A couple of years ago, the news in my hometown was repeatedly covering stories of people getting hit by cars while crossing the street in a crosswalk. The community demanded action.
What did the city do in response? The City Council put handheld bright orange flags on poles near crosswalks in high traffic areas…the idea being that walkers could grab a flag and wave it as they crossed the street so drivers would see them and stop.
Mind you, these crosswalks already have bright yellow signs. They are there to remind drivers to stop because in our state, it is illegal to drive through a crosswalk when someone is attempting to cross. That’s right: it’s already illegal not to stop – even if the person hasn’t started walking.
I was at the press conference when the mayor announced this flag solution. We have a few mutual friends, so he stopped to talk before the press conference got started. He was very proud. But I asked, “isn’t giving flags to walkers just putting the blame on the pedestrians for getting hit?” I got a blank stare and an “excuse me, I have to get going.”
Every time I see those flags I can’t help but find them ridiculous. Don’t do anything about the drivers illegally and recklessly plowing through crosswalks. Instead, tell the people to just follow the law and cross in designated crossing areas to try not to get hit. SMH.
We do this kind of victim-blaming all the time. Especially with victims of sexual violence.
Were you drunk?
You shouldn’t have been drinking.
What were you wearing?
Your outfit was very sexy.
Why haven’t you reported it?
That was so long ago, you should have reported it then.
You’re smarter than that.
These, among others, are common things victims hear when they say they have been sexually assaulted. They hear it from close friends, family, and sometimes they hear it from the first responders on the scene. All of these, and their many variants, put the blame on the victim. They tell the victim, directly or indirectly, that something they did contributed to the violence.
Responses like these keep many victims quiet. This may help explain why according to data compiled by RAINN, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every 68 seconds, but only 25 out of every 1,000 perpetrators end up in prison.
Not everyone who says things like those phrases above means to silence the victim. They aren’t always intentionally downplaying what happened. It’s hard to know how to respond to any kind of trauma; especially, if the person who confides in us is someone we care about. We feel that pain too. Our own fight-or-flight response might kick in. Or we are trying to process and want to understand why something bad happened.
Simple statements such as “I am sorry this happened to you,” “I’m here for you”, and “what can I do to support you through this?” go a long way in helping victims. It can certainly be difficult as it is to hear someone talk about sexual violence, and maybe you’ll never find the perfect words, but just being there and listening far more helpful than you might think.