Conflating Emotional Guilt with Causal Guilt is Victim-Blaming

Conflating Emotional Guilt with Causal Guilt is Victim-Blaming July 25, 2016

If your reasoning is that “So-and-so felt guilty after being raped, so they must’ve had some responsibility for what happened to them,” guess what, there’s a word for that! And that word is victim-blaming.

Photo by Unsplash by Volkan Olmez.
Photo by Unsplash by Volkan Olmez.

I see it in comment threads (like here). I see it in the internet at large. I see it in psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales (post forthcoming, when I can make the time, but here’s a preview). The connection people are erroneously making is that if someone FEELS guilty, then they must BE guilty, and I really want to clear up the confusion on this point.

As with many words in the English language, “guilt” has multiple meanings. Oxford English Dictionary lists these two:

  • The fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime: ‘it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt’
  • A feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation: ‘he remembered with sudden guilt the letter from his mother that he had not yet read’

So, there’s a linguistic precedent for the conflation of these two connotations of the word, and I think that’s incredibly problematic. It feeds into the victim-blaming tendencies of contemporary American culture, which I link to neoliberalism in my keynote speech from earlier this year. And until we as a society stop pulling stupid shit like asking a rape survivor what she was wearing, or whether she’d been a virgin, or how much he’d had to drink, these mental and emotional associations will continue to thrive.

Ideally one of the goals of feminism, comprehensive sex ed, and the sex-positive movement in general is to combat this false association between feeling and being guilty, replacing it with trauma-informed education and accurate information about how (duh) someone is never to blame for their own assault. Any feelings of guilt most likely result from cultural conditioning (because that shit runs deep), overall rape culture, and the ways in which trauma can impact a person in long-term and seemingly nonsensical ways.

See also: Take-homes from the AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma


If you’re interested in what trauma-informed sex positivity might look like, I recommend checking out Emily Nagoski’s take on it. The main points she believes trauma-informed approaches to safe spaces, sex education, and sex positivity in general must include are:

  • Recognize that some of us have been injured, and make no assumptions
  • Empower individuals, support universal autonomy
  • Create lots of space for diversity of all kinds, recognizing all levels of oppression, from individual to systemic
  • Minimize hurting people – in sex positivity, through non-judgment, access to resources, and consent

So, let’s stop making assumptions about a survivor’s emotional space, and let’s stop projecting onto their feelings. Let’s stop assigning the label of guilt (as in responsbility/accountability) onto emotions that might resemble guilty (as in the feeling of wrongdoing or remorse), because what’s actually happening is probably far more complex, and also a confusing combination of cultural conditioning and traumatic processing.

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