Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them. The study of victimology seeks to mitigate the perception of victims as responsible. There is a greater tendency to blame victims of rape than victims of robbery if victims and perpetrators know each other.
Coining of the phrase; racism
Psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase "blaming the victim" in his 1971 book Blaming the Victim. In the book, Ryan described victim blaming as an ideology used to justify racism and social injustice against black people in the United States. Ryan wrote the book to refute Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 work The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (usually simply referred to as the Moynihan Report).
Moynihan had concluded that three centuries of oppression of black people, and in particular with what he calls the uniquely cruel structure of American slavery as opposed to its Latin American counterparts, had created a long series of chaotic disruptions within the black family structure which, at the time of the report, manifested itself in high rates of unwed births, absent fathers, and single mother households in black families. Moynihan then correlated these familial outcomes, which he considered undesirable, to the relatively poorer rates of employment, educational achievement, and financial success found among the black population. Moynihan advocated the implementation of government programs designed to strengthen the black nuclear family.
Ryan objected that Moynihan then located the proximate cause of the plight of black Americans in the prevalence of a family structure in which the father was often sporadically, if at all, present, and the mother was often dependent on government aid to feed, clothe, and provide medical care for her children. Ryan's critique cast the Moynihan theories as attempts to divert responsibility for poverty from social structural factors to the behaviors and cultural patterns of the poor.
Although Ryan popularized the phrase, other scholars had identified the phenomenon of victim blaming. In 1947 Theodor W. Adorno defined what would be later called "blaming the victim," as "one of the most sinister features of the Fascist character". Shortly thereafter Adorno and three other professors at the University of California, Berkeley formulated their influential and highly debated F-scale (F for fascist), published in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), which included among the fascist traits of the scale the "contempt for everything discriminated against or weak." A typical expression of victim blaming is the "asking for it" idiom, e.g. "she was asking for it" said of a victim of violence or sexual assault.
Secondary victimization of sexual assault victims
Secondary victimization is the re-traumatization of the sexual assault, abuse, or rape victim through the responses of individuals and institutions. Types of secondary victimization include victim blaming, disbelieving the victim's story, minimizing the severity of the attack, and inappropriate post-assault treatment by medical personnel or other organizations. Secondary victimization is especially common in cases of drug-facilitated, acquaintance, military sexual trauma and statutory rape.
Sexual assault victims experience stigmatization based on rape myths. A female rape victim is especially stigmatized in patrilineal cultures with strong customs and taboos regarding sex and sexuality. For example, a society may view a female rape victim (especially one who was previously a virgin) as "damaged". Victims in these cultures may suffer isolation, physical and psychological abuse, slut-shaming, public humiliation rituals, be disowned by friends and family, be prohibited from marrying, be divorced if already married, or even be killed. However, even in many developed countries, including some sectors of United States society, misogyny remains culturally ingrained.
One example of a sexism-based allegation against female victims of sexual assault is that wearing provocative clothing stimulates sexual aggression in men who believe that women wearing body-revealing clothes are actively trying to seduce a sexual partner. Such accusations against victims stem from the assumption that sexually revealing clothing conveys consent for sexual actions, irrespective of willful verbal consent. Research has yet to prove that attire is a significant causal factor in determining who is assaulted.
Victim blaming is also exemplified when a victim of sexual assault is faulted for performing actions which reduce the victim's ability to resist, or refuse consent, such as consuming alcohol. Victims advocacy groups and medical professionals are educating young adults on the definition of consent, and the importance of refraining from victim blaming. Most institutions have adopted the concept of affirmative consent and that refraining from sexual activity while under the influence, is the safest choice.
In efforts to discredit alleged sexual assault victims in court, a defense attorney may delve into an accuser’s personal history, a common practice that also has the purposeful effect of making the victim so uncomfortable they choose not to proceed. This attack on character, especially one pointing out promiscuity, makes the argument that women who lead “high risk" lifestyles (promiscuity, drug use), are not real victims of rape.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence surveys on male victims of sexual assault states that male rape victim blaming is usually done so because of social constructs of masculinity. The article quotes "A man who fails to physically overcome his attacker is likewise seen as contributing to his own victimization; he must have secretly wanted it." Some effects of these kind of rape cases include a loss of masculinity, confusion about their sexual orientation, and a sense of failure in behaving as men should.
An ideal victim is one who is afforded the status of victimhood due to unavoidable circumstances that put the individual at a disadvantage to their attacker. One can apply this theory to any crime including and especially sexual assault. Nils Christie, a Norwegian criminology professor, has been theorizing about the concept of the ideal victim since the 1980s. In his research he gives two examples, one of an old woman who is attacked on her way home from visiting her family and the other of a man who is attacked at a bar by someone he knew. He describes the old woman as an ideal victim because she could not avoid being in the location that she was, she did not know her attacker, and she could not fight off her attacker. The man, however, could have avoided being at a bar, knew his attacker, and should have been able to fight off his attacker, being younger and a man.
When applying the ideal victim theory to sexual assault victims, often judicial proceedings define an ideal victim as one who resists her attacker and exercises caution in risky situations despite law reforms to extinguish these fallacious requirements. When victims are not ideal they are at risk for being blamed for their attack because they are not considered real victims of rape. Because they do not fit the criteria being laid out in the rape law, they cannot be considered real victims and thereby their attacker will not be prosecuted.
A victim who is not considered an ideal or real victim is one who leads a “high risk” lifestyle, partaking in drugs or alcohol, or is perceived as promiscuous. A victim who intimately knows her attacker is also not considered an ideal victim. Examples of a sexual assault victim who is not ideal is a prostitute because they lead a high risk lifestyle. The perception is that these behaviors discount the credibility of a sexual assault victim’s claim or that the behaviors and associations create the mistaken assumption of consent. Some of or all of the blame of the assault is then placed on these victims, and so they are not worthy of having their case presented in court. These perceptions persist in court rulings despite a shift in laws favoring affirmative consent- meaning that the participants in a sexual activity give a verbal affirmation rather than one participant who doesn’t answer negatively nor does he or she answer positively. In other words, affirmative consent is yes means yes and no means no.
In addition to an ideal victim, there must be an ideal perpetrator for a crime to be considered ideal. The ideal attacker does not know their victim and is a completely unrelatable figure- one who is considered sub-human, an individual lacking morals. An attacker that knows their victim is not considered an ideal attacker, nor is someone who seems morally ordinary. Cases of intimate partner violence are not considered ideal because the victim knows their attacker. Husbands and wives are not ideal victims or perpetrators because they are intimately familiar with each other.
Many different cultures across the globe have formulated different degrees of victim blaming for different scenarios such as rape, hate crimes, and domestic abuse. Victim blaming is common around the world, especially in cultures where it is socially acceptable and advised to treat certain groups of people as lesser. For example, in Somalia victims of sexual abuse consistently endure social ostracization and harassment. One specific example is the kidnapping and rape of 14-year old Fatima: when the police arrived, both Fatima and her rapist were arrested. While they did not detain the offender for long, the officers held Fatima captive for a month and a prison guard continually raped her during that time.
In February 2016, the organisations International Alert and UNICEF published a study revealing that girls and women released from captivity by Nigeria's insurgency group Boko Haram often face rejection by their communities and families. Their children born of sexual violence faced even more discrimination.
Acid attacks on South Asian women, when people throw acid on women in an attempt to punish them for their perceived wrongdoings, are another example of victim-blaming. For instance, in New Delhi in 2005, a group of men threw acid on a 16-year-old girl because they believed she provoked the advances of a man.
In western culture victim blaming has been largely recognized as a problematic way to view a situation, however this does not exempt westerners from being guilty of the action. A recent example of western victim blaming would be a civil trial held in 2013 where the Los Angeles School District blamed a 14-year-old girl for the sexual abuse she endured from her middle school teacher. The District's lawyer argued that the minor was responsible for the prevention of the abuse, putting the entire fault on the victim and exempting the perpetrator of any responsibility. Despite his efforts to convince the court that the victim must be blamed, the ruling stated that no minor student that has been sexually assaulted by his or her teacher is responsible for the prevention of that sexual assault.
Roy Baumeister, a social and personality psychologist, argued that blaming the victim is not necessarily always fallacious. He argued that showing the victim's possible role in an altercation may be contrary to typical explanations of violence and cruelty, which incorporate the trope of the innocent victim. According to Baumeister, in the classic telling of "the myth of pure evil," the innocent, well-meaning victims are going about their business when they are suddenly assaulted by wicked, malicious evildoers. Baumeister describes the situation as a possible distortion by both the perpetrator and the victim; the perpetrator may minimize the offense while the victim maximizes it, and so accounts of the incident shouldn't be immediately taken as objective truths.
In context, Baumeister refers to the common behavior of the aggressor seeing themselves as more of the "victim" than the abused, justifying a horrific act by way of their "moral complexity". This usually stems from an "excessive sensitivity" to insults, which he finds as a consistent pattern in abusive husbands. Essentially, the abuse the perpetrator administers is generally excessive, in comparison to the act/acts that they claim as to have provoked them.
Leigh Leigh, born Leigh Rennea Mears, was a 14-year-old girl from Fern Bay on the east coast of Australia, who was murdered on November 3, 1989. While attending a 16-year-old boy's birthday party at Stockton Beach, Leigh was assaulted by a group of boys after she returned distressed from a sexual encounter on the beach that a reviewing judge later called non-consensual. After being kicked and spat on by the group, Leigh left the party. Her naked body was found in the sand dunes nearby the following morning, with severe genital damage and a crushed skull. Leigh's murder received considerable attention in the media. Initially focusing on her sexual assault and murder, media attention later concentrated more on the lack of parental supervision and the drugs and alcohol at the party, and on Leigh's sexuality. The media coverage of the murder has been cited as an example of victim blaming.
In a case that became infamous in 2011, an 11-year-old female rape victim who suffered repeated gang rapes in Cleveland, Texas, was accused by a defense attorney of being a seductress who lured men to their doom. "Like the spider and the fly. Wasn't she saying, 'Come into my parlor', said the spider to the fly?", he asked a witness. The New York Times ran an article uncritically reporting on the way many in the community blamed the victim, for which the newspaper later apologized.
In a case that attracted worldwide coverage, when a woman was raped and killed in Delhi in December 2012, some Indian government officials and political leaders blamed the victim for various things, mostly based on conjecture. Many of the people involved later apologized.
In 2016, in the wake of New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Germany, the mayor of Cologne Henriette Reker came under heavy criticism, as her response appeared to blame the victims. She called for women to follow a "code of conduct," including staying at an "arm's length" from strangers. By the evening of January 5, #einearmlänge ("an arm's length") became one of Germany's top-trending hashtags on Twitter. Reker called a crisis meeting with the police in response to the incidents. Reker called it "completely improper" to link the perpetrators to refugees.
Coverage of the 2016 Murder of Ashley Ann Olsen, an American murdered in Italy during a sexual encounter with a Senegalese immigrant, focused on the victim blaming in cross-cultural encounters.
In covering the Steubenville High School rape case where two high school boys raped a 16-year-old girl, CNN portrayed the boys as "very good students" with "promising futures". The news anchor even went so far as to say that it will "haunt them for the rest of their lives". The way CNN presented the rape made it seem like the victim was the one in the wrong and the two boys did not deserve the punishment for their crime. When covering the same case, ABC News tried to rationalize the rape by saying that the rapist was in a "celebratory mood". ABC also focused more on how awful it was that the rape was caught on video rather than the actual rape itself. NBC News also concentrated on the "promising football careers" of the rapists and how it will not look good that they are now registered sex offenders. Yahoo News described the victim as "an intoxicated 16-year-old girl" who forced the town into an emotional situation.
- Backlash (sociology)
- Contributory negligence
- Guilt trip
- Just-world hypothesis
- Labeling theory
- Negativity effect
- Penal couple
- Power and control in abusive relationships
- Post-assault treatment of sexual assault victims
- Psychological projection
- Rape shield law
- Rationalization (making excuses)
- Self-serving bias
- Victim playing
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