Toxic positivity & victim blaming women

Dr Jessica Taylor

29th January 2022

I never knew I had such an issue with positivity around women’s trauma and abuse until a few years ago, and even then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it annoyed me so much.

A professional I knew shared positive, uplifting messages about women and girls who had been raped and abused. And it made me want to throw my phone at a wall every time I saw one.

I never said anything to her, or to anyone else about it, because at the time, I couldn’t understand why it angered me so much.

‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’

‘You are a survivor’

‘One day, your trauma will be someone else’s inspiration’

‘Be grateful for everything you have’

‘Everything happens for a reason’

‘You are a warrior woman’

‘Your vibe attracts your tribe’

‘Other people have it a lot worse’

‘Always focus on the good things’

Oh, fuck off! Fuck off, fuuuuckkk offff.

Even typing those out made me feel furious. I wish we could put them all in the bin and never say them, ever again.

‘Toxic positivity’ is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a form of positive outlook that ignores and dismisses pain, suffering or negativity in such a way, that it becomes harmful and toxic to the person or to people around them.

What I struggle with most, is how close some of these are to victim blaming women and girls for their trauma responses after being subjected to violence and abuse.

The second thing I hate about toxic positivity, is why it seeks to reframe life changing and horrific experiences and oppressions as a good thing, a blessing, a gift, a lesson.

In my view, it deliberately stops women and girls from being able to be angry and assertive. And it’s no wonder that toxic positivity is aimed at women and girls, in fancy fonts and pastel coloured Instagram posts.

Think about it, when have you ever seen toxic positivity aimed at men and boys who are struggling?

Everything happens for a reason’

Oh right, I see. So, a 12 year old girl being raped, or a 41 year old woman being murdered on her way home from the pub happens for a reason does it? And what reason would that be, exactly?

The only possible ‘reason’ for those atrocities is that the perpetrator wanted to do it. There is literally no other reason.

But the insinuation is that it happened to teach her something, or as a consequence of something – or as a warning or life lesson. And you can see how ‘everything happens for a reason’ can quickly slip into victim blaming and a belief that we get what we deserve.

This is closely linked to the belief of a higher power who chooses and causes these things to happen to women and girls as some sort of punishment or lesson. And whilst most people who use this phrase probably don’t believe that, they are often swept up by mindless, empty insta inspo culture of these sayings that are actually harmful.

Your vibe attracts your tribe’

This might be the worst one, for me. This is the one that causes me to unfollow accounts and mute them. In real life, it makes me do the side eye. Sorry! But this attitude and belief about life is so problematic, it calls so much else into question.

Do they really believe that the ‘vibe’ or the ‘energy’ that people ‘put out’ into the world is what attracts people to them? If that’s the case, how do they explain domestic abuse? Rape? Harassment? Stalking? Murder?

Was the woman or girl giving off a certain vibe? Did she deserve that to be done to her? Did she in some way ‘attract’ a perpetrator into her life?

Again, the speed at which this phrase snowballs into victim blaming is astounding when you step back and look at it for a minute.

It reminds me very much of ‘victim precipitation theory’, which comes from old positivist victimology. This theory argued that victims of serious crime (and of course, they spoke lots about women being battered and raped) brought those crimes upon themselves by acting or attracting the perpetrator into their lives. In fact, theorist such as Von Hentig argued that all crime was jointly and equally caused by the victim and the perpetrator – and that the perpetrator only chose them as their victim because they gave off certain messages.

The impact of toxic positivity

Whilst it may seem benign, toxic positivity is another way to control women’s justified, natural anger, distress and sadness. A smiling, calm, submissive woman who accept everything happens to her for a cosmic reason is much easier to control and deal with than an angry woman who wants justice for what has been done to her.

It occurred to me eventually, that the reason I hated those posts before I even knew what toxic positivity was, was due to the way they made me feel.

They always made me feel like they were minimising and feminising women’s traumas and struggles. Making them cuter. Making them prettier. Making them nicer and happier. Making them inspirational.

The posts annoyed me because they dismissed and ignored how women really feel about things. They erased the ugliness and the complexity of trauma processing – and glossed over it all.

It reminded me of the biblical phrase ‘count it all as a blessing’, which has been used heavily when responding to women who had been abused by their husbands as ‘suffering servants’. I learned about this in 2015, when I was researching how different religions responded to women who disclosed abuse and violence against them by their husbands.

Christian women reported being told that their role as a woman in society was to be a suffering servant, and that all pain and harm should be counted as a blessing from god, a lesson to learn from and an experience to cause growth.

Comparatively, Buddhist women were being told that their experiences of abuse and violence at the hands of men was also a life lesson, due to karmic power.

One thing is for certain, these phrases and beliefs of toxic positivity have deep and historic roots that will be difficult to shift. But the first thing we can all do, is stop saying and sharing these harmful phrases when we are talking about the abuse and trauma of women and girls.

Fuck toxic positivity. You don’t have to be happy, smiley, submissive and accepting as a woman who has been harmed.

I’ve written about this in much more detail in my first book ‘Why Women are Blamed for Everything’, and touch on it again in the new book ‘Sexy But Psycho’ which is on pre-order now (being published on 10th March 2022).

Learn more about it here: https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/titles/dr-jessica-taylor/sexy-but-psycho/9781472135490/

Dr Jessica Taylor

Chartered Psychologist

Director of VictimFocus

Tweet: @drjesstaylor

Insta: @drjesstaylor

Fbook: @jessicaforenpsych