A good friend of mine was sexually assaulted recently and she turned to me for help figuring out what to do about it. I’m not going to go into the details of what happened, but I will tell you is that she had a reaction that so, so many assault survivors had: She wondered if it was her fault. I spent hours on the phone with her, both holding space for her story and her confusion, while also gently reminding her whenever I could that no part of what happened to her was her fault.
"People who are sexually assaulted commonly blame themselves for decisions they may have made before (e.g., I should have not worn such a revealing dress), during (e.g., I should have tried harder to escape), and after (e.g., I should have gone to the police right after it happened)," psychologist and trauma expert Lata McGinn tells Bustle. "They may also fault themselves for how they may have felt during the assault (e.g., I can't believe I was physically aroused during the assault) or after (e.g., I am weak because I can't get over this)."
If you ever want a perfect illustration of how twisted our rape culture is, talk to a sexual assault survivor about the things they thought after being assaulted. You’ll hear questions about what they could have done differently. Is it because of how I dressed? Was I flirting? Did I drink too much? I did say yes to a kiss…
Instead of blaming the rapist, our culture spends an inordinate amount of time both subtly and overtly blaming the person it happened to. We ask what she was doing. We ask what she was wearing. We tell him men can’t be raped by women. We point out how much they had to drink. We don’t believe that people have the right to revoke consent after giving it for a specific sex act.
A man literally told me in a bar the other day that “everyone lies” and “women make things up” and therefore I shouldn’t believe the things that my close friends have told me about their sexual assaults. This took the "women are liars" argument to a whole new level. This random guy, who I'd just met, thought I shouldn't believe my friends. I. Shouldn’t. Even. Believe. My. Friends. It still makes me so angry I can barely think about it.
So, in the spirit of combating rape culture, here are five common things survivors of sexual assault blame themselves for, but never should.
Not Saying “No”
In some situations, people don’t feel safe saying “no.” Or they’ve frozen and don’t how to react. Or they don’t want to cause a commotion, which is what happened to me when I was sexually assaulted on a public bus. Not saying “no” verbally doesn’t mean that what happened to you was OK or that you somehow allowed it to happen. Sometimes we do what we need to do to protect ourselves and that can include not saying “no.”
Not Fighting Back Physically
The same goes for not physically fighting back. While self defense is awesome and a lot of people feel really empowered by it, sometimes it’s safer to not fight back. If, for example, your attacker is much bigger or stronger than you, it might be instinctual not to fight back. Also, there’s always a chance that fighting might make them angrier, putting you at risk of more injury. But as a reminder, not fighting back does not mean it’s your fault and does not mean you wanted it to happen.
This is one that survivors carry a lot of shame about: Feeling arousal during a sexual assault. It can feel like your body is betraying you, like you “secretly” do like what’s happening to you. However, particularly for people with vaginas, arousal can be another way your body is actually protecting you. Rather than being a sign that you want a sexual assault to occur, lubrication might actually be protecting you from further injury. Think about it: What happens when a dry vagina is penetrated? It hurts; it scrapes; it can even tear. Lubrication, then, is your body’s way of making sure that doesn’t happen.
Also, arousal involves both your brain and your body. While your brain might be screaming that it doesn’t want something to happen, the physical reactions your body has can be completely separate. In fact, research has shown that women in particular are capable of feeling physical arousal without any mental arousal. So it’s possible that if you felt aroused during a sexual assault, that’s what was going on.
Having An Orgasm
Just as some people’s bodies get aroused during sexual assault, some people have orgasms — about four to five percent, research suggests. Though, that's just of reported cases, so the true number is likely higher. And, emergency room doctors and nurses report that a large number of people who have been sexual assaulted report one or both occurring.
While these five things survivors blame themselves for may be common, they're not the only things that weren't your fault if you were sexually assaulted. Remember, nothing about what happened to you was your fault. Nothing.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.