Victim blaming

Victim blaming (or blaming the victim) is holding the victim (s) of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment to be entirely or partially responsible for the transgressions committed against them. Victim-blaming has traditionally emerged especially in racist and sexist forms. It is also about holding individuals responsible for their own personal distress or difficulties instead of attributing responsibility to the transgressors who caused it.

 History of the concept

The phrase “Blaming the victim” was coined by William Ryan in his 1976 classic book of the same title, as a critique of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 work The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, usually simply referred to as the Moynihan Report. Moynihan’s book summarized his theories about ghetto formation and intergenerational poverty. Ryan’s critique cast the Moynihan theories as subtle (and not so subtle) attempts to divert responsibility for poverty from social structural factors to the behaviors and cultural patterns of the poor. The phrase was quickly adopted by advocates for crime victims, in particular rape victims accused of abetting their victimization, although this usage is conceptually distinct from the sociological critique developed by Ryan.

Main article: Just-world phenomenon

It has been proposed that one cause of victim-blaming is the “just-world phenomenon”. People who believe that the world has to be fair may find it hard or impossible to accept a situation in which a person is unfairly and badly hurt. This leads to a sense that, somehow, the victim must have surely done ‘something’ to deserve their fate. Another theory entails the need to protect one’s own sense of invulnerability. This inspires people to believe that rape only happens to those who deserve or provoke the assault (Schneider et al., 1994). This is a way of feeling safer. If the potential victim avoids the behaviors of the past victims, then they themselves will remain safe and feel less vulnerable. A global survey of attitudes toward sexual violence by the Global Forum for Health Research shows that victim-blaming concepts are at least partially accepted in many countries. In some countries, victim-blaming is more common, and women who have been raped are sometimes deemed to have behaved improperly. Often, these are countries where there is a significant social divide between the freedoms and status afforded to men and women.

This idea dates from ancient times: the biblical Book of Job offers a refutation of the Just World Hypothesis, in which the main character, Job, maintains his faith through calamity after calamity, all of which are explicitly unrelated to his behavior, which remains devout.

Supporters of this view (once referred to as “Job’s comforters”) must perforce accept that to do otherwise would require them to give up their belief in a just world, and require them to believe in a world where bad things – such as poverty, rape, starvation, and murder – can happen to good men and women. Though a form of attribution error, this incorrect attribution differs from the “Fundamental Attribution Error” principally in its focus. Both concepts however center around a tendency to ignore situational contributors in favor of supposed internal failings on part of the subject being judged. In the Just-World Hypothesis the subject’s actions are not being scrutinized, but their situation; whereas those making the Fundamental Attribution Error tend to focus primarily on attributing actions to personal qualities and ignoring situational causes. Crimes or other events that create a victim give opportunity for both attribution errors – in blaming the victim for “allowing” themselves to be victimized by crime as well as the inability to cope afterwards. Despite their frequent simultaneity though, they remain two distinct attribution errors.

 Secondary victimization

Rape is especially stigmatizing in cultures with strong customs and taboos regarding sex and sexuality. For example, a rape victim (especially one who was previously a virgin) may be viewed by society as being “damaged.” Victims in these cultures may suffer isolation, be disowned by friends and family, be prohibited from marrying, be divorced if already married, or even killed. This phenomenon is known as secondary victimization.

Secondary victimization is the re-traumatization of the sexual assault, abuse, or rape victim through the responses of individuals and institutions. Types of secondary victimization include victim blaming and inappropriate post-assault behavior or language by medical personnel or other organizations with which the victim has contact. Secondary victimization is especially common in cases of drug-facilitated, acquaintance, military sexual trauma and statutory rape.

 Rape Shield Laws

In the United States, rape is unique in that it is the only crime in which there are statutory protections designed in favor of the accuser (known as “rape shield laws”). These were enacted in response to the common defense tactic of “putting the accuser on trial”. Typical rape shield laws prohibit cross-examination of the accuser (alleged victim) with respect to certain issues, such as his or her prior sexual history, or the manner in which he or she was dressed at the time of the rape. Most states and the federal rules, however, provide exceptions to the rape shield law where evidence of prior sexual history is used to provide an alternative explanation for physical evidence, where the defendant and the alleged victim had a prior consensual sexual relationship, and where exclusion of evidence would violate the defendant’s constitutional rights.