What is Victim Blaming?

The term victim blaming usually brings to mind defense attorneys and sexist pundits blaming rape victims for their own experience of sexual assault, or politicians who blame poor people for their poverty (“They just don’t want to work!”), but it can also be found in the subtler form of well-intentioned programs and social interactions that locate the cause of harm within the person experiencing it. Whether it’s a parent telling their child that they’re “attracted to bad boys” or a colleague pointing out that an employee was fired for showing up late to work, any statement that puts the victim at fault for their own harm is considered a victim-blaming behavior.

Victim blaming is often the result of people’s need to believe in a just world where everyone gets what they deserve. This belief makes it easier for them to confront the world around them, but when someone violates their sense of justice they may find it difficult to cope with it, and can resort to victim blaming as a way to restore that balance.

One common reason for this is that people can’t imagine that their friends, loved ones and colleagues could do the things they’ve been accused of doing. This leads them to devalue or disown their accountability when it comes to those they know and trust. This can also lead to a tendency to project their own uncomfortable feelings onto others, which, when it involves the feeling of shame, can easily escalate into victim blaming.

Another reason for victim blaming is that it’s a comfortable and familiar way to deal with a situation that upsets them. When something bad happens, they can simply tell themselves that it was probably the victim’s fault, and that will help them feel better about their own reaction to the incident.

When people do this they don’t necessarily mean to be hurtful, but it can have a devastating effect on the victim. Not only does it leave them feeling devalued and guilty, but it can also increase the likelihood that they will not seek out support for their experiences because they don’t want to be made to feel like their suffering is their own fault.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that victim blaming can be used by authors and storytellers as a way to establish a character or create conflict. This can be done by obviously or subtly embracing it, characters avoiding it or challenging it, or even narrative implications about victimization. This can be especially harmful for victims of crime who might find it hard to accept that they were harmed because of their own behaviour or choices. They may even start to doubt their own account of the event, which can be traumatic in and of itself. In a fictional setting, this can be a particularly powerful way to undermine the credibility of a narrative. In some cases, this can also be seen as a form of passive-aggressive abuse, which has its own set of issues and can be equally damaging.