“Is the #MeToo movement over?”, headlines are asking in the thick of sensational coverage of court cases about abuse. Why are victim-blaming narratives surging in popular culture? And what can we do about it?
I’m Andrea Gunraj. Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
There are so many contradictions in our cultural imagination when it comes to gender-based violence, like intimate partner abuse and sexual assault.
A 2022 survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that most people in Canada believe we all have a role to end this violence, but nearly half are hesitant to act, and 23% say intimate partner violence is none of my business if it doesn’t directly involve me.
We see statistics that prove how common this abuse is, but it’s hidden. We can’t envision just how widespread it really is.
We believe survivors, but we easily blame them, question their motivations and worry about the impacts of their allegations on abusers.
Nicole Bedera digs into these dizzying contradictions. She’s a sociologist who studies how social structures, organizations and culture create a world where violence is predictable and ordinary. Over the past decade, she has studied sexual violence in contexts like college campuses, and she’s been featured in The New York Times, NPR, Time magazine, and more. She’s a fellow at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and an affiliated educator at the Center for Institutional Courage. She joins us now.
I came to this research in the way a lot of people do, through some of my own personal experiences, but before I came to work as a researcher, I actually used to be a victim advocate and I was meeting with survivors in the direct aftermath of their sexual assaults as a hospital advocate.
I would hear the same questions from victims over and over and over. A lot of questions like why does this happen? And why is it happening to me? Did I do something wrong? and I didn’t have satisfactory answers to those questions.
I knew that survivors were not to blame for the violence they experienced but there wasn’t a lot of scholarship at the time about how perpetrators are sort of organized, how their victims are selected, and why there’s more violence in some places than others. And so that’s how I got interested in the topic and the other way I got interested in it is also connected to that experience in victim advocacy that the survivors I saw in that role were often at the beginning of their process of trauma. As much as we think that trauma ends with the sexual assault ending, we now know that the criminal justice system and other legal processes, like in the US, the college Title 9 system, is what I study, we know that these processes are painful and traumatic too, and so I got really interested in that as well.
Could we make sexual violence less damaging if we change the systems that respond to it?
Just grounding yourself in what survivors have gone through and letting that be the basis of your work is really wonderful. So, tell us a bit about this research. What’s the most surprising and revealing things that you’ve learned along the way?
I’ve done a lot of different projects on sexual violence, but the one that I finished up most recently right before the pandemic hit was an ethnography. So that’s basically like embedded sort of journalistic research, where you’re living alongside participants for a long period of time. I did an ethnography of how campus sexual violence is handled at one school in the US. I interacted with victims, perpetrators, and administrators, and one of the most shocking things that I found was the way that these cases that if you hear the survivor’s story and if you hear what the administrators claim to believe, you would think it would be such an obvious story of sexual violence and it would be so easy for them to intervene. The survivors were looking for really specific types of help. They wanted space from their perpetrators. They wanted a serial perpetrator to be removed from campus so that they would lose their pool of victims, things like that that were really straightforward.
I was surprised by how predictably all of these cases that looked really strong fell apart. Because we have this myth that the reason that we don’t do anything for survivors is because it’s impossible, because these cases are so complex and they’re so convoluted it’s hard to know what happens, and there’s no evidence. But I found over and over again that that really wasn’t true. That more often we were just getting distracted by the types of irrelevant evidence that was coming in, by the fact that the perpetrator was charming and that there was just a lack of willpower to do anything about this type of violence. That surprised me a lot.
It’s a completely different set of problems than the ones that we’re usually talking about in why nothing is happening to support survivors.
I find that there’s such a vocal resurgence of victim blaming right now, but I think you would probably agree that it’s not new at all. It’s just coming out in new ways, given news, given media, given what people are talking about. Tell us a bit about why you think this happens and what are some of the root causes, the things, perhaps that we’re getting distracted by, but the things that we actually need to pay attention to, as you’re talking now.
I think you’re right that there’s a resurgence in victim blaming right now, but I think one thing we’re learning at this point after the MeToo movement is that it has different sources than we thought. So in the past we thought that the reason that sexual violence was so common and that victim blaming was so common was just because we struggled to empathize with survivors, that if people knew more about survivors’ experiences that that would be enough to end victim blaming.
I certainly have taken that stance earlier in my career, but I think at this moment what we’re seeing more on display is that the sources of victim blaming might be a little bit different than we expected. That it’s not so much a lack of empathy for victims in all cases, but rather too much empathy for perpetrators. And so to give you an example of this, we got in touch because of Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard, that’s how we found each other in the Twitter world. Something I’ve been getting in a lot of emails recently, because I’ve been quite vocal on this topic and people have been quite vocal back, but one of the things I keep hearing is people saying that they do believe that Johnny Depp is an abuser. They do believe that he has committed the violence he was accused of, but that they still think that Amber Heard went about it the wrong way. And they think that even if he has committed these acts of abuse, that doesn’t merit the loss of his legacy as a famous actor, that he doesn’t deserve to have his life ruined. And that really she wasn’t the best possible type of victim because she did fight back, because she did use, in her own words, kind of ugly language at times, that as a result she’s not a good enough victim to deserve bringing down this man who we’re really comfortable with. And I think this is the type of victim blaming we’re seeing, and it’s a little bit different than saying we don’t believe survivors.
It’s now saying we believe you, but we don’t care. We believe you, but we don’t think this is serious enough to require intervention and we believe you, but we don’t think it’s worth damaging a man’s reputation or we don’t think he deserves accountability or consequences for his actions. And so instead, we’re seeing actually really similar myths coming back for a slightly different reason, which is this idea of women who look for consequences regardless of what they’ve endured. And I say women kind of intentionally because in my work I find this doesn’t hold up the same way when the genders of perpetrators and victims vary. But women who are looking to hold a perpetrator accountable have inherently done something wrong, that they should be forgiving, that they should sort of turn the other cheek and just move on and that if they refuse to do that it’s proof that they actually do need to be put in line. And that they did deserve some of the abuse they experienced, so that’s kind of where we’re at, as well as just a general discomfort. I’ve heard a lot this sense of we don’t know with 100% certainty what happened and if we don’t know with 100% certainty beyond a reasonable doubt what took place then is it really fair for there to be consequences for a perpetrator, if I have any doubt at all, and so that’s kind of lingering too.
But I think that ultimately to sum up this kind of long answer that the victim blaming that’s taking place, it’s all about preserving men’s legacies or futures if they’re very young and they haven’t had a chance to cement what their potential legacy could be. There’s sort of an assumption when you’re accused, but if you’re accused when you’re young that you could have done amazing, amazing things. But there’s an idea that all of this should be protected and that women’s trauma is, it’s just sort of too late to do anything, and the problem is that they’re coming forward.
It’s a slightly different type of victim blaming, but I think it’s an important distinction to make.
I appreciate your desire to try to parse this out because it is a mind meld. It’s really just hard to follow, like I think I’ve done this in my life. Tell me if I’m getting it right. There have been times where I have faced abuse and I found that empathizing with the person abusing me helped me deal with it, helped me feel not so harmed and violated, helped me feel perhaps like I had a measure of control over the situation, even though it wasn’t my fault and I didn’t do anything wrong, I was able to see it from that person’s perspective so that I could manage it, but did that give me a sense of safety? No. Did that give me a sense of justice? Absolutely not, and I dealt with that in kind of really difficult ways later on. Is that part of the dynamic playing out here?
I think so. I think a big part of the dynamic and a reason that a lot of survivors will empathize not only with their own perpetrators, but with other perpetrators is because we don’t want to believe people are bad – like that’s a really simple way to put it, but I do think it’s the core of it.
So, on college campuses the best research we have estimates that one in 10 men in college commit a sexual assault before they graduate. That’s a terrifying statistic to believe, even though the flip side of that is that the actual number I believe is 88 percent of men on college campuses do not commit an act of sexual assault and are very intentional and trustworthy in being in that percentage. They are very, very careful, but we don’t see it that way.
Instead, we think wow, if the chance is 1 in 10 that I could run into someone who’s violent, I really have to believe that they’re still in their heart a good person, that they’re willing to change and capable of change. Otherwise, it’s just sort of scary and impossible to think, ok, so every 10th person and man in particular I run into, could be a violent threat is absolutely terrifying. So, I think it does create this sort of sense of safety in the moment to say, alright, this person is doing horrible things now, but they won’t do horrible things forever.
The problem though is that when everyone is empathizing with perpetrators in that way, I do ultimately believe that perpetrators can change if they want to. But we’re not creating a lot of incentives for them to want to. Instead, we’re just saying over and over how understandable it was that they have hurt women. That makes it likely that they will continue to hurt women in the future. We’re all going to throw them a life raft if they do. I think that’s the core of the difficulty.
You know, one thing that really surprises people about my research is that most of the Title 9 administrators, so Title 9 is the office on American college campuses that addresses gender-based violence, and the vast majority of the administrators in those roles are women, many of whom are survivors, many of whom got into this work because they want to support other survivors. And yet they end up betraying them, and I think that’s a big reason why – is this sense of why it would just be so scary to walk around campus and see how many students might potentially be violent. It just feels like this insurmountable problem. It’s easier to believe that it will just go away naturally. But it won’t. That’s not how it works.
I do believe this kind of falls into, not just a psychological phenomenon, but you know the sociological phenomenon that we have to see violence as rare. We have to see things like gender-based violence as something that doesn’t happen very often, even though the statistics clearly shows it happens all the time. It happens to the vast majority of women and girls and Two Spirit, trans and non-binary people. And it’s just a matter of us trying to breakthrough both cognitive dissonance and also cultural mythologies that are grounded in sexism and grounded in impressions.
It’s kind of one of those things that feel really insurmountable, but we’re really excited at the Canadian Women’s Foundation because we have had some positive moves in the right direction. Over 20,000 people in Canada have actually signed up to become what we call Signal for Help Responders. It’s just an ongoing learning journey that people can sign up to online to practice and know how to have some judgment free, caring conversations to support survivors of gender-based violence in their lives. And what I appreciate about this is that it’s asking you to look at the situation, a violent situation perhaps, from the perspective of somebody who’s going through the violence. And importantly, grounding yourself as a bystander, as a person in that person’s life, what can you do, that it’s not too big for you to have a small intervention in the little ways that you can in your day to day.
And of course, this is really important because we have found that 90% of people in Canada do believe that they have a role to end abuse, but actually half are afraid to respond. And nearly a quarter actually say that intimate partner violence is none of my business if it doesn’t involve me. So, there’s a big difference between our values and our confidence and competence and desire to do something. So how do we challenge this? Given the power of your research, how can we start to shift our cultures of stigma and silence around abuse to a culture of support for survivors and action to end violence?
I’m really encouraged that so many people are eager to get involved. And yeah, that disparity between how many people think they have a responsibility to do something, but they’re too afraid or they don’t know exactly what to do, I think is at the core of the problem we’re talking about. Because when you do ask people why they don’t get involved? It often isn’t because they’re afraid of helping a victim too much, you know what I mean, but they’re afraid of being wrong and they’re afraid of unfairly maligning a man’s reputation and hurting a man who they think doesn’t deserve it or might not deserve it.
And so we get into this suspended state of disbelief that we can’t be helpful unless we know it with 100% certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, what has taken place in a relationship. And the problem is in intimate partner violence that can be really hard. Especially because survivors themselves, while they’re in the midst of abuse, they may be gaslit, they may be confused about what they’re experiencing. So even if we come from a standpoint of believe survivors, believing survivors might not get us all the way there when they might say depending on the type of abuse they’re experiencing in the moment that they are a victim sometimes, or that they’re not in others. So it’s difficult and that’s why I think it’s really crucial that when we try to support survivors, we stop thinking about it as something that is inherently done to hurt or punish a perpetrator.
That’s not what victims are looking for. Victims are not asking for help because they want to ruin someone’s life as much as that’s the big belief out there. But instead it’s because they need tangible aid, and when you’re focused on offering something that would be helpful and useful, even if you got a piece of the story wrong, then we can feel a bit more confident moving forward. You know, I think it’s really interesting, a lot of the time you see this hesitation to step in because people aren’t 100% sure if it’s abuse, right, but we end up making these distinctions between ok, we know this behavior is bad, but does it rise to the level of abuse. And something I like to say a lot is, well, OK, so let’s assume that it that you just have a friend who’s in a relationship where they’re not being treated well by their partner and you don’t like the way that their partner argues with them. You don’t think it’s fair, then we would not be nearly as hesitant to step in and offer some advice, to step in and say here are some resources that might be able to help you. Have you considered meeting with a therapist? Have you considered using this guide about how to have an argument better? You know all of these different things.
We make a big deal out of putting people in the right category. Are you in the category of just general bad behavior or are you in the category of abuse? And to some degree those categories are useful because, for example couples therapy might be useful in a relationship where people are making some mistakes but want best for each other. But couples therapy can be very very damaging to survivors who are in an abusive relationship. So sometimes those distinctions matter, but other times they just don’t.
And just being there to be a compassionate ear and to support a friend or a family member’s view of what’s happening in their relationship and helping them think through what will be best for them is really all we have to do. And so that’s my simple answer is to just worry a little bit less about the impact of being wrong in the direction of like what could it mean for the perpetrator if I’m wrong and to think a little bit more about what would it mean if I don’t step in in a place where I could have, what would it mean if I was wrong in the other direction and I’d been hesitating when someone really needed my help, I think that’s the way we have to flip the conversation.
The other thing I recommend, which I think is really helpful that there’s a training and that there are resources available for people to respond is to say you don’t have to bring every approach at once there are. There’s not just one way to help a survivor.
It doesn’t always mean going straight to the police, for example, but there are actually probably hundreds of things that we can do to help survivors, whether it’s making abuse less damaging, helping them get to safety, helping them make sense of what happened to them or heal. When we think of all of the tools that are available, there probably is a tool that everyone is comfortable using some of the time when it’s appropriate, and so I think that’s the next step forward too is thinking looking over these types of resources and saying ok, what do I feel comfortable with and how can I practice and be prepared to implement it when it’s time.
Alright, now what? 2/3 of people in Canada know a woman who’s experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Chances are it impacts someone you know. Maybe gender-based violence has directly impacted you. People facing abuse are more likely to tell someone they know and trust than to reach out to a service or call a crisis line.
This is why we all need to know how to proactively respond and support someone in our lives. Learn how to offer stigma free support by signing up at signalresponder.ca, you’ll get the Signal for Help Responder Action Guide to start, which gives you quick tips to respond right away and then you’ll get emails and trainings and event invitations and other great materials to give you the learning you need to respond to any sign or signal of abuse.
It’s not about being perfect.
Situations of abuse are often complicated and confusing.
The goal is to build our own confidence and competence to be responsive, to be caring and to put the person looking for our support first.
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