Written by Abigail Burdess


What were you wearing?

Blaming the victim is part of a larger lie that society tells itself about rape, says Abigail Burdess.

Illustration of a plainly dressed woman remembering herself wearing a party outfit

Illustration by Louise Boulter

Hi! I’m about to talk about victim blaming. Hold on to your hats! If you’re wearing a hat. And if you aren’t wearing a hat, why not? Don’t you know men just can’t control their urges unless you are wearing a hat: a big hat with corks hanging off it? Unless they are cork fetishists, in which case: what are you doing bouncing those corks in front of them, you slut? Etc etc. Victim-blaming: you know the sort of thing.

I mean, it’s not just rape. We respond exactly the same way to victims of other crimes: “Had a beer before you got stabbed? You were asking for it.” “Went out the night your telly got nicked? You were asking for it.” “Mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance? What were you wearing?”

We don’t? Then why, when it comes to rape, do we so often blame the victim? Well, let’s work out who ‘we’ are. As far as rape goes there are, by my reckoning, three sorts of people (these groups are not mutually exclusive): people who’ve raped someone, people who’ve been raped and people who don’t want to get raped. (And, before you write in, let me just say that the vast majority of people haven’t raped anybody and I don’t imagine for one moment that they want to.)

You can see why those who have raped somebody might blame the victim, since it takes the responsibility for being a shit off them and stops them asking themselves questions like, “Why am I such a shit? Why do I want to hurt other people? How am I going to live with myself for the rest of my life? Can I, perhaps, make amends to the people I have hurt? Would making amends leave me happier than I am now, since, right now, I’m a very unhappy shit indeed?” Questions like that.

It’s more difficult, maybe, to understand why people who’ve been raped blame themselves.

For some years I worked for a human rights organisation, reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the experiences of thousands of survivors of torture and organised violence and the physical and psychological consequences of that torture. Sometimes that torture included rape.

As a rookie, I was interviewing a brilliant clinical psychologist who was treating someone who’d been raped in prison in circumstances in which it is impossible even for the most hardened victim blamer to ask, “What were you wearing?” The torture survivor blamed herself.

When I asked the psychologist how the survivor could believe something so manifestly untrue, she looked at me, frankly, like I was a bit slow. “But of course she blames herself,” the psychologist told me. “She believes she should have been able to stop them – but she couldn’t. To stop blaming herself, she would have to face the power of the perpetrators over her. And she is not strong enough to face her powerlessness. Not yet.”

“We think: if we get it exactly right, if we don’t wear the wrong clothes or walk down the wrong street or make the wrong joke then we’ll be okay, we’ll be okay, won’t we?”

What a complex thing to say to a rape survivor: “It’s not your fault.” Whether they’ve been raped by soldiers while shackled to a tree for four years or by a boyfriend after a party. Because ‘It’s not your fault’ kicks out the last psychological prop supporting the illusion of a survivor’s autonomy. If it’s not their fault they must recognise that a person broke into their body and stole their self-determination, and there was nothing, nothing they could have done.

I’ve heard it over and over: “I woke up and he was on top of me and I begged him to stop but it was my fault because…” “I was pulled into a ditch but it was my fault because…” “I was held in a 4’ by 6’ cell and raped with a gun but it was my fault because…” To blame oneself is an extremely useful psychological defence in the aftermath of rape, when what the burglar leaves behind is still steaming on the rug: the terror that self-determination is a finite resource and that you will never get over this burglary. Other things may also be left: disease, a foetus. But this fear always: that your self itself, once stolen, will not be recovered.

That’s a hell of a thing to try to wash away. And fear has a habit of seeping beyond the survivor, surging over defences, pouring into depressions. Which brings me to the third group: people who don’t want to get raped. Well, that’s all of us, rapists and survivors, women and men, isn’t it? It’s difficult for all of us to keep our heads above the shitty deluge. But for women, particularly, there are a thousand things that make that fear rise.

So is it any wonder it is women who are sometimes loudest in blaming those it actually happens to? If there is a reason those people got raped, we can imagine ourselves safer. We think: if we get it exactly right, if we don’t wear the wrong clothes or walk down the wrong street or make the wrong joke then we’ll be okay, we’ll be okay, won’t we? Our autonomy won’t be stolen? If they ‘got themselves raped’ then their autonomy wasn’t really stolen – we wish the crime itself away.

“What were you wearing?” is a strange mantra recited to ward off evil – and a useless one. Because, of course, it wasn’t their fault. You can be a Benedictine monk or the most sexually generous woman in the world, an old man or a tiny baby and still get raped. Let’s try to face our powerlessness. Let’s call the crime by its name. Because the terror the rapist leaves behind gets everywhere. But within it is a stinking lie. Self-determination is not finite. Some can recover from rape. As a society, we can recover from it. And if we don’t believe it, it’s because we are not strong enough. Not yet.

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Written by Abigail Burdess

Abigail writes comedy for the telly, radio and stage. She is also sometimes allowed on them. But not so’s you’d notice. @AbigailBurdess