A few years back, before the weight of the #metoo movement exposed the revolting assault of powerful men on countless women and forced many to confront their views on gender politics, I faced a reckoning of my own.
It was midday. I remember being in a car with relatives when we all noticed a young woman on the street. She was on her own, walking to a location unknown to us when a male relative in the car remarked, “Kaya naman may mga na-re-rape,” (that’s why women get raped) he said shaking his head at the unsuspecting woman.
She was possibly in her late teens or early 20’s and was wearing a white skirt so short that I think I actually heard the phrase “kita mo na ang bituka” (you can see her insides) verbalize itself inside my head.
Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed with two emotions so at odds with each other that I’m convinced my body and mind, short circuited as it tried to process what was happening. I was disturbed by the comment and also, I understood it. It made me feel ill and yet, I didn’t say anything.
I thought about the incident for days. Wrangling mostly with the disbelief and disgust of being related to someone who thinks that it’s reasonable for women to get sexually assaulted because of what they’re wearing and largely because, of disbelief and disgust that I didn’t do a thing to call him out. Shame on him and shame on me. In a way, I participated in a #metoo moment of the reverse kind. In that, I was just as guilty of victim blaming as he was.
What is Victim Blaming?
According to The Harvard law school, victim blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears the responsibility for the assault. It occurs when an assumption is made that a person did something to provoke violence by actions, words or dress.
An Atlantic article on the psychology of victim blaming indicates that it actually comes in many forms. It can apply to something as mundane as blaming a person who gets pickpocketed for his or her decision to carry their wallet in their back pocket.
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.
However, victim blaming in relation to rape and sexual assault is when it takes on a more insidious context, and the consequences are devastating.
When Victim Blaming Hurts
An article on the Inquirer reports that victim blaming in rape cases in so ingrained in Filipino culture that survivors who press charges face additional hurdles under questioning.
In preliminary investigations, questions like, why the rape survivor went out drinking or agree to go with the accused to a motel are customary from prosecutors and even judges. According to Atty. Estella Elamparo, there is no basis in the law for dismissive statements from law practitioners and yet, they reflect the beliefs of those who make the decisions on whether a rape case would even get its day in court.
Director of UP center for Women’s and gender studies, Dr. Nathalie Africa-Verceles asserts in a Rappler article, when victims are not validated and their assault negated, they internalize these messages. It affects a person’s sense of dignity and victims question themselves rather than confront the fact — that the assault itself is wrong.
Needless to say, when victims fail to hold perpetrators to account, the assault will likely happen again.
Dr. Africa- Verceles added that victim blaming is a manifestation of rape culture, which in itself is a system of beliefs that justifies and trivializes sexual violence.
Sadlly, people’s knee-jerk reaction to blame the victims in recent high profile cases illustrate that Filipinos have a long, long way to go in dismantling rape culture.
15-year-old Fabel Pineda was molested and her 18-year-old cousin was raped by police officers who picked the girls up for violating quarantine curfew after they left a party and were allegedly very drunk. Just a few short days later, Fabel would die in the hands of her attackers after reporting the assault.
23-year-old Christine Dacera’s cause of death was eventually revealed to be the result of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, but not before police officers classified her case as a rape slay without a full investigation, declaring it solved and publicly implicating 11 of her friends in her death.
In both instances, the social discourse was contentious. With people going as far as calling Dacera dumb and flirtatious for partying with men and being the only woman there.
So why do we do it? Why do we default to blaming and shaming victims?
Why Victim Shaming Happens
She was drunk.
She was flirting.
She should have known better.
She was wearing a slutty dress.
Which of these phrases have you heard from friends, family or even maybe yourself when you heard about Christine and Fabel?
Several studies from leading behavioral psychologists offer a few clues into why people engage in victim blaming.
Studies note that many people feel they have control over whether they become victim of crimes, that they can take precautions which will protect them. Therefore, they have a hard time accepting that victims of these crimes didn’t contribute to and bear some responsibility for their own victimization.
Additionally, some people hold victims responsible for their misfortune to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to them.
Another study noted that moral values also play a large role in determining the likelihood that someone will engage in victim-blaming, such as considering the victim as “contaminated” rather than “injured”
How to Respond to Victim Blaming
I can’t go back in time and change the way I behaved in that car ride, but I know now that I can never be quiet again. Not when my silence will allow behavior that perpetuates rape culture and result in the denigration, harassment and assault of individuals.
Looking back, I am reminded me of a thought-provoking Twitter thread from psychologist and writer Josh Weed. Weed provide his perspective as a gay man in a Twitter thread that went viral in 2017. His take is particularly relevant, given the value Filipinos seem to place on “modesty” and the role that that value plays in victim blaming.
Weed starts by saying that the main premise of modesty culture is that women need to dress in a way that doesn’t provoke sexual response in men. He asserts: “I think it’s absolutely crazy that a man can look at a woman and say, ‘I think you should wear something else because seeing your skin makes me feel aroused and I haven’t learned how to properly manage it, so please change your clothes’.”
He then tapped into his own experience to make a point. “A man’s sexuality is his own responsibility. Wanna know how I know this? It’s because my whole life, I have never told another man how to dress even though a man’s body arouses me. My arousal is about ME, not him.” He emphasized, “I have never assaulted another man for this, I have never claimed a man was ‘asking for it’.”
Weed added, a person’s worth is inviolable, clothes do not change this. Words to think about, the next time you see a girl in a very short skirt.
Know more about the case of Fabel Pineda and the worldwide movement that challenged victim blaming in The Last 24 Hours podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast and all other podcast platforms.