By Kate Hilpern
From pointing the finger at children who are bullied (why didn't he fight back? is he too sensitive?) to condemning children who are mistreated online (it's her fault for sending the pictures to her boyfriend in the first place), there is still too much victim blaming in schools.
‘Did he bring it on himself?’ ‘If she was more resilient, it probably wouldn’t have happened.’ ‘If she’s going to go out with a boy like that, what does she expect?’ are phrases we’re all familiar with. And it’s not just the teachers and parents who are guilty of it. Young people themselves also get into this mindset.
‘It is never your fault if someone else hurts you, either physically or psychologically. It is the perpetrator’s choice to do something bad. But this can be a surprisingly difficult message to get across to young people because by the age of 12 or 13 the culture of victim blaming is usually pretty embedded,’ says Jessica Eaton, whose research into the psychology of victim blaming has led to her increasingly being invited into secondary (and sometimes primary) schools to carry out workshops with young people.
‘By this age,’ she explains, ‘youngsters have received messages from society, the media, the law, teachers and often their families, that it there’s a good chance it’s at least partly their fault if they’re targeted.’
Girl gets into a taxi and is raped – she shouldn’t have got in a car that wasn’t a black cab. Boy gets bullied for being sensitive – he should man up. Woman gets mugged down dark alley – what was she doing out alone at night anyway? You get the picture.
Eaton recalls one recent school visit, in which a discussion about sexting with a group of 13-year-olds quickly led to them telling her about a girl who had left the school after sending compromising selfies to a boy, who had then posted every image on social media. ‘What was really interesting was that the girls unanimously agreed it was her fault. She was stupid enough to do it and if she hadn’t, none of this would have happened, they argued. It took a lot of discussions around scenarios they could relate to to get them to finally see the boy as the perpetrator,’ says Eaton.
The objective of this kind of work, she says, is to get youngsters to understand that people who choose to do something bad hold all the responsibility for their own actions. ‘I’d like to think that if there are any children in that room who have experienced peer pressure, bullying or abuse of any kind that they have a lightbulb moment that it wasn’t them who brought it on themselves. It’s particularly important to have these conversations early on because we know the majority of victims of abuse blame themselves and often continue to do so all their lives. I interviewed an 81-year-old woman last year who was abused at the age of seven and even after all that time, she still felt it was her fault because nobody had ever told her it wasn’t. Likewise, we want to minimise the risk of young people who get away with hurting others and blaming the victim to continue this behaviour into adulthood.’
There’s a long way to go, with youngsters being given increasingly long lists about how to avoid being victimised – don’t wear your skirt too short, don’t walk home alone, make sure you stand up for yourself, don’t let others get to you. And so on.
One top Melbourne private school even published advice a couple of years ago suggesting that children being bullied need to take responsibility for their ‘part of the problem.’ Under the guise of resilience coaching, boys were taught ‘how to be the victor, not the victim’ and their parents were given a free seminar on the subject. ‘As a resilience coach I am adamant that, in any bullying situation, you must own your part of the problem, no matter how small, no matter how unfair it may seem,’ said the coach in her blog. ‘No one is lily-white and blameless.’
Please let’s stop teaching children that if they’re a complainer, self-absorbed, an exaggerator, a passive doormat, a try-hard or not ‘ladylike’ enough (just to name a few), they should expect what they get. Let’s teach children how not to become bullies, rather than how to avoid being bullied; about how not to abuse, rather than just how to avoid being abused. And ultimately, let’s remind children that we all have choices about how we treat others and that if we do harm to someone else, that is always our fault...