People hold placards at a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, India, in April this year. (Reuters Photo/Cathal McNaughton)

How to Stop Ingrained Victim-Blaming in Sexual Violence Cases


DECEMBER 07, 2018

Jakarta. Reports of physical assaults in the news usually lay the blame squarely on the perpetrator – especially when the victim is a woman – but strangely, not in cases of sexual assault. In the latter, victim-blaming is the modus operandi of the press.

Remember what happened to Agni (a pseudonym), a student from Gadjah Mada University (UGM) who became a victim of sexual assault during a community service trip and received abuses from a skeptical public when she came forward with her story?

A detailed account of Agni’s experience was first reported by Balairung Press, a student-run newspaper at UGM.

The story went viral and at first sparked a #MeToo-like campaign called #KitaAgni ("We Are Agni").

Over 200,000 people signed a petition demanding that the perpetrator be expelled from the university and taken to court.

Rallies in support of Agni took place in Yogyakarta and Jakarta.

But Agni also received discriminatory treatment from her lecturers and fellow students, and faced trolling and abuse on social media.

Agni was given a C mark for her community service expedition and even blamed for what happened to her since she was found to be staying at a men's dorm (she had to stay there because of a storm) when the assault happened.


According to gender rights activist Tunggal Pawestri, society views women paradoxically as both sexual objects and subjects.

Women are routinely being objectified by men, but in cases of sexual violence, they are seen as subjects who play an active role in "provoking" the perpetrators.

"In most cases of physical violence, women are seen as the weaker sex, so they must be protected. But in sexual assault cases, they are seen as promiscuous, the real trigger for the violence," she told the Jakarta Globe last week.

Editors of Merah Muda Memudar, a feminist zine focusing on gender issues, said the perception that women cause rape had already been debunked by Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book, "Against Our Will."

"[Brownmiller] rejected victim-blaming and the idea that rape is the consequence of men’s sexual desire. Rape is a political crime deliberately done to keep women subordinate to men, so the motive isn’t sexual release, but [for men] to exert control," they said.

Unfortunately, Indonesian media seems to be largely to blame for perpetuating a victim-blaming mentality.

The Merah Muda Memudar editors pointed out that the media often uses unnecessary phrases when reporting rape cases, such as calling the victim "pretty" or arguing that the victim "lets" the assault take place by being too passive.

Hera Diani, a senior journalist and co-founder of feminist online magazine Magdalene, said newspapers also tend to employ unnecessary euphemisms when describing rape.

The Indonesian word for "to rape" is "memperkosa," but newspapers often avoid the word and call it "menggagahi" instead.

"Menggagahi" literally means "to outpower" but is also used metaphorically to mean "to rape."

The root word for the verb "menggagahi" is "gagah," a positive adjective that means "strong" in a masculine way.

"Using these euphemisms for rape actually glorifies the rapist," Hera said.

Also, the word "khilaf," meaning "to err" or "to make a blunder," is often mentioned as the reason why a man commits rape, which turns the act into something akin to a state of trance that the rapist has no control over.

Magdalene created the "#WTFMedia" hashtag on Instagram to stop the media from using language that piles on the blame on survivors of sexual violence and objectifies them.

Tunggal pointed out that authorities often also put the blame on survivors of sexual violence instead of the perpetrators.

According to her, everyone needs to stop victim-blaming to make the world a safer place for women.

Sometimes though, people are not even aware that what they say or do constitute victim-blaming.

So, here's a list of some ingrained, victim-blaming common responses to sexual assaults that we need to avoid starting now:

"What were you wearing?"

Contrary to popular belief, covering yourself from head to toe will not protect you from sexual assault.

In January this year, an exhibition titled "What Were You Wearing" took place in Brussels, showing the reconstructed outfits of rape victims.

The reality is that rape does not discriminate on account of the clothes you are wearing. Rape victims wear everything from pajamas to police uniforms.

As reported by Magdalene, a similar exhibition is currently running in Jakarta, organized by Enambelas Film Festival.

The outfits displayed in the Jakarta exhibition include a long and loose school uniform complete with hijab.

Even completely covered women can’t escape sexual violence.

"Why were you alone?"

This question is often put to women who come forward to tell a story of being sexually harassed late at night or in secluded places.

Indonesian women are constantly being told not to go out late at night on their own because it’s dangerous. Shouldn't the point be that men should stop harassing them so they feel safe anywhere they go, at any time of the day?

As reported by The New York Times, women in Indonesia face constant harassment on streets and public transportation from catcalls, suggestive looks and comments, and groping.

The NYT article stated that last year over 200 women in Jakarta alone shared their street harassment experiences on the Hollaback app.

"Why were you drunk?"

In sexual assault cases where the victims were inebriated, victim-blaming is rife. Some victims even end up blaming themselves since they can't remember what happened.

One thing to remember, it is never the victim’s fault, as Lena Solow wrote in Teen Vogue:

"Of course if you're at all unsure it's best to wait until everyone's sober. But in general, someone who is slurring their words, stumbling, unable to be coherent or obviously passed out, is too drunk to consent [to sex]," Lena said.

"Why didn’t you fight back?"

If someone asks us what we would do if we were sexually harassed, we would probably say scream for help or kick the attacker where it hurts.

But that is assuming we will always be ready when the unthinkable happens. In reality, being paralyzed in a state of shock is a common reaction.

James W. Hopper from Harvard Medical School, in his article "Why many rape victims don’t fight or yell" published in the Washington Post, detailed what happens in our brains during a sexual assault.

Among the most common reactions is tonic immobility, in which the body is paralyzed by fear.

In the end, he said that none of the reactions signifies cowardice.

"They are responses we should expect from brains dominated by the circuitry of fear," he said.

"Why didn’t you immediately report it to the police?"

It may take some time for sexual assault survivors to come forward with their stories, sometime months or years after the assault happened.

Tunggal said she once asked students in a seminar what they would do if they experience sexual violence. None of them mentioned going to the police.

"Both [male and female students] said they would calm themselves down, and then find someone they could talk to. No one said they would go to the police. Male students said they would likely keep it a secret because it's embarrassing for men to be sexually assaulted," she said.

Sexual assault survivors' reluctance to go to the police is understandable since we often hear stories of "double victimization," when a traumatized victim is interrogated by officers who ask accusatory questions just like the ones we are listing now.

Some of them would go so far as asking if the victims actually enjoyed the sexual act, especially in cases of date or marital rapes.