The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Blaming victims vs. empowering them


Adapted from recent online discussions.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I recently read “The Gift of Fear” and was discussing it online with some other readers. I was really bothered when some people said they felt that Gavin de Becker is a victim-blamer, specifically in saying victims of domestic violence do have a choice of what action to take after being harmed.

I had actually agreed with him on that and thought it was a freeing way to think — that you’re never trapped, that you’re not stuck as a victim forever. I’m not sure if I was agreeing with misogyny by accident, or if I was just being taken in by keyboard justice warriors with nothing better to police. I wanted your opinion, since I know you recommend the book so frequently.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I’ve certainly heard (and received) criticism along those lines, but I agree with you that the information de Becker gives is intended to empower people to get out of these bad situations, or ideally prevent them from happening.

To equate that to victim-blaming strikes me as unfair, and also counterproductive. I can see why some people do it; it’s easy to interpret “There are ways out!” as having an implied corollary: “. . . therefore, if the victim doesn’t get out, it’s the victim’s fault.” But making that leap oversimplifies abuse.

If it were a given that everyone knew and understood what certain danger signs looked like, then none of us would miss them. If we all knew where these exit opportunities were or how to take advantage of them, then everyone would get out — and de Becker and his book would have no purpose. He’d just be stating the obvious.

The response to “Gift” was and still is huge because people in these situations, or heading into them, tend not to recognize the warning signs and tend not to jump on opportunities to get out — not because they’re dumb or self-destructive or addicted to drama or whatever else, but for two simple, external reasons: the way we’re socialized and the skill of abusers at reeling people in.

Dear Carolyn:

I’m getting married . . . on my future sister-in-law’s birthday! She does really love having her special days, so we felt happy she agreed to this day (the only one available at our venue), especially as she doesn’t like me very much.

In any case, I ordered a few dozen cupcakes, and we’ve got two options: celebrate beforehand, at a time when her many out-of-town family members likely wouldn’t be able to make it, or ask the DJ to pause the music sometime during the reception for us to sing happy birthday to her — at which point her family members will be there, but it might disrupt the flow of the evening? Although weddings always have these disruptions, and the crowd weathers them fine . . . just wanted to know your thoughts.

Minor Wedding Dilemma

Pause the music. “Flow,” if it even exists, does not trump family goodwill. Although why she didn’t take the initiative to say, “Don’t worry about my birthday — you have enough going on,” and why this is your problem and not her sibling’s, I can’t imagine.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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