In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is victim blaming.
I got thinking about this while reading a recent post on domestic violence on Mental Health 360º. Victim blaming commonly occurs in connection with domestic assault, but also in a variety of other contexts, including sexual assault.
Victim blaming involves placing the responsibility for a violent or otherwise harmful act either entirely or partially on the victim of that act. It arises from distorted beliefs regarding victims, perpetrators, and the harmful acts themselves. Victim blaming acts as a major deterrent to reporting of both crimes and other problem behaviours like bullying.
The just world fallacy is a type of cognitive bias (a sort of mental shortcut) centred around the belief that the world is a fair place, and good things happen to people who do good things and bad things happen to people who do bad things. That’s not the way the world works at all, but people can use that belief to convince themselves that they are safe from things that happen to “bad people.” To admit that a “good person” could be victim goes against the just world fallacy, which would suggest that harm could come to any “good person,” and that’s not a fun thing to accept. If, however, the victim is viewed as doing something “wrong,” then the just world fallacy bubble remains intact.
Homophobia can feed into victim-blaming when the victim of an assault is homosexual. Similarly, racism can lead to increased victim-blaming.
According to the defensive attribution hypothesis, victim-blaming is less likely the more similar the observer is to the victim, as the observer is more likely to identify with the victim.
Other types of attribution errors can also come into play. If there’s a mix of personal and situational/environmental factors that might contribute to a situation, when something bad happens to someone else, we have a tendency to overestimate the role of personal factors/failings and underestimate the role of environmental factors. When something good happens to someone else, we tend to make the opposite attribution. That’s all flipped upside down when we evaluate good and bad things happening to ourselves.
Attribution errors can come from a couple of different angles. Blame can be attributed to stable factors like gender or personality or changeable factors like behaviour. Blaming of male victims of sexual assault often relates to whether or not they fought back during the assault, as physical resistance fits with gender stereotypes. Observer-related factors matter too; overall, men are more likely than women to engage in victim blaming.
Blame may be expressed as questioning rather than an outright statement of fault. Asking questions about things like why a victim remained in a situation where they would be victimized again, as often happens with domestic abuse, essentially suggests that the victim likes to or chooses to be abused. A victim’s sexual history also gets trotted out sometimes as if somehow that makes them responsible for sexual assault.
While it may on the face of it seem logical to some people that a woman wearing a short skirt or getting drunk is somehow “asking for it,” in reality it’s absurd. To use an utterly ridiculous example, let’s say that my sexual kink is whacking men’s bums with a rubber chicken, and I’m particularly turned on by men wearing sunglasses. Furthermore, let’s say I were to accost a man wearing sunglasses and get busy on his bum with my rubber chicken. Is there any chance that anyone would say that the rubber chickening is the man’s fault for wearing sunglasses, or that wearing sunglasses constituted implied consent? Is there anything at all that man could possibly do to lead people to conclude the rubber chickening was his fault? I highly doubt it.
So, we don’t blame the victim in this albeit ridiculous scenario, but people blame a woman for being sexually assaulted because she’s wearing a miniskirt? Even though one scenario is ridiculous and the other happens far too often, they are fundamentally the same; they’re both situations where the perpetrator is fully responsible, and the victim is not responsible in any way for the perpetrator’s actions.
The cognitive biases that tend to underlie victim-blaming may be easy to fall into, but that’s no excuse for anyone not to check in with themselves and reflect on who it is that’s actually done something wrong.
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (2009): Victim Blaming
- van der Bruggen, M. and Grubb, A.R. (2014) A review of the literature relating to rape victim blaming: An analysis of the impact of observer and victim characteristics on attribution of blame in rape cases. Aggression and Violent Behavior, volume 19 (5): 523-531.