‘Women fight victim blaming every step of the way’
Why are women ‘victim blamed’ for being subjected to male violence?
There are hundreds of reasons. In the book, I present my integrated model of victim blaming of women which shows, from over 60 years of literature, that there are several key theories that interlink to form a powerful woman-blaming culture that will be very hard to break down. Women are blamed due to sexism and misogyny, absolutely, but this is only cemented by other factors such as rape myths and stereotypes, belief in a just world, individualism and collectivism, attribution bias, our own self-preservation, denial of personal vulnerability and even counterfactual thinking. Rather than seeing these theories of victim blaming as standalone, we should see them as all working together simultaneously to support victim blaming and encourage women and girls to not only blame themselves, but to blame other women and girls too.
Women will have literally anything and everything thrown at them to blame them for being subjected to male violence. For example, in the literature there is evidence that if a woman is overweight, for example, she is likely to be blamed for being raped – but similarly if a woman is slim, she is as likely to be blamed for being raped. It is suggested that this is because a woman who is seen as unattractive will be blamed for being raped because she must have done something to deserve it, because of the assumption that rapists only attack attractive, sexy women; and the slimmer woman will be blamed because she is assumed to have been asking for it by the way she looks. This is why I titled the book ‘Why women are blamed for everything’. The book presents hundreds of studies that have consistently shown that we will pick at women and girls until we find something wrong with them, or something they did wrong – to ‘explain’ why they were raped or abused or even murdered.
You’re clearly focusing on men as perpetrators here, even though women can be perpetrators and men can be victims (of both other men and women).
Yes I am. I shouldn’t have to constantly make space for men in my work – the history of psychology was majorly focused on men, most of medicine, most of science in general. History is chiefly the stories of men, as is religion. Men are the majority perpetrators of violence worldwide, especially when committed against women and girls. Researchers and academics should be able to focus on violence committed against women and girls without being seen to be ‘excluding men’, who are usually and historically, the central topic of plenty of disciplines.
You show that sex and relationships education in schools is inadequate, often encouraging victim blaming of girls who are assaulted. How can schools do better?
All schools need to stop and rethink their strategies, including using so-called ‘hard hitting’ materials to ‘shock’ girls into understanding rape and abuse. I successfully campaigned against the use of CSE films in which hundreds of thousands of children in the UK in the last 12 years have been shown videos of girls being raped and abused in schools and colleges as an ‘educative approach’ or ‘psycho-educative intervention’. Schools need to stop using materials which encourage children to look for what the child in the case study or video did wrong or what they should have done differently – by doing this, we only raise another generation of victim blamers. By all means, educate, but teach children that 100 per cent of the blame lies with the perpetrator and the victim is innocent. I also cite the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexism and sexual violence in schools, which is horrifying reading. We have to address the systemic misogyny in school systems. Girls and boys are being educated and socialised to blame women and girls for violence committed against them.
Tell us about your own journey.
You know when people say to you, ‘The journey to success is never a straight line’? Well, that would be me. I left school (and home) before my GCSEs. I worked in pubs and hotels at 16 years old but I was determined to do my GCSEs, despite not attending school for months. I turned up to do them inbetween shifts at the hotels and achieved 13 B grades. I was so angry that I didn’t get a single A! I was always a high achiever at school, but I was disadvantaged, abused and started drinking and taking drugs when I was 13 years old.
I become pregnant from rape just after that, too. I then had to escape abuse and exploitation, protect my baby and leave the area I grew up in, in order to stay safe during police investigations.
I didn’t decide to go back to education until I was 19. I was a mum of two by then. I sat in the middle of the night feeding my second child and thought, ‘I have to do something with my life’. I decided to apply for the Open University, which I had seen on the TV, because it said they would accept anyone and I could study around my children and my jobs (I was working in a factory and a shop). I chose to do a degree in Psychology because I thought it might be interesting. I didn’t really have any grand plans at that point. I had had a stroke a few months earlier which had left me physically disabled and had damaged the vision in one eye – so I had an interest in neuropsychology, especially as the consultants had found little lasting damage and told me I would likely recover because I was so young. My aim then, was to become a neuropsychologist and to specialise in understanding plasticity and brain injury in young people.
How did this lead to an interest in victims?
I had a free day on a Friday and offered my time to charitable organisations in my local area. The first one to offer me an interview was Victim Support. I had never heard of them, despite being a victim of crime who had been through a 16-month police investigation. I trained with them to support victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence in courtrooms once per week. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be great at this, because I’ve lived it! I have all the experience I need!’ I cannot tell you how wrong that assumption was. Every woman and girl I met was different, the impact was different, the trauma was different, the story was different, the personalities, the age, the background, the class, the ethnicity – everything. It was a steep learning curve and taught me very early on that women are not homogeneous and I cannot transfer my experiences on to others. I still think that was one of my most valuable lessons as a psychologist. However, one common theme was that all of these women and girls were being picked apart in courtrooms. They were discredited, bullied, mocked and blamed. It was soul destroying.
I started working in the criminal justice system, within the witness services – all the while, still working on my degree. I was promoted a few times until I was 21, and I was the Area Manager for Witness Services for two crown courts and five magistrates courts. I had about 51 staff and volunteers. We supported victims/witnesses of homicide, trafficking, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence and other serious offences. Even in the most serious of cases, women and girls were blamed and criticised for everything from their clothing to their internet history. I became jaded and annoyed. I started to wonder why we encouraged women and girls to come forward at all. I began to read books and extra literature around my degree assignments, so I could try to understand the psychology of blaming victims.
Then I moved to manage a rape centre which provided psychological support for women, men and children who had been raped or sexually abused. The majority of our clients were women and girls. Whilst the environment was anti-blaming, the women and girls were being blamed by others. Their parents, partners, doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, employers, friends – everyone. They would sit with us for months of therapy and talk about their self-blame and guilt. They would frequently tell us that their community psychiatric nurse had told them they had personality disorders after being raped. I started to become suspicious of the victim blaming of women and girls, and wondered if I should do my own research on the topic. I was almost at the end of my degree by this point and looked into PhD programmes where I could control the topic myself – so I could pitch to a university what I wanted to do.
I was offered a place on the PhD programme at the University of Birmingham in 2015, before I had completed my degree. I submitted a 5000-word research proposal and literature review to state my case. I was aware I was up against strong competition. I had no A-levels, a degree from the OU – which is still looked down upon by some – and I had no MSc. I decided to use the proposal to demonstrate my knowledge, having been in the field for six years by this point.
I started to get more involved in radical feminist activism, and spent a significant amount of time reading and meeting radical feminists so I could understand more about the theories of systemic global oppression of women and girls. This is vital to my psychological work and as a feminist psychologist: I work from the position that women and girls are an oppressed class in a global community.
Sounds like a busy time!
Yes, at the time I started my PhD, I had also moved to manage a large programme in child sexual exploitation (CSE) and anti-human trafficking. I had a national team to manage and I wrote materials, research and training for many of the police forces and local authorities in the country. The victim blaming of children shocked me. I expected that professionals would treat children better than the adults who were subjected to sexual violence, but I was wrong. This strongly influenced all of my work. I found myself frequently getting in trouble for criticising the practice around CSE – the way we blame children for being raped and abused by adults, and expect those children to ‘spot the signs’ and ‘keep themselves safe’. Years of practice had shown me that even adults (even professionals) couldn’t spot a sex offender or protect themselves from one, so why were we expecting children to do so?
In 2017, I quit my job and set up my own company, VictimFocus. VictimFocus provides challenging, critical and influential training, resources and research to the public and to professionals to challenge the victim blaming of trauma, abuse and violence victims all over the world. It has been more successful than I ever thought possible. In 2018, I launched VictimFocus Resources which is my international store providing resources, flashcards, journals and research books in forensic psychology and victim psychology. In 2019, I launched VictimFocus Academy which provides international e-learning for professionals at the lowest price possible (and in some cases, free) to encourage professionals to upskill. VictimFocus has trained over 20,000 professionals, provided resources to close to 100,000 professionals and has a blog with 1.4 million readers per year. My book sold more than 3000 copies in the first week, and is still selling well. I am blown away by the impact it is having.
What role do psychologists have in helping to reduce victim blaming?
We need to stop asking, ‘what is wrong with the victim?’ So much psychological literature attempts to pinpoint which women will be subjected to sexual or domestic violence based on their lives, their backgrounds, their childhoods, their education level, their sexuality or identities. I teach victimology and victim psychology and one of the most interesting origins of this issue is positivist theories of victimology and victim precipitation theory which is almost 80 years old now. The theories suggest that victims of crime do something to precipitate the offence by causing the offender to act. Whilst this might seem crude to us now, so much of our work is based on looking for characteristics that ‘make women vulnerable to rape and sexual violence’. I reject this notion totally.
Male violence is so common… millions of women are subjected to it, several times throughout their lives. I suspect that if we were upfront about how common male violence was and how many women and girls are regularly catcalled, harassed, abused, raped, assaulted and attacked, we would find only one thing in common with all of those women – that they are women. I do not believe that our aims as psychologists should be to find what is wrong with all of those women and get them to modify their behaviour or lifestyles. We should be working with women and girls to ensure they never blame themselves and that they do not feel they need to change themselves to protect themselves from male violence. As psychologists, we have a duty to call out oppression, systemic violence and misogyny.
There are small things we can do – such as stop perpetuating rape myths in our own work and studies. Stop using vignettes in which women are attacked by strangers in a dark alleyway. Challenge ethical approval of studies that seek to blame women and girls or make them responsible for male violence.
Has your research changed how you think about or interact with women who have been subjected to violence and trauma?
Yes, the entire journey has informed the way I think and interact. I stopped using language that erases the perpetrator, for one. I never use ‘women who have experienced rape’, I say, ‘women who have been subjected to rape by a man’. I am tired of language positioning domestic and sexual violence as an invisible metaphor. Women do not ‘experience’ abuse or rape, they are forced or subjected to it by someone else. We need to position the offender in the language. I also do not call women ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’. According to the literature, neither label is suitable, and women often do not identify with either – or sometimes feel they are both.
I have become increasingly critical of psychiatry and the way we convince women they are mentally ill when they disclose abuse and violence. I was so happy to see British Psychological Society endorse the Power Threat Meaning Framework and think it is the best way forward to work in trauma and mental health. Far too much of psychology has been overrun with medical and psychiatric terms for the people we work with. Many psychologists I have worked with have never been taught the oppressive, racist, homophobic and sexist history of psychiatry and how it still informs our psychological work. I am therefore staunchly trauma-informed in my psychological practice, teaching and research. My book has two chapters on the way mental health and personality disorders are used to blame women for being traumatised by male violence.
I have also changed the way I think about self-blame and victim blaming. The previous psychological literature suggested that women absorb victim blaming beliefs from society in a non-critical, naïve way – as if women are just not very bright and do not challenge misogynistic values. I used to believe that too. I used phrases like ‘absorbed’. Women are not sponges. My research showed that whilst influenced by the messages, women fight victim blaming every step of the way and this causes significant internal conflict and dissonance. They often feel that they know they were not really to blame for being raped or abused, but that society is telling them that they should feel to blame. This causes a disconnect between what they know and what they are being made to feel. My research considers this in great detail and has changed the way I think and theorise.
Where will you take this work next?
I have been offered deals to translate by book into four languages and have a lot of other projects planned, including more books. I use a lot of my work to create training and conference materials. I recently did my first voiceover narration work on a research cartoon. I like to make all of my work as accessible as possible. I retain my voice as a young working class feminist psychologist and I hold Facebook live discussions, webinars, Q&As and I used this research to build a free online course for anyone subjected to sexual violence and abuse which has already been taken by over 20,000 people in 10 months.
I have much more research to publish over the coming years. I recently completed two large studies on the experiences of women who have kept babies from rape and trafficking as there is no literature on this topic. I also completed a large study on the sex lives of men and women who have been raped or abused, and how we can help them to talk about their sexuality and sexual pleasure after rape and abuse. Soon, I am also releasing a report on the way we exploit survivor speakers and ‘experts by experience’ by encouraging them to retell their traumas to our students and professionals.
I will continue to run VictimFocus as a trauma-informed, anti-blaming, feminist psychological research and consultancy organisation which has the aim of changing our victim blaming narratives.
- Jessica's book is available via www.victimfocus-resources.com
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