Victim Blaming

Victim blaming happens when someone ascribes the wrongdoing of another person to internal, personal characteristics, while overlooking other possible factors. It is a common human reaction to crime and victimization, but it can have serious consequences for survivors. It can compound their suffering, stigmatize them, and even make it harder for them to get the help they need. The good news is that it can be stopped with awareness, compassion and active support for victims.

It can take many forms, and can be direct or indirect. A teacher might tell a student they were at fault for being bullied online, or a doctor might ask the patient why they weren’t more proactive in reporting their sexual assault to police. More subtle examples include: an acquaintance saying to a friend that they were wearing “the right outfit” when they were raped, or a colleague telling their client they could have been more cautious when walking alone at night.

One of the biggest reasons victim blaming is so common is that people don’t have empathy for victims. This can be due to a lack of experience in similar situations, or simply a tendency to focus on their own needs and well-being rather than the feelings of others.

A lack of empathy may also be linked to a desire to feel superior or smug. This can be particularly true in cases where a perpetrator is a close friend or family member, which can lead to feelings of envy or schadenfreude (a German word that means joy in the misery of others). It may also be part of a personality trait called “narcissism,” where people are self-focused and lack the ability to empathize with other people.

Other factors can influence victim blaming, including cultural context and moral values. For example, people who are raised to believe that everyone deserves what they earn tend to engage in victim blaming more frequently than those who place a higher value on the rights and dignity of others. It may also be influenced by how relevant or similar a situation is to a person, with those who think it would be easy for them to be in a victim’s shoes being less likely to blame them (Gray, Palileo & Johnson, 1993).

Victim blaming not only compounds the suffering of victims and their families, but it can also prevent them from getting the help they need. It can encourage victims to stay silent for fear of being blamed, and it can make it more difficult for them to report crimes or seek justice. It can also reduce the accountability of those who commit harm, making harmful acts more likely to continue.