When a three-year-old cries, “That’s not fair!” when one of his or her siblings gets a better toy, he or she is simply expressing a normal human reaction to a situation that does not go their way. As we get older, however, many of us lose our sense of empathy and instead begin to blame victims for their misfortune. Victim blaming can be seen in the actions and attitudes of individuals and groups in all types of situations, from family violence to cyberbullying. It is important to recognize this phenomenon and challenge victim blaming whenever it occurs, both to improve mental health for those who are victimized and prevent the criminal justice system from becoming a victim of its own culture of victim blaming.
When we blame victims, we reinforce a false view of the world that bad things only happen to bad people. This allows people to protect their belief that they themselves are good and worthy, and that these terrible things could never happen to them.
Survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse often find themselves derided by those who believe in the common misconception that victims brought their own trouble on themselves. This can include comments such as, ‘Why did she stay?’ or ‘She was asking for it’ Within the context of domestic violence, this blaming encourages victims to remain in abusive relationships, and it also makes them less likely to report their assault to the authorities.
In one of Lerner’s classic experiments, he asked women to watch a monitor that appeared to show a person being punished for making mistakes on a word-memorization test. They were then asked to characterize the person, and those who saw her getting shocked tended to see her as a morally corrupt and flawed individual. The women who did not see her being shocked, however, characterized her as a likable and worthy person.
The implication of this experiment is that our inclination to blame victims helps us maintain a positive view of ourselves and others, and that the occurrence of bad things is only due to a person being a bad person. This type of judging is a form of self-denial, and it can be very difficult to overcome.
It is also important to understand that victim blaming can be unconscious. For example, if you are discussing a story about online safety with a child and they mention that they were shamed for sharing a nude photo, you might comment, “Why did they think it was safe to share a picture of themselves? Did they have an ulterior motive for doing so?”
We must recognize that it is not the victim’s fault that they were harmed, and we must ensure that they can speak out about their trauma without fear of being blamed. Victim blaming silences victims and keeps them from receiving the help they need to recover from their experiences. Moreover, it enables predators to continue their violent and criminal behavior unabated.