Blaming Victims - Comforting Ourselves

  • Published
  • By 1 Lt Joleen Dedmon
  • 944th Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity

Shamefully, I have thought, why was she walking by herself that late at night? when I heard of a woman who was assaulted in my local area. According to the organization, Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), the definition of victim blaming is “…holding the victim accountable for a crime that was committed against them.” Examples of victim blaming comments or thoughts include: did you see how she was dressed? or he had so much to drink that night. Why do we do this?

Psychologists believe that victim blaming may lie in our brain’s need to believe that we live in a fair and just world (Feldman, 2018). That’s Karma; what goes around comes around; [they] got what they deserved: these are all concepts that we grew up with. However, the reality is that terrible things happen to good people, things that are out of their control and could happen to any of us. For many people, believing that a young woman was assaulted because she dressed provocatively puts the feeling of control back in their own hands. Our brains then logic that as long as we do not dress provocatively, we will remain safe.

Victim blaming is not exclusive to sexual assault or even crime. You may hear of a friend’s home being burglarized and think, they should not have bought a house in that neighborhood, but you may also have heard of an acquaintance passing away in a car accident and rationalized that they probably fell asleep at the wheel. Again, these thoughts comfort us with false control over our own lives. However, sexual assault victim blaming can be especially heinous as many victims find themselves targets of bullying, ostracism, and reprisal.

So what makes sexual assault different? After all, no one is posting on a burglary victim’s social media page telling them that they asked for it. Perhaps it is the complete violation of space and being - the ultimate loss of control. Yes, most of us would be upset and fearful if someone broke into our home and stole our personal belongings, but it would not likely break us the same way a sexual assault would. We could always buy more things, get a security system, or even move; but how does someone feel safe again after an assault? None of us want to believe that this could happen to us.

So here we are, we recognize that this is a security mechanism that our brain defaults to - now what?

Step 1 is acknowledging when we see and hear victim blaming in ourselves and others. Step 2 is challenging those who are victim blaming. Step 3 is self-reflection. Before you point out what the victim should or should not have done, remember back to a time when you drank too much or when you walked home from a restaurant alone after dark. Step four is to continue educating yourself. Learn about topics like acquaintance rape, consent, how perpetrators target and execute assaults, and how to improve reporting. All of these steps will work to keep our perspective in line with reality.

As for what we can do to help victims, there are two main points. First, believe them! Multiple case reviews and studies have shown that false allegations of sexual assault are low and approximately the same as false reporting of other crimes (Kelly et al., 2005; Lisak et al., 2010; Spohn et al., 2014). Second, hold the perpetrator accountable. There is only one reason someone is sexually assaulted – the perpetrator. Imagine any assault scenario and change only one thing; instead of the perpetrator, you are the person the victim is with or encounters, does the assault still happen? Did it matter that this person was drunk, walking alone, or dressed provocatively?
We must end the empowerment of perpetrators and that starts by ending victim blaming.