Victim Blaming: How We Do It, Why We Do It, and the Price We All Pay

Recently I read an article about a survivor of a grizzly crime. I found myself feeling I would have responded to the attack differently, better of course. This snap judgment gave me a quick reassurance that I could manage the unmanageable. But I wasn’t there, I wasn’t traumatized, I wasn’t the one whose life was forever changed. I was not the victim. I was blaming the victim.

Victim blaming is an attitude or action that holds a victim fully or partially responsible for the harm committed against them. There are a number of reasons and justifications for victim blaming that are rooted in myths and misconceptions about victims and perpetrators.  Like denial, victim blaming is a coping mechanism. It is a way to avoid facing our own vulnerability to harm or our own culpability in the harm that happens to others. It is a short-term, short-sighted response to violence and injustice. A temporary free pass that, in the long run, has a very high price.

Self-defense is about expanding your options to be safe and strong. We provide the training, you choose how to bring it into your life.

What goes around comes around

Fairness matters a lot to most people. We prefer a world where scores are settled, justice is served, and people get what they deserve. The Just World Hypothesis is a worldview that explains suffering and restores balance by asserting that bad things don’t happen to good people. In a Just World actions have predictable, appropriate outcomes. In a Just World, what goes around comes around, or people get what they deserve, or everything happens for a reason. In a Just World, good people are rewarded with safety and prosperity, and victims bring about their own suffering.

Consider the questions we ask survivors of sexual assault. Were you drinking? Did you fight back? Why did you go for a run in the dark? Did you know the person who attacked you? Why did you go out with them? And perhaps we calculate what we would do differently. And perhaps we feel safer, more in control. We convince ourselves we are not so vulnerable after all.

Consider pervasive attitudes about poverty: people are poor because they are lazy, irresponsible, drug addicted, criminal. We love a story about someone who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, a story that illustrates how hard work and the right state of mind guarantees a place at the top. Ben Carson, a neurologist who was the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2017-2021, said “You take someone that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee you, they’ll be right back up there…You take someone with the wrong mind-set, you can give them everything in the world – they’ll work their way right back to the bottom.”[i]

A kernel of truth

At the center of every myth is a kernel of truth. That’s what makes the story compelling. But stories are not bound by facts, and myths about violence and suffering are no different. Of course, a positive mind-set is important, but it is only one of many factors that contribute to success. Of course, precautions can increase safety, but only marginally because sexual assaults so often happen at a time, in a place, and with a person where we assume we are safe. When we accept the kernel of truth as the whole story, we miss almost everything that matters.

We miss the predator in our midst because he doesn’t look like the creepy mythical bad guy, because he is not a stranger, because he is so likable. We dismiss our vulnerability because we follow an ambiguous set of rules that says if I am not drunk, if it is the middle of the day, if I am not dressed provocatively, I am safe. We ignore our intuitive superpower that detects danger, and we deny the threat. And, if we are raped by the person who seemed so likeable, or if we are assaulted on a date or after drinking, we blame ourselves. When I was walking my dogs in the middle of the day and attacked by a stranger and the first question the responding police officer asked was “why were you walking here by yourself,” I, along with that police officer, blamed myself.

The similar tendency to frame poverty as a personal or moral failing misses the most important predictor of financial mobility – capital. Seventy percent of people born poor never make it to the middle of the income ladder.[ii] Not because they are lazy and not because they are irresponsible. The majority who can work, do work, often at more than one job. They remain stuck because they have absolutely no safety net. Without a safety net, climbing out of poverty requires having very good luck and never making a mistake. Most of the 11 million children born into poverty in American will attend underfunded schools, have little or no access to health care, and will regularly experience food scarcity. They will be expected to survive without stumbling their way to adulthood the way many of us do. Any mishap or misstep such as an illness, accident, arrest, or experimentation with drugs can cost whatever slim opportunity they might have had. There is rarely a second chance.

Race and gender matter

Victim blaming discounts the systematic practices of racism and sexism that underlie poverty and violence. It ignores that Black people, who have the highest poverty rate in the country, have been subjected to hundreds of years of redlining, disproportionate incarceration, police brutality, and lack of access to equal education and health care. It overlooks that women are still paid 83 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn and that 25% of single mothers live in poverty, compared to 12% of single fathers.[iii] It does not consider that while women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than men, they must rely on a male dominated system for justice. Or that Black and Latinx people are the most likely to experience violence, but these crimes are the least likely to be solved and, if they are solved, the violence is more likely to be dismissed as “justified.”[iv]

The perfect victim and the perfect perpetrator

Victim blaming does allow for a select few survivors of sexual assault to be seen as blameless. These perfect victims are White, female, attacked, by a stranger, not intoxicated, sexually inexperienced, and conservative in their dress and behavior. They come forward immediately to report the assault clearly and compellingly. Rather than focus on the perpetrator, victim blaming puts the survivor in the spotlight. We know this, we have internalized it, it is at the heart of our self-blame, and it is why we are reluctant to come forward. We are not perfect victims. We are real-life humans. We are flawed and, if we have been assaulted, we are traumatized. And so, rape remains the most underreported crime.

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And what about the perfect perpetrator? Men who are poor and people of color are much more likely to be seen as criminal than successful White men. A justice system that is predominantly White and male tends to identify with White male perpetrators and see them as blameless, particularly if they are financially and professionally successful. Larry Nasar[v] and Jeffrey Epstein are two infamous examples of predators who continued to abuse hundreds of women and children, even after survivors came forward, because reports of abuse were routinely dismissed by authorities. People of color are the most likely to be question by police, arrested, and convicted of crimes whether they are guilty or not. In fact, Black defendants are three-and-a-half times more likely than White defendants to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.[vi]

A system that identifies with certain offenders and minimizes or disbelieves the experience of survivors gives many rapists a free pass to keep offending. According to RAINN 75% of rapes go unreported. Of those that are reported only half are arrested. Only a small percentage of arrests result in a conviction. In the end, 94% of rapists never spend a day in jail. Add to that, the incarceration of people who don’t belong in prison because of a history of false assumptions and accusations against Black men, and the price of victim blaming begins to shift into focus.

It’s just not fair!

One problem with the Just World Hypothesis, is the playing field is not level. There is a cycle of suffering we cause, and tolerate, and deny when we refuse to see the ways in which the system does not provide equal access and equal protection to the majority of its citizens.

Another problem is, we have much less control over how things go than we like to think. The idea of ‘create your own reality’ with the energy of your thoughts and actions has a kernel of truth that is very appealing, but it puts a glossy finish on some hard and ugly truths.

The other day, I said to someone “have a good day” to wish them well at the end of a conversation. Another person interjected that he didn’t approve of that phrase and wanted to normalize the phrase “have the day you deserve.” I immediately ruffled. Is the woman who is raped while walking her dogs; or the person assaulted at a party by someone they thought was a friend; or the parent who must decide between purchasing their medication or feeding their children; or the Black man sitting in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, having the day they deserve?

The sense of security or entitlement that comes with victim-blaming comes at the expense of empathy. We turn our backs on people at their most vulnerable and expect them to hold themselves responsible for the harm they have experienced.

The world is not fair. Bad things do happen to good people. We cannot alleviate all suffering, but we can try. The work requires a change of heart. It requires honesty and empathy. It requires a willingness to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the harm we cause. When we reject victim-blaming and the lies it demands we move closer to a more just world.  

Feel confident defending yourself and your community.

[i] Bridges, Khiara. POV:  Stop Blaming the Poor for Their Poverty. March 2017.

[ii] The PEW Charitable Trusts. “Moving On Up: Why Do Some Americans Leave the Bottom of the Economic Ladder but Not Others?” Nov. 2013.

[iii] Poverty USA. “The Population of Poverty USA”. 2020.

[iv] Prison Policy Initiative. “Research Roundup: Violent Crimes Against Blacks and Latinx people receive less coverage and less justice.” March 18, 2021.

[v] The Cut. “Everyone Believed Larry Nasar.” Nov. 19, 2018.

[vi] Montana Innocence Project. “Innocent Black people significantly more likely to be convicted of sexual assault” 2023.

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