When backlash causes whiplash: The media blitz of victim blaming

By Elizabeth M. Matz

This article was first published in the feminist journal, Off Our Backs, in 1994 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Sadly it is just as relevant today.

Whiplash is an injury due to sudden jerking backward and forward. Just when we thought we were moving forward, making sexual violence a serious social/political concern, we are yanked backwards by a media blitz of victim-blaming. And this trend is all too familiar. The backlash produces a sense of time distortion – are we in 1994 or 1904? So, a bit of history is needed to provide the context that will clarify the current disturbing trend.

Until the 1980s, women found their experiences of sexual abuse to be unspeakable. No one would listen or would act as if what was said mattered. Over the past century, women’s stories of men’s violations have been consigned to the don’t-matter-bin of social ills through a variety of justification. Sigmund Freud, for example, decided that women’s experiences of child sexual abuse were inventions, simply psychological developmental fantasies. During the following several decades other psychoanalysts wrote that females asked for and caused the sexual violations done to them.

Karl Abraham asserts:

“Female hysterics in particular are continually meeting with adventures. They are molested in the public street, outrageous sexual assaults are made on them, etc. It is part of their nature that they must expose themselves to external traumatic influences. There is in them a need to appear to be constantly subjected to external violence. In this we recognize a generally psychological characteristic of women in an exaggerated form.”*

As late as the 1970s, social science and medical literature continued to blame the victims and deny the prevalence of sexual abuse. For example, a 1975 article in the British Journal of Criminology entitled ‘Victim-precipitated paedophilia offences’ states that child victims’ precipitations of sexual offences are “quite obvious.” The author claims that “many children passively allow” and “take the initiative by coming to the offender.” In the methods section of the paper he reports without comment that “sometimes the offender’s own information had to be relied on” for data on the “subjects” – meaning the sexually abused children. Also in 1975 a well-known psychiatric textbook claimed that there is only one incest victim in a million children (Freedman, Kaplan, and Sadock).

Since the truth of the endemic social tragedy of child sexual abuse, in and out of family settings, came to light in the 1970s and 1980s, a backlash of similar discounting arguments has been revised and recycled. What we have now is a national media trend of great impact. Legions of talk show hosts, writers, and commentators ridicule people who speak out about the way they have been sexually abused and exploited.

Several prominent examples are Charles Sykes, a radio talk-show host and author of the 1992 book, A Nation of Victims, and Wendy Kaminer, author of I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, also published in 1992. Both books accuse women who identify as victims and survivors of sexual violence of being hyperdramatic and of claiming a sort of superior status by “virtue” of having been hurt.

Sykes and Kaminer assert, in similar fashion, that while real victims do exist who deserve attention and remedy, masses of Americans are falsely claiming victimisation. According to the Sykes book, this constitutes a degeneration into moral sickness of a once-healthy “American backbone.” It is true that undeserving individuals do claim fraudulent rights and even propose government legislation to remedy their alleged grievances. One example is the unjustified appropriation of the language of civil rights and social justice claimed by organised paedophiles and other child sexual abusers. These individuals claim that their interest in children for sexual gratification is a right that is equivalent to the demands for equal protection under the law made by feminists, ethnic minorities, and lesbian and gay rights activists. Organised paedophiles in the United States and Great Britain would, if they could, change the age of legal consent in sex laws, which they often couch in spurious concerns for the “sexual rights of children.” Is it even necessary to point out that the sexual use of children by adults has been appropriately legislated as a crime, and should remain so?

However, Sykes, Kaminer and their ilk do not mention perpetrators of sexual abuse in their examples of people who selfishly exploit victim status. Rather, their attacks include women who have experienced sexual violence and feminists whose work aims to end male sexual violence in all its forms.

For example, under the heading, ‘Are We All Sick,’ Sykes ridicules 12-step support groups of various kinds. The way he structures his accusations lumps survivors of sexual abuse with alcoholics. He argues that alcoholism, unlike physical disease, does not just happen to a person: alcoholism is a consequence of poor behaviour choices. Sykes accuses alcoholics of failure to take responsibility for their actions. While there may be both truth and serious short comings in Sykes’ criticism of 12-step alcoholism programmes, his arguments do not fit sexual trauma survivors who are pursuing recovery. While enduring sexual abuse, victims suffered not from choices but from a lack of choices. Child-sexual-trauma is not a consequence of a child’s irresponsible behaviour. Sykes’ victim-blaming is both inaccurate and mean-spirited.

In a separate section, Sykes strongly acknowledges the seriousness of rape but then ridicules the feminist analysis that identifies rape as a central force in the social oppression of women. With accusatory phrases such as “shrill victimist indignation,” he misrepresents feminists, saying that they trivialise and exploit actual pain and suffering for “political ends.”

Similarly, Kaminer’s I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional claims that women who experienced incest in childhood “compete for ‘most incestuous childhood’ honours” and that victim status is sought after, like contestants on the old television programme, Queen for a day for the rewards of attention and sympathy.

Another example comes from Dorothy Rabinowitz, a television reviewer for the Wall Street Journal who writes with a consistent lack of insight about programmes on child sexual abuse as well as other sexual violations of girls and women. She praised a television movie about women in war for addressing the suffering and endurance of women in a context “larger than (my emphasis) the endless catalogue of gender complaints that comes oozing from the screen with appalling regularity.” She refers to topics of rape, child sexual abuse, wife battering and sexual harassment as “nonsense and gender politics.”

A major source of fuel for the backlash is the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), an organisation formed by parents accused by their now-adult children of sexually abusing them in childhood. The monthly FMSF newsletters regularly deride the testimony of people who were abused. The newsletter writers, feeding the media attacks, accuse many women of inventing memories under the influence of controlling psychotherapists. FMSG spokespersons minimise and misrepresent these women’s testimonies in order to discredit them and the women themselves.

Specifically, survivors’ descriptions of their childhood abuse are dismissed as so similar as to be literally unbelievable. Pamela Freyd, the foundation’s founder, wrote in a January 7, 1992 newsletter “The similarity of the stories is so uncanny that doubts dissolve quickly” and that laughter results when they hear “the very same accusations in the very same dramatic words” (my emphasis). She asserts that a “supply of stock responses and phrases” are used to relate stories, most of which are “patently ridiculous” as well as “vague, improbable, bizarre.”

In an article from Forbes the author manages to trivialise the experience of trauma and of genocide simultaneously with an alliterative non-sequitur: “With child abuse, as with the sexual harassment of women, the issue is not whether such things happen. All sorts of misdeeds happen, from jaywalking to genocide. The real question whether it happened in particular cases – and what we are going to accept as evidence.”

Indeed, fighting for credibility is a key issue for child sexual abuse victims, past and present. Backlash writers typically claim concern for anyone who was abused and outraged that such things happen to children. Yet at the same time they ridicule, insult, and “shame” people who say they were abused. The result is, in essence, perfunctory expressions of compassion for the abstract notion of abuse, overridden with denial and contempt for concrete claims.

The term “politically correct” is a frequent weapon in this massive media attack against victims breaking silence and telling their experience. For example, Jean Feraca, the moderator of a Wisconsin Public Radio listener call-in show, featured a programme on “politically correct” language. The guest was Christopher Cerf, the co-editor of the Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. Feraca focused on how to defend herself against the “tyranny” of PC. She questioned how to determine whether one is a victim of the system of political correctness. The following exchange took place:

CC: “Well, you would never be victim anymore, because that would be weak. It doesn’t sound like I’m praising you if I call you victim. If I call you a survivor, however, don’t you feel better?

JF: “Oh, definitely” (sarcastically). But I’m on my way from survivor to thriver.

CC: “Well, you can be both a survivor and a thriver.

JF: “Ah (laughing), thank you (more long, gleeful laughter).

CC: “They are not mutually exclusive at all.”

JF: “But doesn’t that imply some sort of hierarchy?”

CC: “We’ve moved from victim to survivor to thriver?”

JF: (Sarcastically) “And aren’t hierarchies very politically incorrect?”

The goal of moving beyond life-as-mere-survival to an experience of thriving is no joke – it is a crucial step for prior victims of long-term sexual trauma. The term “prior victim” denotes that the individual is no longer subject to the sexual abuse. She can, therefore, proceed through an absolutely valid hierarchy of stages in the healing process.

The sarcasm, unbridled glee, and disingenuous questions about the unacceptability of hierarchies are typical of the media backlashers. The arrogant smugness in the above examples threatens to push sexual abuse survivors back into unspeakability – into silence.

A Challenge to Media Commentators

If you are a media commentator who has engaged in the type of ridicule described above, I ask you to disassociate yourself from the backlash. Then, consider the issue from the perspective of prior victims. In order not to see themselves, and not to be seen by others, as “mere” victims, women who were abused in childhood often turn to the term “survivor.” The term “survivor” means simply that although they had been victimised, they did not succumb to a lifetime of insanity or to suicide, to the total loss of self or of life itself.

“Survivor” says that even in the impossible powerlessness of their childhood, they had no choices. They acted, struggled, and persevered until time carried them out of the reach of the abuser. They, somehow, held on by day, by week, by month through years of childhood, preadolescence, adolescence – finally reaching age 18 and going away to work, school or convent. Surviving involved will, action and initiation in moment-by-moment decisions.

Beyond survival lies the goal of “thriving.” Thriving means living well, in health, vibrancy and productivity, with energy and even occasionally joy. And thriving means being without, at long last, constant debilitating shame, self-hatred, fear and grief. Merely surviving is a difficult state in which to exist.

Are you willing to allow the shift in consciousness needed to comprehend this?

Are you willing to make the conscious decision to imagine what it might be like to be, for example, seven years old (or ten, or fifteen)…

[What follows is a description of abuse. It might be upsetting to some readers. It ends with the row of asterisks below. If you would like to skip this section, jump ahead to the paragraph after the asterisks.]

You are glad to be in school in the morning. You are well behaved, (that means quiet), a good student, perhaps an active leader, or perhaps, socially invisible. As the day progresses, and especially after lunch, a creeping sense of fear and sadness overtakes you. The end of the school day means having to go home, which you avoid as best you can by joining every possible extracurricular activity, or by helping the teacher, or by getting lost on the way home, or by refusing to get off the bus at your stop. Home in the late afternoon leads to evening which leads to night and going to bed. Every night you go to bed with literally nauseating, gut-wrenching fear. You fight to stay awake, frozen, barely breathing, listening in the silent darkness. You fall asleep in spite of all your efforts.

You awake night after night with him on you, often in you. You experience physical pain, psychological humiliation (an experience for which you have no concept or word at seven or twelve years old). Humiliation from being a non-person, a thing he uses. You don’t matter, don’t exist as a person with physical boundaries that are yours to control. This means that your arms, and legs, feet and hands, not to mention your vagina, rectum and mouth, are without protection. Your body is not your personal possession with its own private, inviolable personal space.

There is no one to tell and no way to tell. No help. You pay to God, Mary, Jesus. Their pictures hang on the wall with arms reaching down to you. But they never stop it. You believe you must be very bad. There is no other explanation your seven-year-old mind can think of. If you were worthy and deserving, God would surely help you – would somehow stop the nightly violations, the pain and confusion.

Some nights you lie in bed in silent fear, having to pee. The pressure in your bladder feels overwhelming. You think he is asleep, but are still afraid to go to the bathroom because any sound you might cause might wake him. If he hears you in the bathroom, he’ll come in and do things to you.

Alone in the daytime with him, in your eight-year-old logic, you wedge yourself into a toy chair, hoping that way he won’t be able to get at you, get you to lie down. Hoping you can avoid the pain he causes jabbing at you. It’s excruciating to have things in your vagina, at your urethra.

How do you cope with your brother/father/stepfather/teenage male baby-sitter on you on the cold basement floor, your head pressed against… metal, wood or tile, door, wall or pipe, his penis shoved in your mouth?

He shows you magazines and videos of the kinds of things he does to you. Sometimes they are pictures he has taken of you that he threatens to show if you ever tell. He invites his friends to do things to you, too. If they hesitate, he says, “It’s OK, she doesn’t care.” You are paralysed with fear and dread. You feel betrayed by your own frozen body and your silence. You despise your body, you hate your self.


Please be willing to see that women who struggle to express these experiences search for words that do not further degrade and humiliate them, leave them with a sense of powerlessness. They seek language that inspires, strengthens and brings hope and a sense of agency, efficacy and worth.

You are writers. You know the power of words. Be constructive. What might you suggest if you were willing to imagine what it is like to live inside a body having the experiences, enduring the events, described above?

Understand that change, growth and healing are processes that go through stages over time. The stages of change are reflected in the words people use to talk about themselves. When you ridicule the terms “victim,” “survivor” and “thriving,” you effectively ridicule the pain, confusion and betrayal of the mind and spirit of a child who was a victim but is no longer. As a child, she believed that she deserved and even somehow caused the abuse. Your ridicule burdens her with yet another message: that she is foolish, silly, stupid, over-reactive and hyper-dramatic.

Justice means that the truth is no longer suppressed but is spoken, written, heard and acknowledged. Justice requires a witness.

This daily, weekly and monthly barrage of ridicule in the media burdens sexual abuse and trauma survivors with an extra dose of self-doubt, self-recrimination and confusion as they internalise the external messages. “It wasn’t so bad, not such a big deal, so why not just forget it? Get over it, grow up, stop whining, shut up!” But the nightmares and flashbacks do not stop. Instead, they blend into a confusing and painful flood of images and admonitions: Shut up – stop feeling, stop talking about it. Silence.

Silence is precisely what the abuser needed and demanded. And still does. Your ridicule of formerly abused women serves the perpetrators, individually and collectively. It takes the focus off them in a classic dynamic that blames the victim and attacks the messenger.

What is your answer to the huge social problem of male violence towards females? Will you address it, or will you avoid the frightening reality by cleverly using vocabulary to condemn and at the same time amuse? And in the process, paint yourselves as victims of the so-called “tyranny of political correctness” – a misrepresentation of the very kind to which you object? Healing from a physical, emotional and social betrayal such as sexual abuse requires a range of experiences for the injured person. Justice, both personal and social, is one such need. Justice means that the truth is no longer suppressed but is spoken, written, heard and acknowledged. Justice requires a witness. For the child victim there was no witness, no person who intervened. Justice means having a witness now.

I will acknowledge that it can be painful to be a compassionate witness. And picking at the word choices of sexual abuse survivors effectively distracts you from connecting with the reality of what they went through.

Will you, instead, meet the challenge? Take the perspective of a person who has lived through sexual trauma? Try to understand the choice of words and actions of people seeking healing and resolution? Justice and compassion require that you do.

* Selected Papers of Karl Abraham MD (1973). The International Psycho-Analytical Library, edited by Ernest Jones. London, Hogarth Press.

One thought on “When backlash causes whiplash: The media blitz of victim blaming

  1. Society seems to have now accepted the evidence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions and doesn’t blame victims. Why is it so difficult to believe that the same level of abuse happened and happens to so many children within their own families and communities?

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