Why do women who survive rape end up blaming themselves?
It’s My Fault. That is what the video is titled. And with dry, even dark, humour it tells us about the many ways in which rape is a woman’s fault. She went out alone. She went out with boys. She wore a short skirt. She wore an astronaut suit. She cooked chowmein in the kitchen. Whatever she did, it was her fault that she got raped. The satirical depiction of a societal truth – that it is the woman who is always at fault if she gets raped – was sharp, searing, and made the short video (created by Rohan Joshi, G. Khamba, Tanmay Bhatt and Ashish Shakya and starring Kalki Koechlin and Juhi Pande) go viral in record time.
But even as we in India were raising a wry smile at the It’s My Fault video, there was another website making waves in France. Called Je Connais Un Voileur (I Know A Rapist), this invites women to write in anonymously to share their experiences of rape. What is most frightening about this site is that most of the women who write in have been raped by someone they knew well, a brother, a father, a cousin, a neighbour, a boyfriend, a doctor, a colleague. As Pauline, the creator of the site explains, she wanted to show that rapists are not ‘The Other’ but men we know and interact with every day. And the intention is not to name and shame the men (anonymity extends to the rapists as well) but to allow victims to share their experiences so that they know that they are not alone.
The site makes for very uncomfortable reading even though the more lurid details of the rapes have been edited out. But what is truly astonishing is how many of these women still believe that it was somehow their fault that this happened to them. Some feel guilty because they had worn revealing clothes, others blame themselves for having drunk too much that night, others believe they put themselves in dangerous situations.
It’s My Fault…that line plays in their heads incessantly as they relive the experience in their minds (and in their stories on the site).
But then, that seems to be a recurring theme with rape victims. Take the recent memoir of Samantha Geimer, The Girl, A Life In The Shadow of Roman Polanski, which recounts her experience of being raped by the famous film director. Samantha was 13 at the time; Polanski was 43. He gave her champagne, a Quaalude (a sleeping pill), and then raped her. No, it wasn’t just statutory rape because she was a minor. It was rape; she said no, but he went ahead anyway. The second time around, when he realized that she wasn’t on the pill, he sodomised her instead.
And what does Geimer, now 50, say about her 13 year self who was drugged, raped and sodomised by a man more than double her age? “I felt foolish. Gosh, why didn’t I stop this? Why did I drink? Why did I take that pill? What is wrong with me? And now look what happened?”
In other words, It’s My Fault. Honestly, you being to wonder, why does the rest of the world need to indulge in victim blaming when the victim is all too willing to do so herself?
But let’s listen closely. What are these women actually saying? Are they really saying ‘It’s My Fault’? Or is that just a simplistic, even erroneous, interpretation of their statements and feelings?
What if all that these survivors of rape are trying to do is wrest some retrospective control over a situation in which they felt utterly and completely helpless? What if they are just desperately trying to see what they could have done differently to get a different outcome to the one that left them reeling with shame, anger, and a deep and abiding feeling of loss?
Think about it. These women are not stupid or delusional. They don’t really believe that they invited rape upon themselves by doing a, b, or c. But when you have been left feeling horribly helpless and perfectly powerless, how do you wrestle back some control into your own hands?
You do so by telling yourself that you can prevent something like this from ever happening again by making some different choices.
That is what makes women beat themselves up over what they wore, what they drank, how late they were out, how they made their way back, which man they allowed into their house or indeed, into their lives. Because they are thrashing about, trying to find answers where none exist. They are flailing in the wind, grasping at straws, struggling to understand why this happened to them. And in that moment, they need to believe that they can stay safe in the future if they learn lessons from what happened.
Do they blame themselves in the process? Of course they do. But is this victim blaming? Of course not. It is just their way of trying to make sense of a world that seems to have gone completely mad; and of clinging on to their own sanity in the process. It is their way of transitioning from victim to survivor.