In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Kristin Davisson writes as follows:
Of the 13 women sampled, two reacted unlike the rest of the sample in a few key ways. They did not reference feelings of helplessness and directed anger (almost) exclusively toward the victim. As outliers, their responses are included for relevance and for the significant questions they suggest. Both women endorsed numerous experiences of personal trauma in their backgrounds and are aged in their 20’s, respectively. In various respects, both women appeared to harbor current myths about sexual assault and blame the victim for her assault.
Both women shared their reactions to their friend’s assaults below:
She puts herself in a lot of risky situations and she’s a very flirtatious individual. And when she described the story, it’s not that I didn’t believe her, but she puts herself in these situations. I’ve known her to. I felt bad for her, I wanted to be there for her, but then there was this voice in the back of my head saying, “this girl…she puts herself in these situations that I don’t and my friends don’t, so she is different in that sense.” So I didn’t. I felt for her and I believed her, but I think there were things she did. How long did she flirt with the guy before she said no? I mean she still said stop, but she has to take accountability.
I just can’t believe she would let that happen and not say anything. I guess I don’t think she’s that strong of a person. She kinda comes off as brash and argumentative and she dyes her hair black. I think she hides her emotions a lot. I mean, how could she let this happen? Especially if she’s that kind of a person. Wouldn’t you push him off- be loud? I would. Why wouldn’t she want to do that? Does she like that? (Interviewer: “What’s it like for you to wonder that?”) I don’t know. It’s weird. I feel guilty, but I don’t at the same time. I think she should stand up for herself and be less passive. That’s how I feel.
Sex-role stereotyping as described by Burt (1980) appears in the excerpts above. When asked about feelings of safety, both women denied current or previous concern and/or fluctuation in their feelings of personal safety. In response to this, one female remarked:
I would say I felt safe before. I still feel safe because I’m not the kind of person that would let someone do that. I’ll kick his ass. I mean, yeah, it can happen, but I know myself, I would take care of it. I’m not gonna let someone do that to me. (Interviewer: “What do you mean by ‘take care of it?’”) Like get him of me. Fight. Hit him and get away and report him of course. Call the police.
This participant expressed intense frustration and anger towards her friend for not actively defending herself. In fact, she believed her friend to have “lied there” while the rape occurred. One wonders if her attributions about the incident are adaptive or protective for her in some way. This participant reported three previous traumatic experiences and it seems reasonable to assume that “fighting back” and/or identifying with a personal feeling of strength was an important resource for her in overcoming her past. Interestingly, she attained fewer elevations on the IASC and TSI than most women sampled. Consistent with her self-report, she did not appear to experience conscious distress and/or symptoms associated with primary or vicarious trauma. Her self-concept did not include feelings of fear and/or danger, seeming to provide her with a sense of control.
Though these two women differ in their responses and present with varied personal histories, their stories suggest that holding the victim accountable for her assault may foster a sense of personal safety, offering insulation from feelings of helplessness and maintaining a sense of control.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.