When people hear of a traumatic event like an attack, car accident or suicide, there is a natural tendency to think about what the victim could have done to prevent it. This tendency is called victim blaming and it can lead to comments that hurt victims. Those who engage in victim blaming may not even realize they are doing it. Even psychologists and other mental health professionals who vehemently oppose this bias admit that they sometimes find themselves thinking it.
Victim blaming can take many forms, but it typically involves making excuses for the perpetrator or putting blame on the victim. It is not a conscious act but is instead a natural reaction to crime that combines failure to empathize with victims and a fear response triggered by our natural desire for self-preservation. Individuals’ experiences, background and culture influence how much victim blaming they do. For example, men are more likely to engage in victim blaming than women and those with higher levels of education are less likely to victim blame than those with lower levels of education.
Some victim blaming results from the “just world phenomenon” which is an unconscious belief that the universe is fair and that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad ones. Another reason for victim blaming is projecting uncomfortable feelings like shame onto someone else as a way of dealing with them. Lastly, some victims experience victim blaming from the perpetrators themselves and others who disown their accountability for harm they cause (Gray, Palileo & Johnson, 1993).
It is also common for people to victimize victims of their close friends or family members, especially those who are known for abusive behaviours. This is because people do not want to believe that their loved ones would behave in such harmful ways and it is therefore easier to blame the victim for their actions.
For example, when news reports about a sexual assault come to light, it is not uncommon for comments to centre around what the victim was wearing or doing that might have ‘provoked’ the attacker. In some cases, these comments may not even be directed at the victim but rather at other individuals who might have been present or heard the victims story.
Victim blaming is harmful for survivors and the society as a whole. It makes it harder for survivors to seek help and support and can silence their voices by making them feel like what happened was their fault. It can also make them reluctant to report an assault for fear of being blamed, judged or not believed.
We must all try to be more aware of our victim blaming and stop it whenever we can. This includes educating others about it and challenging statements they might make that condone it. By raising awareness we can create a safer society that is more supportive of victims and their experiences. This will be accomplished by ensuring that all victims are understood and that their voices are not silenced.