Put on your seatbelts, kiddies, because this is going to be controversial.
Obviously we’re all aware that we shouldn’t blame victims of crime or suggest that they deserved what happened to them. That would be shitty. But a lot of folks take this basic ethical principle to an extreme and use it to slam anyone who makes reasonable suggestions about how to avoid crime. We’ve all heard “Don’t tell me how not to get raped — tell rapists not to rape!”
Unfortunately, we live in a world where people do rape, murder, assault, and steal from others. Crime happens. Some people are shitty human beings, and there is just no avoiding that fact. So do we pretend to live in the idealized word we’re working toward to the detriment of anyone too ignorant to know how to protect themselves, or do we provide solid advice for reasonable precautions against crime? I think we can all agree the latter is best. Choosing to leave my front door wide open because people shouldn’t steal would be downright idiotic and divorced from reality. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting I lock my door, or keep an eye on my drink at a bar, or avoid bad parts of town at night. Telling me not to do those things because people shouldn’t take advantage of me might actually result in people taking advantage of me, if I take your advice, couldn’t it?
But I’m going to take that a step further (and this is the part you may disagree with me). About a month ago I was robbed. My house was broken into and everything of value that I owned was taken. This was understandably pretty devastating, and I experienced all the feelings of fear, violation, and a lack of control that come with being the recipient of this type of crime. It sucked. So I started trying to make sense of what had happened. I tried to determine how the person got in, and discovered that my back door was unlocked. I had apparently forgotten to lock it.
This realization actually filled me with relief. Stay with me, now. The realization that it was likely that something I had done had led to the break-in meant that I could choose not to do it in the future in order to avoid another break-in. It wasn’t a broken window, or a lock picking, or anything else that was completely out of my hands. I wasn’t helpless to prevent my home from being invaded. I was, in fact, partially responsible for what had happened.
Realizing the part I played in my own victimization helped me to feel safer and more in control in my life. It made my home feel secure to me again. Sure, I felt like a idiot, but everyone makes mistakes, and I know better than to beat myself up too much. Far more important was the sense of control and security I regained by acknowledging my mistake and taking responsibility for it, thereby acknowledging that my actions can and do determine if my home is safe. My safety is up to me.
So let’s really crank up the controversy here. I apply this same principle to my abusive relationship. I wasn’t kidnapped from my bed at night, or kept with my ex at gunpoint. I made a long list of choices, some of which I knew were bad choices as I was making them. Red flags appeared over and over, and I chose to ignore them. He got jealous and uncomfortable when I so much as talked to my friends, and I chose to try to work with him to get him more comfortable, rather than running the hell away. He called me dozens of times a day after I left him the first time, and rather than acknowledging that this was creepy stalky behaviour, I agreed to give him a second chance. The first time he hit me I decided to forgive him. And the second. And the third… I had so many opportunities to GTFO, and I chose not to.
Sure, there are always circumstantial and psychological factors in these kinds of things. Nothing exists in a vacuum. But the point stands that choices were made. I chose to be with him. I chose to stay after things got nasty. I chose not to call the police, even after the many times he called my bluff and continued to berate me and slam me into things. I chose not to have him arrested and charged when I was asked privately, point blank, by the cop I talked to when I fled to a nearby station, bruised and crying. I made a laundry list of bad decisions that perpetuated my position in a bad situation, that made my bad situation increasingly worse. But I also chose to leave the relationship when I had finally had enough, because the ability to guide myself and my life was in my hands all along. I am a person with agency.
And you know what? Realizing all the things I did that led to my circumstances, good and bad, has been one of the most empowering things I’ve done. As Henley said in his poem, I am still the master of my fate. I still have agency and control. I won’t be treated like that again because I won’t allow it. I know this because I recognize that the first time around I did allow it. Having recognized my role in my own victimization, I will move forward to a better life with the lessons I’ve learned, and I feel stronger, smarter, and safer for having learned them. Like the kid who touches the hot stove, I was burned and won’t do it again.
None of this is to say that I “asked for it” or that I deserved to be abused. I was young and dumb, and that’s not a crime. This isn’t about blaming myself (though sometimes I do, which is wrong but natural). This is about acknowledging the part I played to regain a sense of control and agency, to regain my dignity as an autonomous human being whose actions affect her reality. To tell me I was a helpless victim to his inevitable violence is to strip me of that, to infantilize me, to call my will ineffectual, to deny me my humanity and autonomy.
So no, you shouldn’t blame the victim. But there is no harm at all in tracing back your steps to find where you went wrong.