Let’s Talk: Are we complicit in a culture of victim-blaming?

By Hoe I Yune, Apr 01, 2021

Warning: This story includes mentions of sexual assault.

Everyone who comes forward with an accusation of sexual violence or harassment should be taken seriously and treated with the same degree of care and concern. That goes without saying. Unfortunately, victim-blaming persists. Peruse the comments section of a news report on sexual misconduct and you’ll see comments enquiring about the victim’s intoxication level, outfit, or their choice of place and who they keep as company. 

These comments are not always ill-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause harm. In a case of intent versus impact, some comments – while not outright malicious – have a ripple effect and long-lasting repercussions.

Amidst the rise in reported sexual misconduct cases in Singapore, changes to the law are being made. Schools, workplaces, and organisations are also stepping up on educating everyone on what constitutes as sexual harassment, assault and rape, as well as implementing better support systems for victims.

Systemic change won’t happen overnight – what more can we do to support victims? In this story, we look at the ways in which we as friends and bystanders might be complicit in a culture of victim-blaming and how we can do better and be better. 

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Right after Dayre user @diagonalll, a 29-year-old woman, was molested on the train in Singapore last year, she recounted the incident on a private Instagram Story to 20 friends on her “Close Friends List”.

“A good friend asked me if it was because I dressed very sexily that day,” she says.

“At first I was taken back but he immediately followed up saying it wasn’t to imply that it was my fault. We are very good friends and I understood that he didn’t have any bad intentions.”

@diagonalll thinks most people don’t intentionally victim blame. Rather, when something happens, we try to rationalise why it happened – it’s easier to look at ourselves first and what we can control rather than what someone else did.

She warily said it might be an unpopular opinion, but I see logic in it. As a coping mechanism to get through life, we want to believe we have agency. Social psychologist Melvin Lerner introduced the just-world theory in the 1960s, which is the strong need to believe we get what we deserve.

An act as monstrous as rape or assault threatens our belief that we can control our own destinies. 

The result? We psychologically separate ourselves from the victim by pondering about the “what ifs” — could the victim have drank less? Dressed more conservatively? Run with a different crowd? Behaved differently? 

The best kind of life in my opinion is one with freedom. But even my optimistic self knows it’s a dangerous world out there and sometimes it’s on us to protect ourselves.

Singapore is relatively safe, but as a university student in the United Kingdom, I would walk home clutching my keys in my hand. As an intern in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I locked car doors immediately after entering, and remembered a tip not to decorate the dashboard that would suggest that the owner was female – you never know who might be lying in wait.

Do I seriously believe the keys in my hand, brute force, and being alert would definitely be enough to fend off one attacker or more? No. I'm a cynic who believes that if someone wants to harm you, there's always the possibility they will succeed. Yet, I adopted these little habits, and in a way, I'm comforted in knowing that at least I'm trying my best.

We adapt our behaviour because that’s what we have greater control over but the grim reality is that avoiding compromising situations is never going to be enough to prevent us from being victims. 

Murder victim, 33-year-old British woman Sarah Everard, did everything that was textbook-right: wore sneakers, donned bright coloured clothing, walked along well-lit streets, and spoke with her boyfriend on the phone.

Yet after leaving a friend's place at 9pm, she was attacked by a police officer — someone we believe should be protecting us.

On Singapore shores, Monica Baey was showering at her university student residence when she was filmed by fellow student Nicholas Lim in 2019. Recently, a 13-year-old girl was also reported to have been viciously raped by an acquaintance at Kallang Riverside Park. 

A quick skim through the Facebook comments section of another newspaper report on a 15-year-old girl who was raped at a Pasir Ris HDB block by a man she knew and I saw claims sympathising with rape victims yet within the same line or next, also chide the girl for putting herself in danger given her low tolerance to alcohol and age. 

These only scratch the surface. My friends and I trade disgust over how women are sexually objectified and disrespected and how we have to constantly look over our shoulders just to continue existing. 

In cases where a young child is sexually assaulted within a family, such as the one reported last month when a man in Singapore was found guilty of sexually abusing his daughter for seven-and-a-half years since she was three years old, we can’t possibly bring ourselves to say that the victim should have known better.

While children are rightfully absolved of blame, public opinion appears to be quick to point fingers at the mother.  While I see how the other parent and educators can play an important role in timely detection of child sexual abuse and how children can benefit from comprehensive sexuality education, there is something unsettling about guilt-tripping and blaming anyone other than the perpetrator in the aftermath. 



Well-intentioned advice or not, student run organisation Harvard Law School HALT makes a valid point in saying:

“Victim-blaming advice to drink less, if it works at all to lessen the threat of violence for one individual, merely displaces the violence.” 

It is the equivalent of saying “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your slowest friend.”

In other words, as frequently quoted on social media: If you’re promoting changes to women’s behavior to “prevent” rape, you’re really saying “make sure he rapes the other girl.” 

The textbook definition of victim-blaming is putting partial or complete responsibility on the victim. An obvious example would be saying that she “asked for it”. Let’s put it absolutely clear: no victim asks to come into harm's way and to suggest so is to unfairly pin the blame on the victim. But victim-blaming comes in many forms, even subtly or unconsciously. 

To insinuate that a victim could’ve done something differently sends the message that we can stop sexual abuse from happening to us just by behaving differently. 

But the onus should be on everyone to understand not to violate another’s body.

As it stands, the fear of not being believed or not having enough evidence is one of the top reasons given to non-profit gender equality advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) by survivors for not reporting.

According to a 2020 survey* conducted by AWARE and market research company Ipsos, two in five workers said they had been victims of sexual harassment in the past five years. But only three out of 10 made official reports to their boss, a senior person at work or their human resource (HR) department. 

“Most sexual violence survivors already do feel some level of guilt and self-blame following an assault.

They may ask themselves why they had that extra drink, why they behaved in a friendly manner to the perpetrator, why they didn’t fight back more, and so on.

When family, friends or officials voice the same sentiments, it only compounds the survivor’s feelings of responsibility for the assault,” says Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at AWARE.

“These make it much harder for survivors to process what happened, talk to others about it, and learn to move on — we know that the response a survivor receives when they first disclose their assault is a big determinant for what kinds of support they go on to seek.

“Survivors who receive victim-blaming comments often choose not to report the incident to authorities. Therefore, victim-blaming may well lead to perpetrators getting away with their actions and perhaps even being emboldened to carry them out again,” she adds. 

“I didn’t lodge a report to the authorities because one of my worries was that it’s so embarrassing to make a scene on the spot and I felt tired just thinking about having to convince potential naysayers,” says @diagonalll. Thankfully, her friends have been supportive and confiding in them has given her the confidence that if such an incident were to happen again, she would be more confrontational. 

There is no shame in calling out questionable behaviour and it shouldn’t be on an alleged victim to feel embarrassed. It’s one example of how having friends validate our experiences can be incredibly important.

Seeing how sexual allegations are met with doubt on social media or even among friends, I can't help but agree that coming forward feels like an uphill task. Imagine summoning all that courage to speak up, only be to be disbelieved or discounted.

A damaging myth that persists is the likelihood of false reports**, which Shailey describes as yet another life-raft cultural narrative allowing abusers to escape accountability for their actions. “It’s quite absurd to think that women are expending significant effort, time and (often) money, and subjecting themselves to cross-examination, a multi-part criminal justice process and public backlash, all for some nebulous prospect of “personal gain” or “revenge”.” 

What we need is more empathy, so as to not undermine or discount reports of sexual assault and harassment.

“Believing women” doesn’t have to be equated with convicting an alleged perpetrator right off the bat. It means taking the victim seriously and supporting a thorough investigation. 

“I have had clients who mustered their courage to open up about the sexual harassment that they've faced, only to have the first responders (friends, family, colleagues or the authorities), amongst others, victim shame and blame them,” says Amarjit Kaur, a partner at Withers KhattarWong LLP who has represented clients in sexual harassment cases.

More insidious yet is the perception that women with pre-existing relationships or previous consensual encounters with the accused are complicit.

We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt especially if the perpetrator is someone we know. In instances where the alleged victim and perpetrator are from the same social circle, mutual friends might feel the pressure to keep group cohesion going.***

“In one particularly egregious case, the first responder, who was a HR representative, suggested to my client that the perpetrator was very attractive and that surely she fancies him,” says Amarjit.

In another instance, Parnella, 33, mentioned how she was genuinely having a good time chatting and dancing with a friend of a friend until he shoved her against the wall, molested her on her breasts and crotch and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away as he called her a slut and a whore. People took notice, but no one came to help.

Perhaps, as bystanders and friends, the best thing we can do is to step up. Everyone deserves to be heard and to feel safe. If someone comes to us, Shailey advises using phrases such as “It’s not your fault”, “it’s your choice how you want to move forward”, “it’s your experience, not anybody else’s” and “I’m here to support you”. These are designed to offer emotional and practical support without judgment, prescription or victim-blaming subtext. 

Clare (Dayre user @umyclareity), 25, felt uncomfortable by how her looks were being commented on at a corporate event, and when her male supervisor showed up afterwards and sensed her discomfort, he privately texted to check-in.

Managing stakeholders is an inevitable part of her job, but knowing that her boss took her safety seriously was assuring. Her supervisor also sent an email to the entire team, encouraging them to reach out if anyone has experienced inappropriate behaviour so that he can address the situation.

If you’re an employer seeking to support your staff, Amarjit advises setting policies on the types of behaviour that the organisation will not tolerate. The employee handbook or code of conduct should detail policies on anti-sexual harassment, anti-discrimination, bystander reporting, whistleblowing, and anti-retaliation, as well as what procedures around filing of complaints and investigation would entail. So employees feel confident that if they lodge a report, it will be taken seriously.

“It is also important that companies have clear channels of reporting for such incidents — that employee assistance programmes provide confidential reporting lines to independent third-party organisations to allow employees to bypass traditional reporting lines — and employees are educated on what constitutes sexual harassment,” she adds.

It is important that employees are not constrained to traditional reporting lines so that they won’t be caught in a pickle if the perpetrator is a supervisor or someone in power within the organisation. 

To add to all of the above, our choice of language in conversations also makes a difference.

Dr Jackson Katz, author of the book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help highlighted in a TED Talk titled Violence against women — it’s a men’s issue how we often use passive language on how many women were raped on campus or sexually harassed in the workplace rather than how many men sexually harassed women.

The passive voice has a political effect. 

The term “violence against women” is problematic because there’s no active agent in the sentence and when you read it, it sounds like a bad thing that just happens to women. 

No one does anything, men aren’t a part of it, it just happens. 

It can be difficult trying to convey the experience to the people around us. “There was a newspaper article about a doctor who repeatedly assaulted his girlfriend and the male writer said the girlfriend should have just gotten out of the relationship. I thought that was victim-blaming but when I brought it up to a male friend, he didn’t understand why,” recalls Lisa, 31. 

She admits giving up sometimes but there are also instances when it’s worth the effort. “I try to put things into a context that he’d better relate to. He once didn’t understand why I was bothered by a date touching my shoulders because it was no big deal to him. It only clicked after I likened it to another situation in which someone overstepped his personal boundaries.”

Maybe we’ll always have to be wary of our surroundings and strangers, because all the punishment, rehabilitation, and education in the world might never bring down the crime rate to zero.

This is why there are initiatives and conversations about educating children and adults on what sexual harassment and assault entail, what consent is, and in the event of an unfortunate assault, how to come forward.

The phrase “believe women” doesn’t mean that all women are inherently truthful and accusations should be accepted without further investigation, but it is an injunction to correct traditional narratives that women are meretricious and untrustworthy, that accusations of sexual assault are deployed falsely in order to benefit the accusers, says Shailey.

The reality is that in most sexual harassment and assault cases, the victims are female, and the perpetrators are male. Layer victim-blaming on it and you will see how it ties back to traditional gender norms – at a wider level, there are notions and antiquated expectations of what makes a “good” woman and how a “good” woman should behave. And if you’re a “good” woman, you will never get yourself into such unpleasant situations. Victim-blaming is rooted in the belief that some women deserve bad things happening to them just for not conforming to traditional gender behavior. This is deeply troubling and proves that we have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. It’s not only a women’s issue as rigid gender roles can also give rise to toxic masculinity and prevent male victims from coming forward.  

At the end of the day, what we need to do is simple: ensure that if someone were to come forward with a sexual harassment or assault claim, it should not be carelessly dismissed so that an investigation can be carried out. I don’t think this is too much to ask of. 

*The AWARE-Ipsos survey conducted in November 2020 comprised 1,000 Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. 

** The 2010 study by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa and Ashley M. Cote is titled “False allegations of sexual assault: an analysis of ten years of reported cases”. It has placed the prevalence of false reports as somewhere between 2 and 10 per cent of all reports, which is a relatively small figure when we remember that around 70 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported at all. 

***The 2016 study by Dr Lauren Niemi and Dr Liane Young is titled “When and Why We See Victims as Responsible: The Impact of Ideology on Attitudes Toward Victims”.

This is the fifth part of our six-part International Women’s Day series "What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country". Check back next week for the final part, in which we explore what feminism means to Singaporeans. Click here to read our story on normalising periods in the United Kingdom, here to understand why transgender women in Malaysia need our help, here to read about the fight against child marriage in the African continent, and here to learn how finding a support network can help women in Hong Kong realise their dreams.

For the past couple of years, AWARE has held Sexual Assault First Responder Training workshops, which equips the wider public with the knowledge and skills to sensitively support survivors of sexual violence. Visit AWARE’s website for more info and future announcements on new editions of the workshop.

Photo by Adam Cybulski on Unsplash.

Writer’s Note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. When I’m not recounting what I ate last weekend, I write to make sense of my thoughts on social issues such as the period taboo and the contentious “menstrual leave” on my personal account.

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