Victim Blaming – The Underlying Psychology Behind the Phenomenon

We’ve all heard about how reluctant many sexual assault victims are to report their crime to the police.  Much of this reluctance likely is due to the tendency to “blame the victim” – the rationale that if the victim had just done something differently, she would not have been assaulted.  These excuses range from what the victim wore, to the fact that she may have had a drink at a party prior to being assaulted.

A new article published in The Atlantic sheds light on why victim-blaming is often done, even by otherwise well-meaning people.

One hypothesis is centered around the perceived control that we have about our circumstances.  While we can’t control natural events that happen to us – like earthquakes – we do have some control over other aspects of our lives.  For instance, if we never leave the house, we can avoid many bad events from happening to us (of course, if we don’t leave the house to earn a living, we probably won’t have a house in the first place).

People want to believe that the world is just.  When good things happen, this is the result of doing the right things.  When bad things happen, this is the result of doing the wrong things.

Unfortunately, the world is not just.

How Victim Blaming Helps Decrease Our Personal Fears

We all engage in some types of victim blaming, in part to decrease our personal fears about matters that are outside our control.  When we see in the obituaries that a young person has died, perhaps from a motorcycle accident or lung cancer after being a long-time smoker, we feel better about our chances of not dying young if we don’t smoke or ride motorcycles.

We may choose to ignore the fact that even non-smokers die from lung cancer, and that we risk being fatally injured in a vehicle accident any time we are on the road, regardless of whether we are riding a motorcycle or in a vehicle.  By thinking that we can control (or eliminate) adverse outcomes, we necessarily reduce the fears of such outcomes happening to us or to a family member.

Similar justification exists when we find out about a woman who is sexually assaulted.  Instead of assuming that she did nothing wrong (in which case we, or at least the females in our family, may be similarly vulnerable), we desperately search for information about the woman or the assault so that we can say “that will never happen to me” (and thus feel safer).

How Our Values Shape Victim-Blaming 

The Atlantic article also explored how certain values – “binding” values and “individualizing” values – impacted victim-blaming.  The authors of the research defined these values as follows:

While everyone has a mix of the two, people who exhibit stronger binding values tend to favor protecting a group or the interests of a team as a whole, whereas people who exhibit stronger individualizing values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to an individual.

The researchers concluded that people with higher binding values tended to see victims as more worthy of blame, while people with individualizing values were more likely to be sympathetic to victims.

The authors also noted that when readers of news reports do not personally know the victim of a sexual assault, they may be likely to impute “wrong behavior” on the victims, without any justification for doing so.  Such beliefs, the authors conclude, is again another example of self-preservation and how we all want to control our circumstances.

Conversely, the thought of someone “normal” we know being a rapist also does not fit well in our view of a just world where we can control what happens to us.  Rapists are supposed to be people we don’t know, and (we think) somehow easy to identify upon site.  Clearly this is not the case, and when it turns out that someone we know and have positive regard for turns out be a rapist, this fact does not fit well within our perception of a just world.

What Can We Conclude About Sexual Assault Victim-Blaming?

All sexual assaults are crimes.

The women who are assaulted are never responsible for being victimized, and do not “ask for” or deserve what happens to them.

Rapists look like everyone else; they may be our brothers, co-workers, or neighbors.

These hard facts may not sit well with us, as acceptance of this truth exposes our vulnerability.

We must speak out about all rape and sexual assault, and create an environment where women who are victimized do not need fear being blamed if they report the crime.  Rapists and others who commit sexual assault must be held accountable for their criminal acts – and not excused because they may be a start athlete or otherwise famous.

At our firm, we represent the victims of campus crimes, and demand justice for our clients, particularly in cases in which colleges, universities, the Greek fraternity and sorority systems, and other organizations bear responsibility for rape, sexual assault, hazing, and other wrongful actions that lead to injury and death.


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