Stiffer penalties may soon await those who will commit sexual harassment in the workplace or while in training and in educational institutions after the House of Representatives approved on November 12, 2018 the Gabriela Women Partylist’s “Expanded Anti-Sexual Harassment Act.” However, the plight of the victims of abuse doesn’t end there.
Rape survivors who speak out about their assault experiences often receive negative reactions from other people; as if the courage to talk about it is not as traumatizing as the actual rape. Anyone who has experienced sexual harassment knows how painful victim-blaming can be. Survivors are often asked these unwarranted questions: what they were wearing at that moment; what they did to “encourage” the perpetrator; or even the worst inquiry: why they didn’t fight back.
Although some instances of victim-blaming undoubtedly originate from ignorance or a smug sense of superiority, there is another significant cause. Psychologists strongly believe our tendency to blame the victim may originate, paradoxically, in a deep need to affirm that the world is a good and just place. To understand how this is possible, it’s important to consider how human beings make sense of the world around us. On a daily basis, we’re bombarded with news on terrorist attacks, government’s war on drugs, extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights violations. There have also been many instances where President Rodrigo Duterte himself unapologetically issued misogynistic remarks.
If we were truly rational creatures, we would feel utterly terrified that we can be the next victims.
But according to University of Massachusetts psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, we’re able to easily believe in our personal invulnerability because of what she calls our “positive assumptive worldview.” On some level, most of us believe that that the world we live in is good, and because we people are just as good, only good things happen to us. In other words, we believe that nothing bad will happen unless we do something wrong. This famous Filipino saying puts it aptly: “Kung ano ang itinanim, iyon ang aanihin.”
On a conscious level, the idea that bad things can also happen to good people is incontestable. But, despite this realization, Dr. Janoff-Bulman argues that most of us still grasp onto the belief that the world is basically fair, and justice always prevails.
Moreover, according to pioneering research by psychologist Melvin Lerner, our need to maintain a belief in a just world may be at fault for our tendency to blame victims. When bad things happen to someone who seems a lot like us, this threatens our belief that the world is a just place. If that person could fall victim to rape, assault, robbery, or attack, perhaps we could, too.
So, to comfort ourselves in the face of this troubling realization and retain our rose-tinted glasses, we psychologically separate ourselves from the victims, thus blaming them. We wonder if he or she had done something to invite the tragedy: maybe the survivor of sexual assault was wearing provocative clothing; maybe the person that the police shot was involved in drug-related activities; maybe the burglar did what he did because the gate was open, and a lot more justifications only to protect our view of the good and just world. With this mindset, we tell ourselves, crimes could have been prevented if the victims didn’t do what might have caused the crime.
In a more recent study, college students completed a series of psychological tests measuring, among other things, their levels of empathy. The results showed that people with greater empathy tended to view survivors of rape through a more positive lens, whereas those with less empathy tended to view survivors more negatively.
So, our tendency to blame the victim is ultimately self-protective. It allows us to maintain our rosy worldview and reassure ourselves that nothing bad will happen to us, at the expense of another person’s well-being. It overlooks the reality that the perpetrators are to blame for acts of crime and violence, not the victims.
The recent rise of the #BabaeAko movement and the #LabananAngAbuso campaign of Gabriela serve as an eye-opener for skeptics who still believe that abuse and harassment are not serious issues. Only by fighting back and reaching out with empathy rather than closing off in blame can we truly bring about a just world.`