Victim-blaming: Why survivors of sexual violence won’t come forward

Sofia Virtudes

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‘When you hear that someone has been raped, it challenges our belief in a just, fair world.' People would then resort to blaming the victim to reduce the discomfort from an idea that conflicts with their belief.

MANILA, Philippines – “Ano ba kasi ang suot mo no’ng nangyari ’yon?” (What were you wearing when it happened?)

“Bakit ’di ka nagsumbong agad?” (Why didn’t you come forward sooner?)

These are questions that rape and sexual assault survivors often hear when they finally muster the courage and decide to open up about their otherwise unspeakable ordeal.

These remarks perpetuate the culture of victim-blaming and only discourage victims from coming forward, said Beatriz Torre, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman Department of Psychology, in an online talk hosted by Thomson Reuters recently.

“[Rape] is a traumatic experience, it can cause a lot of distress and negative psychological effects on the victim-survivor and yet it is very rarely reported,” Torre said on Tuesday, July 7, “because there is fear that, if you report it, people will say it’s all your fault, you should’ve done something to avoid it.” (READ: #BeenRapedNeverReported: Rape victims speak up online)

Victim-blaming, which happens when survivors are unjustly blamed and often held responsible for the crime committed against them, induces feelings of powerlessness, shame, and guilt, she added.

There are 2,962 reported rape cases nationwide from January to May 2018 alone according to the latest Philippine National Police (PNP) statistics. Women’s rights advocates, however, lament that official rape case statistics are not a true representation of the actual rape incidence in the country, where rape culture continues to thrive and stigma remains prevalent.

According to Torre, experts estimate that, out of the cases of rape and sexual assault that actually took place, only about 6% are reported, “not all of which even go on to be tried in court.”

It happens more often than you think

Victim-blaming is not always expressed directly, said Torre. Often, it shows in subtle ways, sometimes even under the guise of concern. (READ: Police tell girls: Don’t wear short clothes to prevent sex crimes)

To better understand why victim-blaming remains rampant in our society, Torre cited the just-world hypothesis, or the belief that the world is inherently fair and rational.

“If the world is fair, you get what you deserve. If you work hard, you will get good things; if you’re a good person, you will have good karma,” she explained the line of reasoning. Those who subscribe to that belief think that the unfortunate events happening to a person must be related to their “competence, virtue, or lack thereof.”

That someone who’s “never done anything wrong” would suffer such a horrible ordeal as rape contradicts this belief, said Torre.

“When you hear that someone has been raped, it challenges our belief in a just, fair world…. It causes us to feel discomfort and distress because it can also happen to us,” she added.

People would then resort to blaming the victim to reduce the discomfort from an idea that conflicts with their belief. Torre said that they would argue, “That won’t happen to me, because I know better, I know how to avoid that.”

Torre also pointed out that victim-blaming is more prevalent in rape crimes than others. This is due to dominant narratives on sexuality – males as sexual aggressors and females as sexual gatekeepers.

These narratives, around which the discourse on sex fundamentally revolves, justify acts of sexual violence, as men are socially accepted to be aggressive; restraint is not expected of them. (READ: ‘Inviting the beast’? #HijaAko trends as women call out victim blaming)

These further perpetuate the rape myth acceptance, Torre said, highlighting 3 domains that are particularly prevalent in the Philippines:

“She asked for it” holds survivors accountable for putting themselves in a vulnerable position, which outright counters the essential point of rape – the absence of consent.

“It wasn’t really rape” pertains to the denial that sexual violence happens even in marriages, romantic relationships, or sexual relationships. 

“Rape is a deviant event” anchors on the idea that a perpetrator is “monstrous,” and it is the role of women to avoid them. Torre said this disregards the fact that rape happens very often with people who know each other – at home, in the family, and in relationships. (READ: Rape within the family: The Philippines’ silent incest problem)

Systemic issue

For survivors of sexual assault, enduring victim-blaming by friends and family is nowhere near half the battle.

One of the speakers, lawyer Estrella Elamparo, recalled her encounters of victim-blaming when a survivor decides to file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office.

Elamparo said that in the course of a preliminary investigation, she would hear comments from the prosecutor, Eh bakit ka naman kasi nakipaglasingan?” (Why did you get drunk with them?) “Why did you go out?” Bakit ka nakipag-date eh hindi mo naman pala masyado kilala?” (Why did you go out on a date when you didn’t even know them well?)

She “disappointedly” added that these comments sometimes even come from female prosecutors.

Nasa preliminary investigation pa lang kami (As early as the preliminary investigation stage) you can already guess the resolution of that prosecutor,” she said, pointing out that it shouldn’t have been the case because there is no basis for such comments in the law.

She explained that filing the complaint with the prosecutor’s office is a crucial step, as it dictates whether or not the case will be tried in court.

Elamparo called for active gender sensitivity training among law enforcers as the much-ingrained victim-blaming culture leads to the victimization of the survivors a second time.

“The law is already there, the legal framework is already there, but the biases somehow still get in the way,” she said.

The Safe Spaces Act or “Bawal Bastos” law protects Filipinos from forms of sexual harassment in public places and even online. It is a more encompassing version of the old law, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995, which had limited definitions of sexual harassment and who could be considered the offender. –

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Sofia Virtudes

Sofia Virtudes is a former digital communications specialist for Rappler.