Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is an often unspoken, pervasive element of our culture that can be harmful to people who have experienced crime or other trauma. When someone criticizes a victim of a crime by asking questions like, “What could she have done differently?” or by arguing that the crime was “deserved,” they are participating in a type of devaluing that can lead to further distress for survivors and prevent victims from getting the help and justice they deserve.

There are a few different kinds of people who victim blame. First, there are those who have a vested interest in the victim being blamed (e.g., the rapist, their attorney, etc). They have a clear reason to be victim-blaming. However, another group of people engages in victim blaming even though they have no financial or other incentive to do so. This type of person is likely to be doing it because they find enjoyment in the suffering and misfortune of others, a psychological phenomenon known as Schadenfreude.

In one classic experiment, Lerner asked observers to watch a woman receive painful electric shocks as part of a memorization test. When a woman cried out in pain, observers attributed her discomfort to several internal factors, including that she was unprepared, inattentive, or over-confident. These responses were a result of the observer’s desire to preserve the experiment’s sense of fairness. This same kind of reaction is why some people find it enjoyable to see others suffer. They feel a satisfaction in seeing their worldview unravel, which leads them to rationalize what has happened by attributing the victim’s misfortune to her or his own actions.

Whether it’s a woman who gets mugged or a student who flunks a test, victims of any type are likely to be subjected to questions about what they could have done differently to avoid the situation. Moreover, these types of questions can make victims feel shameful and guilty about their experiences, and they may even lead them to refrain from seeking the help they need because they fear being blamed or judged.

Research also shows that victim blaming can vary by gender and ethnicity. Women that break traditional gender roles are more likely to be blamed, while white men are less likely to do so. Additionally, it’s been found that people who score high on a measure of everyday sadness are more likely to engage in victim blaming.

Despite the widespread prevalence of victim blaming, there are ways that individuals can counter it. By recognizing this form of devaluing behavior and calling out those who engage in it when they see it, we can take steps to change it. In the end, the best way to combat victim blaming is by reducing its prevalence in our society. This will not only reduce the amount of shame and guilt that victims experience, but it will also decrease the likelihood that perpetrators will escape justice by keeping their victims from seeking out the assistance they need.