At its core, victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime is held responsible for the actions of the criminal that perpetrated a crime.
What does it look like?
A simple example would be if someone had their laptop stolen when leaving it unattended at a coffee shop. Instead of holding the criminal responsible for stealing something that didn’t belong to them, blame is placed on the person who left their laptop unattended.
When we are the victims of a crime, a common reaction is to think through what we could or should have done differently that may have prevented that crime from happening. Perhaps the person whose laptop got stolen would think, “I shouldn’t have left it there unattended.” This is called self-blame.
Victim-blaming would look like someone saying to the person whose laptop was stolen, “Well, it’s your fault because you left it there out in the open.” Hearing statements that place the blame on the victim can worsen feelings of self-blame that the person who was victimized may already be experiencing.
Why do people do it?
Sexual violence is a senseless crime. That being said, a normal human response to problems we face is to try to make sense of it. Part of this comes from a place of self-defense—if we can identify factors that we perceive to have caused the harm, we hope that will translate into being able to avoid those things in the future. When something happens to someone we know that was out of their control, it makes sense that we would try to regain some sense of control by identifying concrete steps we can take that will lessen the risk of it happening again.
Focus on preventing sexual violence on potential victims
This is why women are often taught “how to not get sexually assaulted.” Women are socialized to do things like not walk alone at night, carry pepper-spray, travel in groups, and learn self-defense because they are taught that those things will help them “prevent” sexual violence from happening to them. However, what underlies that approach is the idea that if those safeguards fail, it is somehow the fault of the survivor for not doing enough to prevent someone from sexually assaulting them. This is how messages like “she was dressed too provocatively” or “she was drunk” come out as victim-blaming accusations, placing the blame on the victim rather than the person who assaulted her.
On the contrary, very little is taught in mainstream society about “how to not commit sexual assault.” Comprehensive education about consent, healthy relationships, and communication is much less common than the “preventative” measures that are often touted. To be clear, there is a time and place for engaging in behaviors that minimize risk of harm—we do this constantly, whether it is looking both ways before we cross the street, putting a seat belt on, or walking with a group of friends at night instead of walking alone. However, when these behaviors become the foundation for preventing harm from coming to ourselves, it is a slippery slope to then laying the foundation for victim-blaming to take place.
Another reason that victim-blaming occurs is to separate ourselves from those who have been victimized. It can be too psychologically overwhelming to try to come to terms with the fact that there is a lot in our lives over which we have no control, including being the victim of crime. Being sexually assaulted is something that is done to a survivor by a perpetrator, and in those situations, the perpetrator is the one taking control away from someone. Pointing at surface-level details about the circumstances under which this type of crime occurred is one way we attempt to reassure ourselves that something like that won’t happen to us.
Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability—it’s also about avoiding vulnerability. The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. 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. The idea that misfortune can be random, striking anyone at any time, is a terrifying thought, and yet we are faced every day with evidence that it may be true.
(Final paragraph taken from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-love-and-war/201311/why-do-we-blame-victims)
What are the impacts of victim blaming?
Experiencing victim-blaming can be critically damaging to someone who has been a victim of sexual violence. Survivors commonly experience a loss of sense of personal safety, a loss of control over their own body, and an increased sense of vulnerability in the aftermath of an assault. Because sexual violence involves a violation of one of the most intimate parts of a person, both physically and emotionally, hearing insinuations that the survivor somehow brought that pain onto themselves can severely worsen feelings of self-blame that they may already be experiencing.
Even hearing victim-blaming comments not directed towards a survivor can cause a chilling effect that might lead a survivor to not disclose a past experience for fear of shame and judgment. This is part of why it is so important to challenge victim-blaming statements if you hear them; you never know the experiences of those around you. Victim-blaming that takes place, both on individual and societal levels, is a significant threat to survivors being able to safely disclose their experiences and seek help.
What are some examples of victim blaming?
They can’t tell their story the same way twice.
When someone’s recollection of an incident changes, our first instinct is often to assume that the person is lying. However, recalling information from a time when we were not under extreme stress is a very different neurological experience than attempting to recall memory from a traumatic experience. Our brains are amazing organs – they only allow us to deal with what we can handle at one particular time. Survivors of sexual violence often have fractured and missing memories of their assault. A memory that might have normally looked something like A→B→C→D→E→F→G, might look more like B→G→F→?→?→A→?. Victims and even witnesses of other types of traumatic experiences (car crash, natural disaster, terrorist attack, etc.) often react the same way and yet we would never dream of calling the survivors of these tragedies “liars.” With therapy, survivors can start to put their stories back together and develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma.
She went back to him after he raped her.
Over 70% of all sexual assault survivors knew their attacker before the incident occurred*. There are many reasons why a survivor might continue to maintain contact with their perpetrator after an assault has taken place. For example, in a relationship setting, the survivor may want to retain financial support, avoid embarrassment, or avoid social ostracism if they share the same friends. Sexual violence is one way that a perpetrator can exert power over a significant-other in abusive relationships, and so sometimes a survivor might deny that what happened was non-consensual as a way to try to prevent further abuse. Denial is a common reaction to sexual assault. Going back to an abusive partner is one way to try to re-write or erase the memory and convince one’s self that the assault never happened in the first place. Furthermore, the cycle of abuse sometimes results in a period of reconciliation during which the abuser apologizes and makes empty promises about their behavior changing. This can play into a survivor’s desire to believe that the abuser can, and will, change. (For more information about the cycle of abuse and domestic violence, go here.)
They are married, so it couldn’t have been sexual assault.
It wasn’t until 1993 when it became illegal in every state to commit sexual violence, namely rape, against a spouse. Still, state laws still exist that create added barriers for reporting and convicting marital rape. These barriers are rooted in antiquated ideas about “wifely duties” and only stranger-rape counting as “real rape.” Legally entering into a marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership with someone does not take away one’s right to consent. For more information on marital rape click here.
Look what they were wearing/drinking/doing—they were clearly asking for it.
Sexual assault is something that happens to someone, not something that anyone brings on themselves. Clothes and beverages aren’t what commit sexual assault—perpetrators are the ones who commit this crime. By focusing on what the survivor was doing or wearing, we are ignoring what the perpetrator did. The perpetrator is the one who committed the act, not the survivor.
Guys always want sex—there’s no way it was rape.
Stereotypes about masculinity often lead to the devaluation of the male survivor experience. Men hold the right to consent just as much as women, and men are survivors of sexual violence. Assuming that men always want sex binds them to a damaging stereotype that being masculine involves never saying no to sex. For more information about male survivors, click here.
She went back to his place after flirting with him at a party, what did she expect?
Flirting is not the same as giving consent to engage in sexual activity. Flirting may indicate an interest in another person, but it does not imply that the person wants to act on their feelings. Additionally, just because consent may have been given before doesn’t mean that it will be given in every instance following. To learn more about consent, go here.
The district attorney dropped the case.
Do you know how DA’s get their jobs? Keep their jobs? They are elected officials, and they are elected on their win records. If they believe that they cannot win the case, they won’t take it. It doesn’t matter if it is a really good case or not, and it doesn’t matter if they should try anyway. Assistants and deputies are promoted that way, too. Basically, nobody is going to take a case that they aren’t 100% sure they can win. A case not taken is a case not lost, and therefore will not affect their win record.
When the DA drops the case, it has nothing to do with the victim. The DA might not have the resources to take the case to court, or might feel that there is not enough witness support. Blaming the survivor for a case getting dropped is often followed by an accusation that the survivor was probably lying. There are a lot of reasons for cases to be dropped, or for people not to move forward with their case. A survivor might withdraw participation in a case because she is getting harassed or getting death threats. Furthermore, the judicial process can be very re-traumatizing for a survivor, and he/she may have needed to withdraw participation out of self-preservation from further harm.
They retracted their statement.
This sentence is often followed with, “because they lied,” when there is no evidence of that fact. That is an assumption people want to make because it is easier to believe someone lied than it is to believe that someone committed rape, especially if you know both parties (for example, if the survivor and perpetrator shared a friend group). There are lots of reasons for cases to be dropped, or for people not to move forward with their case, no matter who is involved in doing so. She might drop the case because she is getting harassed or getting death threats. She might be getting traumatized by the judicial process. She might even go so far as to say, “I lied, it didn’t happen,” in order to remove herself from a toxic situation. Retracting a statement doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it just means that the survivor doesn’t want to go through the judicial process anymore.
They couldn’t have been raped because they’ve had sex with a lot of people.
No matter how many times a person has had consensual sex in the past, they still have the right to decline sex in the future. Second, hyper-sexuality is a type of coping mechanism in the aftermath of a sexual assault. So is total abstinence. Regaining a sense of control is critically important to survivors, and both consenting to and rejecting sexual advances are ways to regain control. To read more about consent, go here.