Victim-blaming in the media

Society often adopts such attitudes towards rape and sexual assault in particular, and many assume that being assaulted is, in some part, the fault of the victim.

by Ian Mak, Change Maker

We all know how the media can shape people’s ideas and perceptions. But I never really cared—perhaps, I was jaded by the avalanche of media that bombards us nowadays.

I first came across the term ‘victim-blaming’ while first working for the We Can! campaign. It refers to how victims, especially those of sexual assault, are held responsible for others’ attacks on them. Society often adopts such attitudes towards rape and sexual assault in particular, and many assume that being assaulted is, in some part, the fault of the victim.

To me, intuitively, the thought of victim-blaming was simply absurd. It is like kicking someone when they’re down, and only serves to exacerbate the pain the victim must feel. I did not expect to find such an attitude in my own country.

How wrong I was. Victim-blaming doesn’t simply just exist in Singapore; it is rampant in our daily lives, creates a toxic mentality that condones crime and manufactures an atmosphere of fear.

Check out the infamous poster from the police that pushes the responsibility of not being attacked, assaulted or targeted, to the victim.

Rubbed Wrong Way

I feel that this line of advertising is extremely problematic. In the first poster, the rapist is shrouded in shadow and his face cannot be seen clearly. In contrast, the victim is placed in the spotlight. The focus is clearly shifted from the perpetrator to the victim. It is as if the victim is the only one we are asked to focus on, in a crime that they have no control over.

This isn’t an isolated incident on the Internet. The Singapore Police Force is a well-respected public institution, which arguably holds significant authority and sway over public opinion, yet it is endorsing the message that “it’s your responsibility” to avoid being attacked.

Such advertising disempowers individuals, making people fearful of their own safety, as well as feel that they are in some way, at fault for having been assaulted. Worse still, this sends the message to potential sex criminals that their behaviour is acceptable.

More worryingly, such advertising is indicative of a wider culture of victim-blaming that exists in Singapore. Often, families with conservative values would keep hush sexual crimes that happen to family members, for fear of the loss of ‘face’ that entails. Police officers have claimed that rape cannot happen unless a girl ‘opens her legs’. In the end, the victim is unable to gain support from figures that are supposed to be in positions of trust and power to them.

This is not a problem that Singapore alone faces. In 2012, the reputed US news agency CNN reported the infamous Steubenville rape case from a sympathetic stance toward the rapists involved. CNN anchor Candy Crowley claimed it was ‘incredibly difficult’ to hear the guilty verdict as the two culprits who had ‘such promising futures, star football players, literally watched as their lives fell apart’. What they failed to mention, however, was the hurt and damage caused by such a heinous crime. By focusing bizarrely on the culprit, CNN sorely detracted from the gravity of the crime and the plight of the victim.

dontbethatguyBut we also may look overseas to find a better model in tackling rape and other crimes. In contrast to our local ‘Don’t Get Rubbed the Wrong Way’ posters, campaigns overseas such as the Canadian ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ message place the focus squarely on the perpetrator, warning people to not be the culprit. By doing so, they send out the clear message that rape is never acceptable in any circumstance, and forces people to take responsibility for their actions. In contrast to local advertisements, this is empowering.

More importantly, however, each of us needs to question how we ourselves have witnessed victim-blaming and whether we have consciously or unconsciously been guilty of condoning such attitudes. We need to make a commitment to being conscious of our own attitudes and speak out if a friend or family member expresses a sentiment that may be damaging or incorrect.