fully understand at the time. In a similar fashion, domestic violence survivors several years prior had constructed their own hashtag: #WhyIStayed, in which they shared what prevented them from leaving abusive relationships. One woman wrote that the evening she tried to escape, her abuser slept in front of the door the entire night to prevent her from exiting.
When faced with questions, survivors are too often forced to give answers.
And as improbable as it may seem, the harrowing and profoundly heartbreaking truth is that sometimes, those who demand the answers are survivors themselves. On a recent Facebook post about Lorena Bobbitt, who removed her husband’s genitalia in 1993 after years of constant physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse, one user wrote, “No excuse to mutilate somebody. I was in an abusive relationship before and I left. I didn’t take a knife to somebody. No excuse!!!”
When entertainment website Babe published its bombshell January 2018 article about Aziz Ansari’s coercive sexual assault of a young female photographer named Grace, many were quick to proclaim that the young woman had given multiple signals of consent and interest – and some of the proponents of this argument were sexual violence survivors themselves. On a Facebook post about the article, one woman wrote about having experienced sexually coercive situations with musicians and famous actors, then proceeded to argue that Grace “going to his place…[was] really on her in this case.”
But by far one of the most clearly-cut cases of internalized victim-blaming has reared its head in regards to R. Kelly’s former wife, Andrea “Drea” Kelly, who has repeatedly shared her experiences of being physically abused by the singer-songwriter with a long and violent history of pedophilia and sexual violence. Vilified by critics for occasionally speaking highly of her ex-husband, along with revelations that she has continued to attend several of his concerts, Drea Kelly cannot catch a break. In a powerful Instagram post on January 7, 2019, Drea spoke of the grief and volatility of the cycles of violence she experienced at the hands of her ex-husband, combined with the harsh criticism she has faced in the years since, asking “especially those who have never been abused” not to speak ill of her journey. “What I did or said,” she wrote, “should never be more important than why I did or said it.”
Unfortunately, many of the women questioning her decision to still attend Kelly’s concerts and post lovingly-captioned photos to social media were at one point in similar situations themselves. “I was abused by my x husband and I damn sure wasn’t taking [any] pictures together smiling!” one woman commented on a since-deleted article from Zeppfeed titled “Drea Kelly: Going to R. Kelly Concerts, Cordial with Ex Just A Few Years Ago?”
All of this is not to say that survivors of domestic and sexual violence who at best question the credibility of other survivors’ stories, and at worst question every choice made by those survivors, are in any way “bad people.” They are human beings who have endured the acutely punishing anguish of abuse committed by those who claim to love them, or by those whom they trusted, or by whose whom they may not have known at all. They, of anyone, know best how the road to hell is not paved with good intentions, but rather with promises to be better, to stop drinking, to seek help, to never hurt another girl, promises to cease causing the indescribable fear that is the fear of a human being opening the door to their home after work and discovering that their abuser is, tonight, “not in a very good mood.”
All of this is to say that victim-blaming is an insidious disease that possesses the truly terrifying capability of infecting any one of us. And we do a true disservice to all survivors when we pass on this disease to the very individuals who have borne the brunt of its fury, who have felt its sickly breath pass near, who have watched as it slowly and painstakingly infected those from whom they ached to feel support and validation. None of us are immune. All of us are susceptible.
In 1985, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon penned his pioneering book on crowd psychology, titled The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. In it, he argued that by virtue of contagion theory, crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members, and that this influence leads to irrational, emotionally charged behavior.
Victim-blaming is contagious. It occurs in crowds. And even victims, when they have been confronted and castigated by victim-blaming for so long and so strenuously, are open to this contagion. And as a result, even victims, however painful it is to admit, may wield the impacts of this contagion against other victims. But this burden, this fault of internalization, is not the burden of the people who have gone through the pain and come out the other side. It is, and must be, the burden of a culture in which misogyny and violence against women are commonplace and accepted, a culture in which, when a woman tells us “He did this to me” we question not why he did it, but why she “let” him or what she did to deserve it.
For a survivor who internalizes the sickness of victim-blaming and projects it outward has been let down twofold: first by the abuser, and next by us. And the survivor who experiences the victim-blaming of that survivor has also been let down by their abuser, and by us.
Infection is the first stage of disease. Disease is the last stage: the stage in which the body’s cells have incurred damage. And the damage of cells is difficult to repair. Fortunately, every millisecond of every day around the world, the most brilliant scientists among us work to create vaccinations that prevent infections before they morph into disease.
In the case of domestic and sexual violence and the disease of victim-blaming, we must be the vaccine. We must be the cure. And we can be, if we come together, to uplift rather than destroy.
Written by Meggie Royer, Women’s Advocates’ Education & Outreach Coordinator (firstname.lastname@example.org)