Jane Fonda dropped some serious truths about her feelings on the patriarchy during a recent interview with Brie Larson for The Edit, Net-a-Porter's digital magazine. "To show you the extent to which a patriarchy takes a toll on females; I’ve been raped, I’ve been sexually abused as a child and I’ve been fired because I wouldn’t sleep with my boss and I always thought it was my fault; that I didn’t do or say the right thing," she says. Later, she continues: "One of the great things the women’s movement has done is to make us realise that [rape and abuse is] not our fault. We were violated and it’s not right."
Trauma, blame, and guilt are braided into a survivor's life after sexual assault, and it's unfortunately normal for someone to feel like there was something they should have done to prevent the abuse from happening. "It's never the victim’s fault," says Amy Edelstein, LCSW, Supervising Social Worker at Safe Horizon, a domestic abuse survivor assistance organisation. "People who perpetrate sexual violence are in charge of doing it or not doing it." Still, Edelstein says many sexual assault survivors are crippled by "should-have" thoughts.
The messages we hear about rape ("she should've known because she went home with him" or "she was wasted and asking for it") only perpetrate the rape culture myth that survivors have a choice and that they should've done something different, Edelstein says. "A lot of the way we blame ourselves comes from society and the messages we hear, but those aren’t accurate," she says. Edelstein says that people engage in victim-blaming dialogue as a form of protection, but that's an unhealthy way to cope with the realities of sexual assault. "Some people say 'Oh, this couldn't happen to me,' to set themselves apart and feel better and safer about the world," she says. Sexual assault happens every 98 seconds, according to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) — and it can happen to anyone.
When someone is sexually assaulted, they are faced with a life-threatening trauma, explains Edelstein, so your brain goes into full survival mode. "Your brain makes the choice that's the safest — it's fight, flight, or freeze," she says. "You can't make choices, because the logical part of your brain shuts down," she says. Sometimes, understanding the biological and physiological aspects can help decrease guilt and blame for survivors, she says.
Fonda's comments are incredibly important for survivors who may feel like their feelings aren't validated or important. "Being abused as a child isn't talked about enough, and there's so much shame and secrecy, especially back in that time period," Edelstein says. Thankfully, now there is at least a discussion happening, but that doesn't mean there isn't work to do. "When we see someone who's willing to share their story, it normalises something we see a lot more," she says. Edelstein encourages people who've been assaulted to seek out professional support from people who understand the implications of sexual assault. "They can talk through what happened and give [the survivor] options that will make them feel like they have control and a choice."
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.