Grappling With Self-Blame After Being Sexually Assaulted

Sima Doctoroff

Earlier this fall, I was walking along 10th Street, minding my own business, when some guy ran up behind me, grabbed my buttocks and promptly turned around and ran in the opposite direction. Naturally, being the self-righteous feminist that I am, I immediately turned around and cursed at his back angrily while he bolted away. 

Afterwards, all I could do was keep walking. I was still processing what had just happened. It helped to have a destination, because after my initial angry reaction, my mind had shut down and all I was asking myself was why this had happened. Was it because I was wearing shorts? Was it because I was walking alone? What ensued was a heated debate with myself, in which I was rationalizing my situation to displace the culpability I felt. It was not until later that I realized self-blame should not have been my default reaction. 

I felt violated. Not just by the man who had touched me, but by these thoughts going through my own head. Once my panic subdued, I felt that they were not my thoughts. They were the thoughts that had been slowly but surely secured in my brain by traditional, well-established and unsavory societal beliefs, like the ideas that women have to dress modestly and travel in packs to be safe. Unfortunately, women are blamed for what happens to us, as if predators hold no responsibility for their own actions and we should expect this treatment from our current society.  

And the most twisted part of this is that without even realizing it, I had been conditioned to agree. 

Women, as targets of unfair sexism, are far from being the problem; but our beliefs reflect that of society’s. The way people talk about sexual assault is a major problem because we’ve only recently started to have these conversations. While the #MeToo movement has seen woman after woman taking back power from men in charge, it has also been met with negative backlash from complacent people and those who remain headstrong in their insensitive beliefs. Sexism still runs rampant but is often brushed to the side, creating a toxic environment that routinely invalidates the experiences of women. Consequently, the beliefs surrounding us imprint themselves into our own thought processes. Women then become unsuspecting participants in sexism as they unconsciously harbor the same subtle and concealed assumptions as their aggressors. 

Of course, not all women champion the same values — some can hold conservative beliefs that may go against gender equality. However, the main takeaway is that as members of the patriarchy, we are a product of sexist values. Whether it’s within our personal beliefs or unbeknownst to us, we play a part in this endless and cruel cycle. And if we want to break out of this cycle, we must take steps first toward acknowledging the environment around us.

Since no one can fight for women like women can, it is crucial that we identify these tendencies of ours and shift our focus to criticizing the widespread beliefs that influence us. Blaming and antagonizing ourselves for something that is out of our control is futile — it doesn’t adequately address the larger issue of sexism. This may seem obvious, but if a woman is sexually assaulted, it is never her fault, despite what society has conditioned her to believe. 

So if you see someone get their butt grabbed on a street corner, check on them. They’re probably not doing OK after something like that, so they’ll appreciate your concern. By validating their experience and reminding them that they aren’t alone, they might be able to better overcome the socialized guilt that they are feeling.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 15 print edition.

Email Sima Doctoroff at [email protected]

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