How to Stop Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is a dangerous and harmful response to crime and trauma. It involves placing the blame for the crime, whether it’s a sexual assault or a car accident, on the victim. This can be done through outright malice or it can be subtle and unconscious. Even saying things like “she was asking for it” or “boys will be boys” can be seen as victim blaming. It’s based on the belief that the world is just and that bad things happen to people that deserve it because of something they have done.

Fortunately, this isn’t true for everyone, and it’s also not inherently genetic or hard-wired into us. Research suggests that it’s a result of our social upbringing and the beliefs we have about how the world should work. The first step in retraining this instinct is to understand what victim blaming is and why we fall into it.

The most common cause of victim blaming is our tendency to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This belief is based on our desire to avoid the risk of pain, and it is reinforced by social norms that encourage us to be trusting of those we know. This makes it easy to believe that the person who gets a disease or the woman who is raped was at fault, because they could have prevented it.

Another reason for victim blaming is our innate need to be fair. People don’t want to believe that the world is unfair, and so when they hear of a tragedy they will often try to fit it into their societal understanding of how the world should work. This is why they will often doubt or reject information that doesn’t fit with their belief system, which can be especially difficult when it comes to traumatic events such as natural disasters, murders, or other crimes.

A classic experiment conducted in 1966 by Melvin Lerner shows the power of these ingrained beliefs and the effect they can have on people. In the study, women were asked to watch through a monitor a person who was receiving painful electric shocks. The shocks were really only an illusion, but the participants were convinced that the person they saw on screen was being punished for her errors in a word memorization test. The results of this study showed that the women were much more likely to blame the victim than to place the fault on the experimenter. This is because of the just-world bias, the assumption that we can’t accept that bad things happen to innocent people.

Despite this, victim blaming can be reduced through education and empathy training. We need to teach ourselves that it’s never the victims fault for being attacked, and we need to be more open to seeing the world from other perspectives. This can be especially important when hearing about sexual assault, as a culture of victim blaming may make it less likely that survivors will report their abuse.