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The ‘second wave of trauma’: Why victim-blaming happens in sexual assault cases and its implications

SINGAPORE — They were sexually harassed and groped against their will. Yet, besides coping with the trauma in the aftermath, some sexual assault victims told TODAY they also grappled with self-doubt and the feeling that they were responsible for their ordeal.

The ‘second wave of trauma’: Why victim-blaming happens in sexual assault cases and its implications

A victim-blaming culture may cause those who are harassed or assaulted to be hesitant about speaking up or reporting a crime.

  • The #MeToo movement and online platforms have given a voice to victims of sexual crimes
  • Despite the greater awareness, the culture of victim-blaming persists
  • Two young women recount their experiences, saying they still have regrets and guilt
  • Experts said that pervasive beliefs and attitudes long-held by society do not help
  • The blaming disrupts the process of victims seeking justice and healing

 

SINGAPORE — They were sexually harassed and groped against their will. Yet, besides coping with the trauma in the aftermath, some sexual assault victims told TODAY they also grappled with self-doubt and the feeling that they were responsible for their ordeal.

Ms Huang Si Le, a 30-year-old consultant, recalled how she felt a need to “hide my face” after she was molested at 18 by a respected figure in her parents’ church.

Referring to the person as “A” during the interview, Ms Huang said that he had asked her out for supper. She obliged but was shocked and caught off-guard when he started asking her lewd questions, and stroked her thigh and crotch through her shorts. A was in his 20s at the time.

“I demanded to go home and after a few attempts at persuading me to stay, he complied. I went home crying,” she said.

Her father was livid and demanded that she made a police report but Ms Huang did not at the time. However, she informed the church’s leaders as she was concerned that the same thing might happen to another unsuspecting girl.

“One of them told me that A denied my accusations and said I had come on to him. He also told me that if I didn’t want to give other people the wrong impression, I shouldn’t be going out late with a guy. I was furious that they were doubting me,” Ms Huang said, adding that A eventually confessed his wrongdoing to the church leaders.

He was later referred for counselling and suspended from his duties.

WHAT IS VICTIM-BLAMING?

Since the #MeToo movement, awareness on sexual assault and abuse cases has increased, but victims still get questioned and blamed for their ordeal with the exposure.

And while online platforms have given a voice to victims, experts interviewed by TODAY said that digital communications and social media may further amplify victim-blaming.

Dr Kim Lian Rolles-Abraham, a senior clinical psychologist at Better Life Clinic who sees sexual assault survivors, said that victim-blaming occurs when people try to rationalise away the behaviour of the culprit by attributing part or all of the blame on the victim.

It can come in many forms, ranging from the subtle (“What were you wearing?”) to the obvious (“You deserved it because you shouldn’t have gone to that place.”).

While victim-blaming can occur in other situations such as theft, robbery and other crimes, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that more blame appears to be assigned to victims of sexual violence such as rape. The peer-reviewed academic journal publishes papers on all aspects of interpersonal violence from researchers around the world.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), observed that there is still a lack of progress on victim-blaming attitudes.

Referring to a 2019 survey by market research firm Ipsos on 1,019 Singaporeans, she said that 45 per cent of respondents polled agreed that women who wear revealing clothes should not complain if men make comments about their appearance.

This view is not held by only men.

Some 44 per cent of Singaporean women agree or strongly agree with the same statement, compared with 46 per cent of males.

The sentiment was more commonly held by Singaporeans above the age of 50 years (52 per cent), which reinforces generational differences.

“These figures do not differ very much from the 2012 to 2013 survey, indicating that victim-blaming is a practice still entrenched in Singapore society,” Ms Hingorani said.

WHY IT HAPPENS

Dr Rolles-Abraham from Better Life Clinic said that there are people who believe that “bad things cannot happen to good people” or to those who have done “everything right”.

In other words, if something bad happens to you, it must be because you did something wrong. It is a form of protective mechanism that allows people to believe that they have control over atrocities that happen, she explained.

The observer thus finds it hard to accept that such an atrocity could happen to the victims of sexual crimes.

Myths and fallacies surrounding sexual violence may also fuel blame on victims.

For example, Ms Hingorani said the notion that "boys will be boys" implies it is inevitable that men will assault those around them.

"The counterpart of this fallacy — that all men are uncontrollably violent — is that all women should, for their safety, try their best not to 'provoke' such violence in men. These extremely pervasive beliefs have seeped into our culture so much that most sexual violence survivors feel some level of guilt and self-blame following an assault,” she added.

Dr Rolles-Abraham said that sexual violence remains a taboo topic, especially in an Asian society where such crimes are often linked to the concept of immorality.

There is a perception that victims of sexual violence invite the violence by how they acted, dressed and so forth. “This then indirectly implies that the perpetrators were not at fault since they could not ‘help themselves’ in the face of temptation,” she said.

For Ms Huang, when asked why she did not make a police report at the time, she said that part of it was due to fear of being seen as a “loose” woman.

“Growing up in an environment where one’s purity is highly regarded, there was some shame attached to what had happened to me even though I was the victim,” she said.

WHEN VICTIMS KNOW THEIR PREDATORS

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, from the department of sociology at the National University of Singapore, said that victim-blaming may be more common in cases where the perpetrator is an acquaintance or someone the victim knows.

This was what happened to Ms Chua GP, a 20-year-old postgraduate student who is now seeking psychological treatment from Dr Rolles-Abraham.

Ms Chua was molested by a close friend in a club in the presence of other mutual friends, who had shrugged off the incident and assumed that she had consented. As she was severely intoxicated at the time, Ms Chua said she was unable to defend herself or push him away.

When she later cut off her friendship with the guy, their mutual friends defended him.

“They thought I was being dramatic since I had ‘encouraged’ it by not speaking out after the incident and chose to remain friends with him. That said, I am also fortunate to get support from other friends, male and female, who have also experienced sexual harassment,” Ms Chua said.

In a January 2019 review paper from Frontiers in Psychology, which publishes peer-reviewed research across psychological sciences, research literature on victim-blaming in rape cases showed that it increases when the victim and assailant are familiar or romantically involved.

For instance, victims of stranger rape are the least likely to be blamed for their assault while marital rape victims are much more likely to be blamed compared with acquaintance rape victims.

Assoc Prof Tan said: “This could be because the victim is likely to be seen as being in a position to prevent the sexual abuse from occurring, unlike that where the perpetrator is a stranger appearing from ‘nowhere’.”

THE ‘SECOND WAVE OF TRAUMA’

Misconceptions about sexual assault and a victim-blaming culture have several implications, including disruptions in the process of seeking justice.

Ms Hingorani said that victim-blaming is sometimes called the “second wave of trauma”.

The experience can be as painful for the survivor as the harassment or assault itself, and feelings of guilt and shame could disrupt the recovery journey for the person, making it harder for them to process what had happened, talk about it and learn to move on, she said.

Because of victim-blaming attitudes, it is normal for survivors to feel confused about whether their experience can be considered sexual assault, Ms Hingorani added.

“For example, a popular belief is that a ‘true victim’ would scream or fight back during an assault; many survivors are asked if they tried to do so, almost as a way of judging the validity of their experience.

“(But) a trauma-informed approach shows us that freezing is as common a reaction to an unsafe situation as ‘flight or fight’,” she said.

Dr Rolles-Abraham said that the victim-blaming culture may cause those who are assaulted to be hesitant about speaking up or reporting a crime.

“Victims may doubt or even blame themselves. It also creates a stigma for the victims within the society they live in or their social circle.”

It can also trigger the onset of mental health issues, such as major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worsen a pre-existing mental illness, she added.

For victims having to be under duress again while recounting their ordeal in court and lawyers taking a victim-blaming approach during cross-examination, Assoc Prof Tan said that it would be quite logical for lawyers to try to shift blame away from their clients.

Defence lawyers and the court would need to conduct a fair trial to determine whether or not the accusation has any basis with the evidence given.

“The fact is we do need to hear both sides of the story. However, what could change would be the tone and the demeanour of the defence lawyer as well as his or her approach when asking questions directed at the victim,” he said. 

“I reckon the victim should also be supported by counsellors and the judge could — and I’m sure he or she would — moderate the courtroom behaviour of the defence lawyer. Perhaps, what is also needful is for a code of conduct for lawyers dealing with such cases, if we do not already have one,” he added.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

While family and friends can offer support, Dr Rolles-Abraham advised victims to reach out to professionals in mental health and seek out support groups.

“It would help for them to get an objective perspective from a trained professional so that they will not feel like a friend or family member is compelled to sympathise with them by ‘siding’ with them. This would allow them to genuinely internalise the fact that they are not to be blamed,” she said.

Ms Hingorani said that more public education is needed to address misconceptions about sexual violence and victim-blaming attitudes.

For instance, more open discussion of consent and respect for individual boundaries need to begin from a younger age through consent education in the school system.

In Ms Chua case, while she understands that a sexual predator makes a conscious choice to commit sexual assaults and violent acts, she still cannot shake off the feeling of self-blame.

“I still blame myself for drinking excessively and not putting an end to our friendship immediately after the incident,” she said.

As for Ms Huang, she has closed the chapter but with some regrets. 

“I wish I had been stronger and more prepared as an individual back then to manage tricky situations like these,” she said.

“I’m glad that people in Singapore are taking sexual violence and abuse seriously and are calling for more accountability now, but I think that much more still needs to be communicated to young children and teenagers so that they know there is a clear line between right and wrong when it comes to physical interactions with others.”

Related topics

#MeToo sexual assault sexual crimes victim-blaming mental health

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