The Guilt of Sexual Assault
By: Beth McHugh 2007
I don’t think I have ever encountered a client with a history of sexual assault who has not had issues with guilt. Whether the assault happened during the adult years or in childhood, the specter of guilt is never far from the surface.
Why is this? I have spoken with women who were assaulted from as young as three years of age, yet they will tell me that it was their fault. It is the same with adult women who have undergone sexual trauma. Why do we as a gender condemn ourselves for a violent act undertaken by someone else?
Even during the course of therapy when the woman can logically see that she is not at fault, there is a part deep inside her that still takes the blame. One woman felt guilty about her own sexual assault because on Day One of her employment, she laughed at her boss’ joke. As we talked about where she thought the guilt came from, this was the answer she finally found at the bottom of her closet. In laughing at his joke, she truly felt that she had given him permission to invade her body with his.
This belief system is so widespread among victims of sexual assault that it is not peculiar to them, it is a reflection of how women view themselves in society. Men traditionally often blamed women for an assault and denied any responsibility of their own.
This thinking has long been reflected in the court system where, even in the 21st century, the woman is often put through the most probing questions about her personal life. Questions that are not asked of any man, let alone the perpetrator of the crime. No wonder women tend to take on this collective guilt mentality.
But it is not only men who are responsible for placing the responsibility of the assault upon the women. Females also do their share in propagating the myth that it is the woman’s fault if she is assaulted. Women are still imbued with the responsibility to keep the moral line firmly drawn, while men are often relegated to the “boys will be boys” basket, especially if the woman concerned was in a perceived “bad” situation or was wearing the “wrong” clothing.
Places and apparel are not the cause of rape. Nor is smiling and laughing at a joke. As a counselor I have spent many hours with women who cannot move forward from their experience because of a profound sense of guilt. The perpetrator didn’t make her feel guilty; society has somehow leached this view into her soul and convinced her that she is guilty.
If we could change the way we view sexual crimes and see them as acts
of violence and not about sex, victims of sexual crimes will have an
immediate load taken from them. And the burden of guilt is an enormous
load for a woman to carry.