Victim blaming is the belief that the victim of a crime, wrongful act or any harm that befell them was wholly or partially at fault. It’s a pervasive problem, and many people don’t even realize they’re blaming victims.
Survivors are encouraged to believe they are responsible for the crime against them, which can discourage them from speaking up and seeking justice. It can also make them feel unable to trust others and may heighten depressive, anxious and suicidal symptoms. Victim blaming is harmful for society, too. It sends a message to perpetrators that they can get away with what they do because nobody will hold them accountable for their actions.
It’s important to understand why we do this so that we can challenge it when we hear it. One reason is that people like to attribute other people’s behavior to internal, personal characteristics rather than external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error. When we see a classmate flunking a test, for instance, it’s easy to assume that they failed because of bad study habits or lazy effort, rather than the fact that they have Crohn’s Disease and are sensitive to gluten.
Another reason is that we have a desire to believe that the world is a just place and that those who triumph deserve their successes, while those who suffer must somehow be responsible for their misfortune. This is known as the just-world phenomenon, and it’s a big part of why people tend to blame victims for their abuse.
Finally, it’s possible to blame victims because of a lack of empathy and/or a fear reaction triggered by the drive for self-preservation. When someone doesn’t empathize with victims or when they experience a threat to their safety, they will naturally want to defend themselves by blaming the victim, especially if they have a vested interest in maintaining their relationship with the victim.
Whenever you hear or read about high profile cases of violence against women, keep in mind that victim-blaming is still very much alive. The last thing survivors need is for their loved ones to belittle their experiences and question how they could have prevented what happened.
When someone close to you discloses that they’ve been a victim of sexual assault or other crimes, listen to them. Try not to ask questions that come off as victim blaming and don’t push them to take any specific action (like reporting). It’s also okay for them to be angry and upset, but don’t use that anger to lash out at the survivor or their attacker. It is not their fault and it only serves to add to their feelings of shame. Instead, encourage them to seek a therapist or other support services and remind them that they are not at fault for what happened. This article was co-authored by Tasha Rube, LMSW.