Victim Blaming

Whether it’s a domestic violence attack or a sexual assault, a murder, or even a natural disaster, people often find it difficult to accept that victims did not cause or contribute to their own victimization. When someone blames a victim for their traumatic experience, it can discourage survivors from seeking help in recovering and speaking up about their experiences. It can also make them less likely to report their abuse to authorities, perpetuating the cycle of victimization. This is why it’s important for everyone to understand what victim blaming looks like—and how we can change it.

Victim blaming can come in the form of direct and explicit statements as well as subtler actions, from outright denial to putting the blame on others. It can also vary by context. For example, people who are more politically conservative and religious are more likely to blame victims than those who are more liberal and atheist. It can also differ by culture, with South Africans more prone to victim blaming than Australians and Japanese more so than Americans (Heaven, Connors & Pretorius, 1998; Yuasa, Heaven, Yokoyama & Yamawaki, 2005).

What is causing this bias? Researchers think it is a combination of a failure to empathize with victims and the human drive for self-preservation. It can also be a result of an innate fear reaction that triggers a subconscious desire to protect oneself from the consequences of being vulnerable. This instinct, however, can be retrained through empathy training and by openness to seeing the world from perspectives other than your own, according to Hamby and Gilin.

Another major factor in victim blaming is a perception that the world is a just place and that good things happen to “good” people while bad things happen to “bad” ones. This “just-world bias,” a term first coined in the 1960s by Melvin Lerner, is based on a false assumption that the universe rewards and punishes behavior, and that good people deserve good outcomes and bad people deserve bad ones.

When you hear people blaming victims, it’s important to remember that they aren’t attacking you personally, but are just expressing their beliefs about how the world works and what their role is in it. It’s not their fault that they have this perspective, but it is our responsibility to challenge it and empower survivors to seek healing. Regardless of how a survivor shares their experience, it’s critical to believe them and let them know that what happened to them was never their fault. Changing the way we speak and act about victimization can make all of our futures safer. Let’s work together to end victim blaming and support all survivors moving forward. The future of our societies depends on it.