A few years ago, while attending a conference in Atlanta, my laptop was stolen. I should elaborate. I walked away from a table, right outside my hotel's ballroom where I had been working on my laptop, to step back into the large meeting space and observe one of the speakers.
When I returned to the table, my laptop was gone. Everything you expect to happen, happened next. Hotel security was called, a Police Department report was made, and I was given the necessary paperwork for my insurance company.
In the midst of all that, one other thing happened. I was blamed for the theft. As in... 'what did you expect when you walked away and left your laptop?'
These words likely do not come as a surprise to many reading this. In fact, they are likely the very words you were thinking yourselves.
But those words came as a surprise to me for several reasons. The words did not come from hotel security or other hotel staff. They did not come from the police officers. Nor, did they come from any of the conference organizers or attendees.
No. These words came from the mouth of a woman I respect and admire. A woman who has given 30 years to movements for equity and justice. A woman with whom I have a close, personal relationship and a woman who I know generally understands and eschews victim-blaming. These words came from my friend.
I don't repeat this to put my friend on blast. Many of us in friendships say the wrong thing at a given moment or we blow it by not recognizing what is needed from us in a given moment. I have been guilty of this behavior myself.
I repeat those words here to illustrate the powerful forces that compel us to blame ourselves and one another when wrongs are done to us.
The result of living in a patriarchal society, one that devalues women's bodies, feminine bodies, and gender non-conforming bodies, is that those bodies can be harassed, stalked, beaten and raped by men (though not exclusively) simply because they make the decision to do so.
This reality is far too scary to live with. So, we have devised a coping strategy to feel less vulnerable in the world.
If we can dissect every act of violence by focusing on the behavior of the victim. Then we can convince ourselves that if we are never engaging in any of those observed behaviors, then bad thing X cannot happen to us.
To be clear, most men will never make the decision to cause this kind of harm. Yet the impact of power-based violence has caused us to develop this coping strategy.
One of the most difficult things about working with survivors of violence is helping them cope with the internal and external blame. Yes. Victims blame themselves as much as we blame them.
This is my 18th year as part of the movement to end power-based violence.
This means 18 years of Take Back the Nights, Speak Outs and Sexual Assault Awareness Month Events.
As with any long-term work, one is likely to go through periods of divestment and reinvestment and perhaps, fatigue from working toward something for the better part of 20 years and seeing little change.
I honor and respect to the work of the women who came before me and the brilliant, politically engaged young people who come with and after me.
I never harbored any illusions that the work of eliminating power-based violence was anything but long-term but as I look back, I can identify one area in particular that makes this work challenging and perpetually necessary. It is the area of victim blaming and it is an area about which we can do something.
We can stop.
We can ask ourselves why we need to victim-blame in that moment and who it serves when we do.
We can't let perpetrators off the hook by diverting our attention to the behaviors of the victim and away from the behavior of the person responsible for causing harm.
We can support survivors of power-based violence by understanding they self-blame and extending compassion and empathy to them.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text "loveis" to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.