When is a victim truly a victim, as opposed to when someone merely thinks they are a victim? Why do we question this? Probably because, often enough, we hear someone claiming “victim” status when they may not actually be a victim at all. Their justification for claiming “victim” status comes through blaming someone or something other than themselves for their predicament. Their claim is that they are an “innocent victim,” where innocent really means they didn’t do anything wrong, anything to deserve what happened to them or their situation. We find this irritating when it isn’t true, when the person claiming to be a victim is actually entirely or mostly responsible for their situation.
For the same reasons, we often disdain pity. We think pity is entirely negative, that it is reserved for those who are “pathetic,” and therefore undeserving of our consideration. When we say we pity someone, we chide ourselves for it, wanting to avoid the appearance of arrogance, of being aloft, of looking down on the person we pity. We might even resent the person we pity, for making us want to pity them, which puts us back in that uncomfortable situation of having to decide whether they deserve our pity, and whether our feelings of pity make us complicit in their predicament of being, well, pitiable. Here’s the twist, though. Sometimes a victim really is a victim. Sometimes we should feel pity for those whose unfortunate situations are created through no fault of their own. If we choose not to offer our sorrow and condolences to those true victims, doesn’t that make us callous, uncaring, cold, even cruel? Also, and actually maybe more importantly, what does “victim” status do to the person claiming they are a victim?
Let’s start by offering a definition of what it means to be a victim. A victim is someone hurt or injured, through no fault of their own, by someone or something else.
The circumstances leading to become a victim could be a bear that got loose from the zoo and mauled someone. It could be a tree falling in the wind that happens to hit the tent they were sleeping in. It could be another person who physically abused them, or didn’t pay attention while driving and accidentally hurt them. In every case, the person who says they are a victim claims in some way that they themselves are not responsible for whatever caused them harm. If this is true, then it is actually a good idea for that person to think of themselves as a victim, not just because they are, but because then it calls attention to their need for redress, for a remedy, for some measure of help to put them back to as close to where they were before the incident happened. If it’s a bear attack (I just saw a movie where someone is attacked by a bear, and now I am writing this at my cabin, where there are actually bears running around, which is why I use such an outlandish example), then the person attacked needs immediate medical attention. The zoo also needs to help them with their recovery, lost work, pain and suffering, and all the rest. The zoo also needs to figure out how the bear escaped and revise their procedures, locks, and staffing, so no one else is attacked and so bears don’t endanger themselves by going out into public.
We need to pay attention to victims in our lives to help them when they need help. This is a fundamental component of compassion, and it is what we ourselves would expect from others in our lives if we fall victim to harm. If a friend loses a job due to an economic downturn, and they are struggling financially, a lending hand can go a long way. If another friend tells you their partner just hit them and pushed them down, and they are scared, ignoring their pleas could be dangerous for them, even though you might want to be careful in how you respond to avoid getting hurt as well. Hopefully, in this situation, you and your friend can together find a solution to help them get to a safe place before anything else happens. And hopefully, your friends’ abusive partner will face the legal consequences of their actions and be prevented from continuing to abuse your friend or others.
Okay, these are some pretty obvious examples of why we should pay attention to victims, and help them when we find them or they find us. But what do we do when we think a person claiming to be a victim is not really a victim, or even more confusing, they perhaps once were a victim, but now they are contributing to the circumstances that are harming them. Let’s get back to the friend in an abusive relationship. What if this is the fifth time they’ve called with this issue. They’ve stayed at your house twice before, then went back. You also suspect they (your friend, not the partner) has a drinking issue they won’t address. Are they a victim? Before I go on, I will say this. Abuse is wrong. When one person abuses another, it is wrong. The abuser is wrong, and the other person is a victim. Even so, if someone won’t leave an abusive relationship, what can you do? Be supportive to the extent you can. Keep yourself safe from getting involved so much that you could become a victim of abuse or assault. Encourage your friend to leave, from a distance. So, here, your friend is still a victim of abuse, while also contributing to their own victim status by staying in the abusive relationship.
What about the victim? How does claiming to be a victim help or hurt them?
Maybe you know someone who seems to really believe that the world has been unfair to them for years, who believes they have been dealt a bad hand in the game of life, or that they suffered even some single event years ago that sent them down a dark road, from which they have not been able to recover. They live in their victim status, making no changes to improve their lot. They point outside themselves for all the reasons their life is not what it should be. Here’s a guess: this person is bitter. Bitterness is the result of refusing to let go of perceived harms. The harms might originally have been real, valid, and even very rough. But they are in the past, not occurring any longer, and are not insurmountable. Bitterness is a version of self-imposed powerlessness over a long period of time in which resentments seem almost “baked into” the personality of the person whose outlook has become warped by their resentments. This is the long-term effect of continuing to claim victim status when it is not accurate, appropriate, helpful, when it keeps the person claiming victim stuck exactly where they are: injured, wounded, paralyzed, limited, unable (so they continue telling themselves) to make any of the kinds of changes they themselves would have to make to overcome whatever harm might have happened to them in the past.
If someone claiming to be a victim truly is a victim, like I said above with the bear attack, or the negligent driver, or the abuse victim, stating that you have become a victim, that you have suffered through no or little fault of your own, that you need help, that you have been traumatized and need to heal, this is all good. It is also good because it allows the victim to hold the perpetrator of their injuries accountable. Here, I am not talking about the legal or financial responsibilities of the perpetrator, I am talking about their emotional and moral responsibility.
Probably the most profound example of the need to claim victim status as a part of the healing process comes up with sexual abuse and rape. We hear on the news the suffering that victims endure when their decisions are questioned as part of the rape trial. In essence, there’s a blame game going on. The jury needs to know if the person claiming they were raped consented to the sexual activity. If the accuser consented, there was no rape and the person accused is innocent of the alleged crime (rape only occurs when the sexual activity is nonconsensual). The problem is, trial courts often allow defendants’ attorneys to question the victim in ways that have little or nothing to do with consent. They question whether the victim is at least partially responsible for the rape. In other words, are they an “innocent victim” or did they “bring it on themselves?” The reason this is so completely unacceptable is that rape has nothing do with what the victim deserved or whether they are innocent by anyone’s standards. No one deserves to be raped, ever. No woman who goes to a party, regardless of what she wears, regardless of what she drinks, or says, or does, brings it upon herself for someone else to force themselves on her body. Ever. I am being judgmental, but not sanctimonious about this. My judgments are so severe because I have seen first hand in therapy the toll this kind of thing takes on someone who has been partially or fully blamed for the rape they suffered, the rape someone else did, which also diminishes the responsibility accorded to the raper.
With children, there can be no “consent.” Children, thankfully, are deemed too young to understand what they are consenting to when it comes to sexual activity with adults. So, if an adult has sex with a minor (in most cases) it is rape (statutory rape). You’d think that children would be free from being blamed from having been sexually abused or raped. Not so. Again, I have seen first-hand countless times when a woman has told me in therapy that she was molested as a child, so she tells someone (usually an adult in the family) and is then told that it didn’t happen, that she is lying, making it up, or it is her fault, that she brought it on, that she wanted it, or that she should know better than to spend time with (the raper). The result of all of these responses to the victim reaching out is the message back to her that she is not a victim, that her fears, concerns and pain are not valid. Fortunately, some of these women immediately come to the conclusion, as children, that they did not deserve what happened to them, they didn’t bring it on, and the person who told them it was their fault does not deserve their respect. Good. Well, there are also many women who, having been told as children that they brought this onto themselves, struggle for years, decades even or their entire lives, with believing it, even if they also kind of know it is bullshit.
When a victim of sexual assault (as an adult or a child or both) comes to therapy to heal from the trauma of what they have suffered, we often have to spend quite a bit of time helping them see themselves as a victim so they can target the necessary anger, rage, hurt feelings, and responsibility toward the person who assaulted them. This is a very necessary part of defining strong boundaries, to help them feel safe in their lives as they move forward, to give them some sense of power, agency, and moral certitude. So, think about this, I am saying that, for many who have suffered trauma (and this could be almost any kind of trauma, not just sexual trauma) the victim has to see themselves as a victim first. Then they need to hold the perpetrator accountable as the perpetrator. They need to push out and away from themselves blame, accountability, fault, so they can see clearly that the other person is responsible. Only then can they begin to trust themselves and the safe people in their lives to provide a safe environment for them.
The victim cannot stay in the victim state though. They will always be a victim due to what has been done to them. They need to be more than a victim though. They need to begin to exercise power. This is why sometimes it can do a world of good for someone who’s been the victim of a sexual assault to take self-defense, martial arts, or other classes that will help them increase their sense of self-protection. Leaving the victim role also requires a painful acceptance of what has happened, just as it is, without denial, avoidance, without using drugs, alcohol, promiscuity or other forms of re-enactment to deny what they have suffered. In facing the reality of what made them victims, over time, with safety always the first priority, they can grieve the loss of their sense of safety, the loss of how they’ve been violated, and through acceptance move through this grief. If they are not willing to do these things, they can stay stuck in denial, and in harmful behavior, for their entire lives. If a victim isn’t willing to see that they have been a victim, but are not only a victim, they will become stuck in being just a victim. I call this next phase of healing, post-victim status, which both validates that they have been victims, true victims, but also identifies that they are no longer stuck in their victim roles. Ideas about healing as part of the post-victim status is the topic of the next blog post.
Two very important caveats about this blog post. All my blog posts have a general note at the end encouraging readers to contact a mental health professional if necessary, and not rely on the blog post too much. Due to the nature of this post, I thought it necessary to add a couple of extra warnings. First, this particular blog post raises very serious issues about rape, sexual abuse, and other forms of sexual assault. It is not intended to provide anything like a complete roadmap for how to address these very deep, serious, and difficult issues. If you or someone you know has suffered from any of these kinds of trauma and is struggling with how to cope with their experiences, please contact or encourage them to contact a mental health professional trained and experienced in helping sexual assault and abuse victims. Second, this blog post also uses as examples sources of victimization that have occurred in the past, and are mostly not occurring now (except in the case of someone who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship). There are other kinds of abuse, trauma, and exploitation that create victims all the time, on an ongoing basis, and the victim cannot escape their role as victim. Take for instance victims of racism. How does an African-American, or for that matter, any person who is not white in the United States today, “move past” their victim status resulting from the racism to which they are subjected multiple times per day? They cannot. They can only learn to cope as best they can. The same can be said for those who are LGBTQ+, disabled, or are part of any number of other communities subjected to harassment, discrimination or exploitation, all forms of perpetration, all creating victims as their intended and unintended targets. I wanted to add this caveat as a token of respect and validation to those who suffer as victims on an ongoing basis, who cannot easily or completely, move into “post-victim” status.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.