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Society

"She wasn't so innocent." What is the difference between victim blaming and slut shaming? And is it true that in the former CIS it is much more common to blame the victim than the aggressor?

26.09.2023

On 25 September, the body of Anastasia Emelyanova, a femme activist and co-host of the Feminists Explain project, which fights domestic violence, was found in the Turkish city of Erzurum.


Anastasia Emelyanova
Photo: newsefir.net

A few hours later, Anastasia's fiancé confessed to the murder: it turned out that in the heat of an argument he had injured the victim with a piece of glass, and she soon died of blood loss. The murder itself took place on 20 September. Russian users of social networks VKontakte and Instagram did not deny themselves the pleasure to comprehensively analyse the news of the girl's death:

"The world has become much cleaner..."

"What she fought for, she got what she got."

"If she'd been locked up in a mental hospital in time, she'd still be alive."

In 2002, the world was shocked by the news from Utah, USA, that fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was missing. The girl was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. It is known that the perpetrator threatened her with a knife. The girl spent the next nine months in the confinement of her captors, Wanda Barzee and Brian Mitchell. After she was rescued and the public learned the details of her captivity, many people wondered why she didn't resist when she was kidnapped, why she didn't try to escape afterwards or somehow call for help, and why she was the one who was kidnapped.


Elizabeth Smart
Photo: Getty Images

On New Year's Eve 2016, there were more than 1,000 attacks in Germany predominantly against women, of which at least 454 were sexual assaults. The mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, immediately urged women to stay "at arm's length" from strangers so that "things like this don't happen to them" - essentially blaming victims for not being cautious enough and frivolous.

"As if it wasn't enough that many women - even in open societies like Germany - are constantly afraid of being attacked, they are now being lectured on how they should take care of themselves in the future instead of placing the blame directly on the rapist," DW writes.


Henriette Reker
Photo: NurPhoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The hashtag #DoublePeine (double punishment) was launched in France in 2021 after police in Montpellier asked a 19-year-old rape victim if she felt pleasure during the attack. Another victim was asked by a French policeman why  she had not resisted her rapist more vigorously . In the end, the French women's rights group NousToutes counted at least 30,000 reports of such treatment by police officers in tweets and other messages sent on social media and on a special website.

WHO estimates that about one in three women in the world experiences physical or sexual violence from their partner or sexual violence from another person.

It would seem that the problem of violence against women around the world is obvious and unquestionable. And yet…

"It's your own fault," is what any victim of violence hears sooner or later.

Perhaps not immediately. Perhaps the interlocutor will go roundabout and specify: what was she wearing? How did she behave? What did she say in response? Why didn't she keep silent? Why did she look into his eyes? But in the end the verdict will be given - somewhere the victim still made a mistake. Sometimes a global one - why did she get married without thinking more carefully? Sometimes momentary - went down a dark road in bright clothes. And sometimes even obvious - too defiantly responded to an aggressive remark. In the end - became a victim of violence, which was quite predictable, because the mistake is obvious.

From victim blaming to slut-shaming

Victim blaming is the shifting of responsibility for what happened to the victim. The victim did something wrong and literally forced the aggressor to abuse her.

In essence, it is obvious to the victim blamer that after the victim's "wrong" behaviour, there was no way to avoid the violence in the first place.

When talking about victimisation of women, slut-shaming is often mentioned: women are required to look sexy, but women's sexuality and its independent manifestations are actively condemned.

Society actively criticises women - "you don't look good", "you've neglected yourself", "you're not attractive" - but if a girl decides for herself how to express her sexuality and moves from the position of an object to the position of a subject (i.e. declares her right to sexuality), she is also actively condemned. "She's a slut", "she flaunts everything", "it's wrong to behave like that", "if something happens to you, it's your own fault".

In Russia in 2016, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Diana Shurygina, who was raped at a friend's party, was subjected to genuine mass harassment.

The teenage girl was accused of profit-seeking, blackmail and drawing attention to herself, Diana was ridiculed both on TV channels and on the Internet, and the joke about "eight years of strict prison regime" instantly became part of popular folklore.

Among recent events, a positive attitude towards slut shaming is found in the film banned in Russia, "Directly Kakha. Another film", where, according to the script, the hero rapes a girl because she is drunk, wears a short skirt, and gets into a car with strangers. This situation is presented as completely logical and morally justified: what else can you do with a drunk girl but take advantage of her condition?

"It doesn't happen to good girls"

In 2020, Donna Rotunno, Harvey Weinstein's lawyer, spoke to the press. She spoke about the producer's victims and revealed that she herself had not experienced sexual assault because she had "never put herself in a 'vulnerable position'".


Donna Rotunno
Photo: Getty Images

It may seem like this kind of victim-blaming is being done by some unsavoury individuals with sadistic tendencies, but it's not. Victim blaming is a natural defence mechanism of the human psyche.

People don't want to think about the world being unfair and full of chaos. This would mean that we live in an extremely dangerous place where at any moment, completely unpredictably, a terrible accident could happen to any of us.

Our brains try in every way to organise the world around us, to deduce basic patterns and make our lives at least a little more predictable. In this way we can function without getting lost in time and space, and without trembling every second with existential dread at the uncertainty of existence. And of course, one of the most famous patterns we are taught from childhood is "If you behave well, bad things won't happen to you."

Accordingly, if a bad thing happens to someone, it appears from everything that they have behaved badly. The axiom is proven, there are no internal contradictions left, and life goes on.

"She wasn't so innocent"

Two years earlier, an online action took place in the Russian segment of the Internet: female users posted their photos with the hashtag #etonepovodubit (it's not a cause for murder). The action was the activists' response to the case of Artem Iskhakov, a student who raped and killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide.


Artem Iskhakov
Photo: social networks

However, many sided with the perpetrator: his deed was justified by the fact that the girl posted explicit pictures on the network and the young man did not reciprocate. On the site "Dni.ru" a column even appeared in which the reader was led to the idea that the sad ending was a natural result.

Quote: 'The Instagram of the dead girl suggests certain thoughts. Tanya Strakhova turned out to be not as innocent as it might seem at first glance."


Tatiana Strakhova
Photo: Instagram

Post a provocative photo in Instagram - get a slit throat and "sexual contact with a corpse", the authors of the material outline their logic.

This is not surprising - the Russian Federation has long pretended that domestic violence does not exist at all, so even if the victim, having gone through seven circles of hell, manages to separate from her partner, no one would even think of protecting her from the revenge of her "ex".

Victim blaming traps society in a vicious circle of support for violence: the victim is victimised - the abuser is justified - the victim blamer eventually faces violence too - having got used to blaming the victim, he blames himself - the abuser is again justified - the violence continues ad infinitum.

At the same time, the victims of violence blame themselves and each other, justifying and defending the true perpetrator of violence in every possible way.

By the way, self-accusation also creates a feeling of control and omnipotence that is so pleasant for our psyche. If it was my fault, it means that it was in my power to prevent the situation. The world is not chaos, I could have controlled what was happening, I just behaved badly. The tendency to self-blame forces the victim to keep silent about the violence until the last moment - after all, it turns out that it was her fault, and who would want to talk about her mistakes.

Only a conscious attitude to the situation can break this circle of abusive behaviour.


It is important to remember:
  • Nothing justifies violence.
  • No beliefs or values should be above the understanding that violence is unacceptable.
  • The victim always chooses the best possible way to respond to aggression. If it was inadequate, in any case, she could not have defended herself better at that moment.
  • It is the perpetrators of violence who create the conditions in which that violence is possible.

"Stop! I don't like it"

European countries are trying to approach the problem of victimisation in a systematic way. In kindergartens and schools, children, regardless of gender, are taught to fight back against an aggressor.

"Stop, I don't like it" is almost the first phrase taught in Dutch kindergartens.

At school, children are encouraged to tell their teachers that they have been abused by their classmates. In this way children learn that it is not shameful to say that you are a victim, but if you are the aggressor, no one will justify you (but they will talk to you in detail about the situation).

When children grow up and start adult life with adult problems, they already know what to do in critical situations - and if they suddenly forget, the state and public organisations remind them of it: social advertisements are periodically broadcast on TV, posters with hotline numbers are hung in pharmacies and clinics, various talk shows periodically hold discussions about domestic violence and outline the necessary steps to get out of abusive situations. There is no shame or fear in talking about it.

Moreover, the victim is protected by the law and knows it: in most European countries, domestic violence (emotional or physical) is a criminal offence.


"Giving birth in a shelter has become a happy memory"


In Russia from 2020 to 2021, at least 2,680 women died because of domestic violence, but this statistic cannot be officially confirmed. Many sources put the figure between 10,000 and 14,000 women.

In the Netherlands, 24 women will die at the hands of a partner in 2020 (another source puts the number at 44).

In France in 2021, 143 people died because of domestic violence (85 percent of them women).

In Germany, 152 people died at the hands of a partner in 2022, of whom 133 were women.

It is clear that although the problem of domestic abuse is acute in all countries of the world, homicide and serious injury are much less common in countries where domestic violence is criminalised.

But does the difference in upbringing affect the statistics on domestic abuse in general? To be honest, not really. The problem of domestic abuse - predominantly against women - is prevalent in every country in the world, and it is a long way from being completely defeated. But it critically affects the ability to save the victim from abuse and to punish the abuser. The lack of fear of victim blaming empowers women to speak openly about the problem of violence and to seek the help and support they need.

Expert commentary

Psychosocial therapist and hypnotherapist Karina Zubova-van Dijk (The Netherlands):

"You can't indoctrinate a child that bad things only happen to naughty children"

- There is a feeling that in post-Soviet countries you hear "it's your own fault" more often. Is this a stereotype?

- One of the biggest basic human fears is that someone will attack them, that this will happen to them or their loved ones. It's a fear of death, too, because the attack can end that way. And a person tries to suggest to himself: if I behave properly, nothing will happen to me, right?

In the post-Soviet space there is really a lot more victim blaming, because post-Soviet culture is sharpened to produce stereotypical people that fit in to society. So this indoctrination  constantly comes from society: do what I tell you, then you will be fine.

In this way, both parents and teachers try to create a mass of the right kind of stereotypical people so that it would be easier to manage, direct and subjugate them.

In European society there is more respect for the individual, even a very small one - a small child, for example. He is perceived as he is. This is his character. Even with a little person here they negotiate: what do you want? What should I cook for you? What colour jacket should I buy? - and so on. A child is not treated in a stereotypical way, they are interested in him as a person - what he wants, how he likes it, what his desires are.

In the post-Soviet space, unfortunately, such an attitude is still rare. And that is why the very cause-and-effect relationship appears: you didn't do as you were told, here is your punishment. That is, a person disobeyed, went beyond certain limits - and gets what he deserves. You can even remember from childhood - you got  stung by nettles because you did not obey, did not do as your mum said.

This connection is literally implanted in the child, that when a misfortune happens to him, he should not look for help or sympathy, but first of all think where he himself did "wrong".

One can also notice a big difference between the post-Soviet and European space in the attitude towards the perpetrator, not only towards the victim. In Europe there is a much stronger system of social institutions, assistance and rehabilitation of people who commit violence.

There is also forced, even psychiatric treatment for criminals. In the post-Soviet space there are practically no such institutions, even if a criminal is sent to prison, the victim has only to count the days when his term will be over and he will be released - even more aggressive than he was before.

- What is the main danger of victim blaming?

- First of all, it is an excuse for the aggressor. Real criminals, rapists, people who have crossed mental or physical boundaries of other people,  will not be punished, because all the energy of society is channelled into humiliating the victim, explaining to her in detail where she is at fault, how exactly she provoked the attacker and why she supposedly "deserved" what happened to her.

Let us make it clear at once that a victim is not necessarily a woman, men are also victims, but women victims are objectively more numerous due to various factors.

Then there is the danger of finally breaking a person who has already suffered a great deal. Victims of violence are often people with certain behavioural patterns and distorted self-perceptions. For example, people with a high level of guilt, with a feeling of unworthiness; people prone to low self-esteem.

The victim is already mentally weaker, especially after an open attack by the aggressor, and if society joins the aggressor, the victim has no safe space at all.

The next serious danger is  judgement without enough thought. We look at a terrible situation, agree that the person was in it because he or she wanted it - and then went our separate ways. Such an explicit search for blame prevents us from adequately assessing the level of our responsibility in matters of safety, because we avoid experiencing our own helplessness in certain situations. This prevents a timely and concrete response to forms of violence from family upbringing to social norms.

Another danger is that the victim's feelings of shame, humiliation, helplessness - i.e. symptoms related to the mental trauma that occurred - are reinforced and consolidated.

This happens when such victimisers are people who are highly trusted by the victim - older relatives, friends, parents, mentors, authoritative psychologists, people in authority. Then the potential damage to the psyche increases several times over, because the words of the person important to the victim become the absolute truth. If my mum says it's my own fault, then it is.

Victim blaming can be a big social problem for our society because it breaks down the overall total picture of safety and helps normalise violence in the public consciousness and makes it harder to help victims.

Given that the world is unfair and everyone can be a victim at some point, it turns out that society is digging a hole for itself.

- Are there any ways to protect yourself from victim blaming? How can one respond to such accusations with the least amount of damage?

- The most obvious way is to stop communicating with the person who is trying to instil this sense of guilt, self-hatred and worthlessness in you. If possible, isolate yourself from this person physically. If it is impossible to get away from them, then at least mentally - try not to listen to what they say to you.

If walking away from the victimiser is not possible or not possible for whatever reason, you can try, to the best of your ability, to have a conversation, sticking to your plan. "I was walking down the street, I was walking to the bus stop, I was attacked. Yes, I made my point, I was aggressively responded to. I did this, the perpetrator did that." That is not to take the blame, just recount the same story over and over again, in essence - unemotional recounting of facts. The most important thing for you here is to have a confident tone and a determined attitude. Don't take the blame, stick firmly to your line of behaviour and believe in your point of view.

If you have the strength, try to fight back against the victimiser. If you realise that a person is deliberately making you feel bad, hurting you with their words, you feel worse about communicating with them, you shouldn't hesitate to say it to their face and ask them not to do it again.

Often people do not expect such a response from the victim, and this can cool their ardour, at least for a while.

Of course, in such a situation it is important to find adequate psychological help as soon as possible. What is possible in this country, in this region, in terms of financial possibilities, time and so on. That is, to use all possible psychological crutches, supports, props to strengthen oneself to an independent stable condition.

- How can we fight victimisation in ourselves and others?

- Show empathy, develop critical thinking and look at the situation from different angles.

Do not forget that, unfortunately, each of us may find ourselves in a situation in which we are helpless and unable to resist the aggressor.

And, despite the temptation, try not to put into children's heads the cause-and-effect relationship that if you are good, then you will be good.


YANA - You Are Not Alone. A new project to help victims of domestic violence in emigration


By: Irina Iakovleva