It saddens me to be writing about a topic as serious as victim blaming during this holiday season. Yet I believe that all of us have the power to give each other a very great gift right now, and that is the gift of compassion. Victim blaming is the antithesis of compassion. So here we are.
Victim blaming is what happens when someone who has been the victim of a crime or other egregious act is blamed for their own misfortune. You see it when the rape victim is blamed for dressing attractively, when the black youth gunned down in the street is blamed for walking through a white neighborhood or playing with a toy gun, when the victim of a home invasion is blamed for keeping valuables at home, or when the target of a cybercrime is blamed for not having the technology to fend off the attack, or perhaps for keeping interesting material on a computer. You see it when the abusive partner insists that his spouse deserved to be beaten for “mouthing off,” and when the child sex offender claims that their victim “wanted it.” Victim blaming is very common, and it compounds the damage already done to someone who has been the victim of abusive or criminal behavior. Once you have some understanding of this dynamic, it becomes pretty easy to spot, yet it remains a serious problem—one which punishes just those individuals we should be protecting while we let the perpetrators off the hook.
Why do we blame victims?
The most obvious reason why someone casts blame upon a victim is to distract from their own misdeeds. In the examples above, the domestic abuser insists they had to hit their partner because they were mouthing off, while the sex offender claims that their victim wanted to be assaulted. Both claims are obviously ludicrous. No behavior on the part of the victim makes it acceptable to abuse them. Even if the victims in question were mouthing off or engaging in provocative behavior, assaulting them remains a crime. Mouthing off and engaging in provocative behavior are not criminal actions. The reason a perpetrator attempts to shift the blame to their victim is that they hope to convince you of their own innocence.
The other common reason we might engage in victim blaming is that we want to believe the world is a just and fair place, and that if we do what we are supposed to do, nothing bad will happen to us. It is frightening to think about how we could easily become the next victim, so we delude ourselves by thinking that we won’t be. We reason that since we don’t dress too attractively, don’t walk through dangerous neighborhoods or let our children play with their toys in public, don’t keep valuables at home, don’t store anything of importance on our computers, don’t mouth off to our partners or behave in a provocative manner, we are safe. This is what therapists call “magical thinking.” We don’t want to be the next victim, so we attribute victimhood to some mistake made by the victim. In reality, bad things do indeed happen to good people. It is entirely possible that you will be victimized, even if you take every reasonable precaution. Even if you do make mistakes that make you more vulnerable that does not make you guilty of any crimes that may be perpetrated against you. Decent human beings do not prey on the vulnerable—criminals and character disordered individuals do.
One last reason that people engage in victim blaming is fear. Victim blaming is a type of scapegoating. That is, when we are frightened and either don’t know who or what to blame it on or don’t feel safe confronting the real source of the problem, we are prone to attacking an easy target, whether or not they are threatening us. Often the scapegoat is chosen simply because they call themselves to our attention. So in confusion at the scene of a crime, it is easy to pick out someone who looks different from us and blame them, even if they were an innocent bystander or a victim themselves. When someone in power is threatening us and it is dangerous to confront them, it is easy to blame one of their supporters or even an uninvolved person whom we find to be a safer target. When large numbers of people are afraid, we often see them targeting innocent people as if that would somehow make the world a safer place. It does not. In fact, it actually makes things worse. People who are victimized for no reason at all may feel the need to defend themselves or to retaliate.
Why do victims blame themselves?
Counter-intuitively, we sometimes see victims blame themselves. Sometimes they have been brainwashed by constant abuse. The victim of ongoing domestic violence may have been told they are responsible for so long that they have come to believe it. Other times, a victim may latch onto an explanation that attributes blame to them because they engage in the same magical thinking that the rest of us do. That is, they wrongly believe that if they were somehow responsible for their victimization, they now can control whether they are victimized again by changing their behavior. This way of thinking in such cases may help the victim to move on when they would otherwise feel helpless. While this may seem a positive thing in the short run, it may leave the victim insensitive to the plight of others who are victimized, believing that we all get what we deserve, essentially. It is difficult to come to terms with what has happened, and to come to the point of acknowledging that, although they may have taken a few more precautions, they were not responsible for their victimization.
As you look around you this holiday season, you will see many people who need your compassion. They may have been victimized by others, or simply fallen on hard times. They did not want or ask for their misfortune. If you look a bit longer, you will no doubt see lots of people lining up to blame them. Please don’t be one of them. Instead consider being the one who steps forward to say, “This was not your fault. Can I help you?”
Important Note: This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care. Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different. If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.