Shame is an emotion with which we become familiar at a very young age. It’s used as a tool, in everything from parenting to education to employment to business to healthcare to social media.
A small child learns about a parent’s displeasure, and begins to associate the language, tone, and nonverbal language of disappointment or condemnation with (hopefully) maladaptive or dangerous or unhealthy behaviors.
School-age children are shamed for their antisocial or dangerous or disruptive behavior every day. Names are written on the board, or behavior cards are “turned” from green to yellow to red, as publicly visible indicators of whether or not the children have been well behaved.
Employers will often post notices, or send out memos, naming the people who, for instance, haven’t completed their work by a specified deadline.
Businesses post signs that draw attention to impolite customers who talk on their cell-phones while conducting transactions, and employees are told to ask offenders, in front of other customers, to step out of line until they’ve finished their conversations.
In each of these cases, shame serves a purpose, both to the individuals, and to the social groups in which the shaming takes place. Individuals learn about unacceptable behaviors, and that engaging in those behaviors can lead to scrutiny and discomfort. The social groups benefit when the individuals behave in the ways that are most beneficial to the group, as a whole.
Of course, that isn’t the only way shame is utilized. It is all too often treated as a weapon. Slut shaming implies that women who enjoy their own sexuality, on their own terms, are somehow dirty, immoral, and lewd. Body shaming plays on the insecurities of other people, with digs at their worth as humans, based on some physical characteristics.
And, of course, there’s victim shaming. This is a form of weaponized shame that targets people who have already been harmed by the behaviors of others, based on a nebulous and unconquerable list of dos and dont’s, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and personal strategies generalized to entire populations. It comes in so many different flavors, it puts Baskin-Robbins to… well… shame.
At its base, victim-shaming is placing the onus for feeling bad about what was done on the person who was acted on, rather than the person acting.
As they are the most common target (or, at least, the most commonly targeted victims I’ve seen), all of my examples will be focused on abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape victims. Also, I will be using gender-specific pronouns. This does not mean that I believe that onlywomen are victims of rape, abuse, or victim shaming, or that only men are rapists or abusers, or that people who identify with something other than binary gender roles cannot be either, and is only used for the sake of (relative) brevity (HA!) and simplicity.
- She wore something that exposed too much skin.
- She was walking alone at night.
- She was walking alone during the day.
- She was in a bad neighborhood.
- She was in a frat house.
- She was in a dance club.
- She was at a bar.
- She didn’t practice the buddy system.
- She had too much to drink.
- She was in a relationship with an obviously bad person (because “good” people don’t do these things, and it’s really easy to tell the difference without long-term acquaintance).
- She was too dependent on him.
- She was too independent, which threatened his masculinity.
- She was too meek, and let him walk all over her.
- She was too outspoken, which was antagonizing to him.
- She presented a front of a happy partner/spouse to everyone else.
- She complained too much to everyone else about the relationship.
- She smiled at him, which means she was giving off the wrong signals.
- She didn’t smile at him, which means she was being rude.
- She was too friendly with him.
- She wasn’t friendly enough.
- She rejected him.
- She didn’t overtly, or explicitly, reject him.
- She didn’t leave after the abuse started.
- She tried to leave, and it made him angry.
- She allowed herself to be alone with him.
- She didn’t explicitly say “no.”
- She didn’t say “no” loud enough.
- She didn’t physically fight him off.
- She didn’t physically fight hard enough.
- She didn’t learn self defense, beforehand.
- She antagonized him into escalating the violence, by fighting back.
- She didn’t have pepper spray, a taser, or a gun in her handbag.
- She shouldn’t have been carrying a weapon he could take away and use against her.
- She didn’t report the abuse/rape to law enforcement.
- She didn’t report the abuse/rape soon enough.
- She didn’t get the precise timeline and/or every detail letter perfect, in the midst of processing the trauma, so…
- She was exaggerating/lying when she reported to law enforcement.
- She didn’t cry or seem visibly distressed when discussing the abuse/rape.
- She was overly dramatic/overly emotional when she discussed the abuse/rape.
- She got over it too fast.
- She didn’t get over it fast enough.
- She didn’t process it the way x person thought she should.
- She refused to share details with uninvolved people.
- She aired too much dirty laundry.
- She won’t shut up about what happened.
- She won’t talk about what happened.
- She won’t shut up about the other people who are suffering the way she did.
- She doesn’t do enough to protect other possible victims.
- She’s focusing too much on the people who do bad things to others.
- She won’t move on with her life.
- She’s a “perpetual victim.”
Whew. That was depressing to type. And exhausting, both mentally and emotionally. What’s worse, that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the shaming tactics that victims of abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape routinely face. Personally, I don’t know a single survivor who hasn’t faced at least a half dozen of them.
As a reminder, all of those are tactics used to shame the person who was ACTED ON, rather than the person who acted.
As a culture, we expend an awful lot of effort and energy on these types of things. Why? How do we, individually or as a culture/subculture, benefit from them?
We don’t. Go back through that list. As you read each of the things listed, as yourself three questions:
1) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the quality of my life?
2) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the safety of the social group/subculture I share with them?
3) Am I, or is that social group, harmed or made less safe in any way that is actually the fault of either the person who was victimized, their behavior before/during the assault/rape/abuse, or their response to it?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer, across the board, is a resounding NO.
Yet we continue to shame them.
Now, ask yourself if your social group or subculture is harmed, or made less safe, by the rapist, the abuser, the harasser, or the perpetrator of sexual assault. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Oh. You’re done, already? Well, of course you are. Because the answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it?
So, instead of shaming the victims, why are we not shaming the people who acted on them? Why are we not shaming the behaviors that actually cause harm? Why are we so very hesitant to call out the harmful behaviors, and the bits and pieces of our culture which contribute to them? Why is there so very much pushback against that kind of shaming, and so very little against the rampant victim-shaming?
Of course, some of us are. Some of us are trying very hard to tilt the balance in that direction. And we face an awful lot of criticism and anger and shouting and pontificating and name-calling, and, yes, even shaming, for doing so.
I think it has to do, mostly, with fear.
Fear is not a rational emotion. It is instinctive, and often illogical, especially when we’re not discussing immediate physical threats to our own individual well-being.
I think, perhaps, that there are two types of fear that contribute to this shame-the-victim-but-never-the-perpetrator ethos.
One is the quite understandable fear of becoming victims, ourselves. It’s understandable, because it’s a very real threat. The problem isn’t that we’re afraid of being victimized, it’s the way we are responding to that fear. We’re responding by telling ourselves that there are things we can do, or avoid doing, that will render us invincible to becoming victims, or becoming victims again, in some cases. We want to believe that we have the ultimate power to keep other people from doing bad things to us, so we convince ourselves that this is true.
We convince ourselves that if we follow a list of dos and don’ts, if we are “resilient” enough, if we simply choose not to be victims, then we won’t be. We convince ourselves that we are, therefore, enlightened, and more protected, than those “perpetual victims” who don’t think like we do. We convince ourselves that some combination of behaviors and attitudes can work as an incantation to ward off the evils of the world.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Unfortunately, there is NOTHING we can do, individually, that will make us invincible to others who want, or do not know better than to cause us harm. No amount of resilience or confidence or preparation or prevention can change that.
The flip-side of that fear is the fear that we might, ourselves, whether intentionally or through ignorance, cause or have caused that kind of harm in others. That our behavior, somewhere along the line, may have crossed the line. That other people may see us as rapists, abusers, violators. That we might have to see ourselves that way. And this is terrifying, to most of us. The idea that we might “be that guy,” even though, perhaps, we never intended to be.
This fear leads to a knee-jerk defensiveness and denial which, while understandable, is entirely counterproductive, and even childish. It’s the train of thought that says, I once had sex with a woman who was incapacitated. Only bad people rape. I’m not a bad person, therefore having sex with incapacitated people isn’t rape.
Because it’s easier to deny that a thing is wrong, emotionally, than it is to admit we may have done a wrong thing.
Because there’s a false association going on, that only “bad people” can do “bad things,” and that line of thought just doesn’t line up with reality. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all learn some busted things, at some point. We all keep learning, I hope, throughout our lives. Sometimes, we learn that the things we once learned were wrong, or flawed in some way. The appropriate response to that is not to deny the wrongness of what we once understood, in order to alleviate ourselves from guilt or shame. It is to learn from it, and grow, and become better human beings. People who don’t do the things we now understand to not be okay, even if we didn’t understand it, before.
And a part of that shift is shifting the shame. Instead of shaming victims, or their behaviors, or even shaming people, we need to be shaming the behaviors that are causing harm. The dehumanization of women and transpeople and people of non-binary gender. The marginalization of those who are “different,” whether that difference is race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, or some other thing altogether. The levels of culturally accepted aggression towards those people. The idea that the onus for halting any interpersonal contact is on the person being acted on, instead of the personacting. Victim blaming, silencing, and shaming. Brushing abusive behavior under the rug. Excusing or enabling abuses to continue. All of those behaviors are shame-worthy.
Being victimized is not.
It is far past time for us – ALL of us – to shift the shame to where it belongs.