Victim blaming can be defined as “putting blame for the occurrence of a traumatizing event on the survivor instead of blaming the perpetrator.” (1)
Victim blaming occurs in many contexts. Homeless people are blamed for not being able to support themselves, targets of bullying are blamed for not “standing up to the bully,” robbery victims are blamed for walking down the street wearing flashy jewelry. However, we would like to discuss victim blaming in the context of sexual violence and objectification.
The Social Context of Victim Blaming
The phenomenon of victim blaming is common in hate crimes, discrimination, rape and bullying. Victim-blaming doesn’t occur in a vacuum, the social context that gives rise to it occurs when a perpetrator of crime enjoys a privileged social status, authority or power over the victim. Most sexual and family violence is perpetrated by members of a privileged group (men) upon members of an unprivileged group (women, children, weaker men).
Perpetrators, bystanders, society and even victims themselves practice and enforce victim blaming. “Each group does so for different reasons based on their power or lack thereof, self defense and desire to find logical reasons for abuse or social injustice." (3)
Why do Offenders Blame the Victim?
This may be the easiest to understand. Offenders blame their victims in order to avoid punishment and maintain the freedom to abuse in the future. We have both worked extensively with offenders of sexual and domestic violence. In every single case, the offender had a sense of entitlement over their victims because they had some form of power over their victims (age, financial control, size, threat of emotional or physical harm, etc.). This was the case for hands-off offenders and hands-on offenders.
Making the victim completely or partially responsible for their behavior allows offenders to abdicate responsibility while at the same time staying in a position of power. The reasoning follows that if she (sic) hadn’t dressed skimpily, agreed to my authority by marrying/dating me, smiled at me, etc. then I wouldn’t have targeted her.
One time I (Terri) was working with a man who broke into women’s houses and raped them. He described a situation where he was pumping gas and a woman smiled at him. He followed her home and began casing her. When I asked why, he said that she obviously wanted to have sex with him, because she had smiled at him. These errors in thinking are called cognitive distortions. Types of cognitive distortions include rationalizing, justifying, minimizing, and blaming the victim.
Why do Others (bystanders, society) Blame the Victim?
Victim blaming occurs for several reasons. First, it occurs because we don’t want to acknowledge our own vulnerability. “When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe, that no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable.” (1) I (Lisa) have worked a lot with rape survivors and one day I realized that despite my training and knowledge, I was doing this too. As a way to feel less vulnerable I was carefully avoiding mall parking lots, certain apartment complexes, meeting men at bars, etc. because those were all ways I knew that survivors had crossed paths with rapists. It is human nature to look for ways we are different than anyone who experiences a traumatic event in an effort to feel that false sense of security.
This phenomenon is called the Just World Theory. It is the idea that bad things only happen to people who did something to deserve it. “If an event establishes the world as unjust, people put the victim at fault or try to convince themselves and others that no injustice has occurred.”(3)
Victim blaming also occurs when we as a culture or community resist holding the actual offender responsible for the behavior in question. This reasoning follows that someone has to be to blame for the bad behavior, and we know that the offender is a good guy; so it must have been the victim.
In our experience, victims of sexual or family violence are believed more often when there are aggravating factors in place such as physical injury (not just emotional) or the offender is a stranger. It is almost as if the victim has to meet certain criteria to remain un-blamed. Victims of “hands-off” offenses (like sexual harassment, voyeurism, verbal bullying, and emotional abuse) are often faced with disbelief.
Why Do Victims Blame Themselves?
Because all of us live in this culture where rampant victim-blaming occurs, victims are not immune to this socialization. In addition, by blaming himself or herself, the victim re-gains the sense of control that was lost. For example, if I never walk alone at night again, I won’t be attacked. “By taking responsibility for the actions taken against them, victims feel that if they avoid the behavior that purportedly caused their abuse, the will avoid the abuse again.”(3)
What Can You Do About Victim-Blaming Behavior?
- Challenge victim-blaming statements when you hear or read them.
- Let survivors know that it isn’t their fault.
- Hold abusers accountable for their actions without minimization, blame or excuses.
- Acknowledge that survivors are their own best experts.
Terri and Lisa