Blaming the victim
| Cogito ergo sum|
Logic and rhetoric
| Not just a river in Egypt|
|♫ We're not listening ♫|
“”Does one deserve to have evil done to her by consequence of putting herself where evil can reach her?
|—Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings|
Blaming the victim describes the attempt to escape responsibility by placing the blame for the crime or other abuse at the hands of the victim. Classically this is the rapist claiming their victim was "asking for it" by, for example, wearing a short skirt. Until recently, blaming the victim was largely how most rape victims experienced the investigation and litigation into claims of rape — often leading to women and men becoming unwilling to report it. It wasn't uncommon for a rape victim to face a defense attorney who asked them about their sexual history, sexual preferences, drinking habits and even social status, all to demonstrate the victim's culpability and take the heat off of the responsibly party. In 2013, a Montana judge said a 14-year-old rape victim seemed "older than her chronological age" and "as much in control of the situation" as the teacher who raped her, a perfect example of blaming the victim.
Denying the victim is similar, but has a slight difference in that the perpetrator attempts to assert that he or she is the real victim. Denying the victim is generally less of a one-on-one scenario, and more topical, e.g. "The real victims of the supposed 'mistreatment of women' are the children who have to grow up in homes where their mother wants to work instead of care for them." Denying the victims, in this sense, is often an attempt at historical revisionism, to make those charged with the crimes look more or even totally innocent in light of modern society.
Denial of the victim can also take the form of minimizing the number of victims or the severity of the offense. For example, the Roman Catholic Church played this game, when trying to claim the systematic child abuse by some priests were simply isolated events both individually and by priests at large. They also pushed the issue that the boys should not be described as "children", but "young men" to minimize the sense of how horrific these rapes were. Both blaming the victim and denying the victim are specific instances of neutralization.
- Certain ostensibly liberal figures, including Jimmy Carter and Germaine Greer, accusing Salman Rushdie of having provoked the attempts on his life during the Satanic Verses crisis for writing a "blasphemous" book.
- In 1966, a Virginia judge acquitted two men of kidnapping and sodomizing a young girl when the jury learned that she had gotten into the car with the two men willingly. One of the men acquitted, James "Mike" DeBardeleben, was later revealed to be a serial killer and sexual sadist who preyed on countless women nationwide over a twenty year period. A 1983 search of DeBardeleben's storage locker by the secret service (following an arrest for counterfeiting) revealed blood-stained undergarments, as well as tape recordings of women screaming and pictures of countless women being sexually abused. Many of the women photographed by DeBardeleben remain unidentified to this day.
- Representatives of the Papacy have lashed out at The New York Times for its investigative journalism of the cover-up of the aforementioned pedophile priests. Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa even compared the anger directed at the Vatican in the pedophilia scandal to "the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."
- The Church of Scientology has acted similarly. Examples include their campaign against the Cult Awareness Network, and their support for child rapist Gabriel Williams.
- Blaming bullying and violence toward gay people on gay people themselves. For instance, several homophobic activists (including Bryan Fischer) have claimed that the murder of 15-year-old openly gay eighth grader Lawrence King must be blamed on King himself. In a column called "Who will protect straights from homosexual bullies" Fischer alleged that King's killer was a victim of King's relentless "sexual harassment", and as a solution to anti-gay hate crimes Fischer suggested "placing reasonable curbs on the public expression of homosexual behavior."
- Breast ironing: the idea that preventing girls from developing breasts will also make them less likely to be raped. Even though there is no evidence to prove this.
- One tactic of Holocaust denialists is to claim the number of victims of the Holocaust has been exaggerated, a clear attempt at denying the victim.
- Speaking of the Holocaust, another particularly egregious example came from the mouth of children's author Roald Dahl: "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity; maybe it's a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason. I mean, if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I'd rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me, but they were always submissive."
- In May of 2018, rapper Kanye West garnered controversy for an incoherent comment on how "slavery for 400 years […] sounds like a choice" on the slaves' part.
- Ward Churchill infamously got shitcanned from the University of Colorado at Boulder for characterising 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns" who got what they deserved for not doing enough to oppose Uncle Sam's misdeeds.
- Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quipped that 60-year-old aged care workers struggling financially are "entitled to get a better job".
One motive for victim blaming is that it is easier to see a victim as blameworthy than to give up the belief that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve in life. The perceived alternative to victim blaming would be to believe that the world (or God) is unjust, unpredictable, and frightening.
Defenses of victim-blaming have notably manifested in two forms. One is that victims should be considered partly responsible, but no foundation for this belief has been presented. The other is that absolving the victim of responsibility discourages "behavioral victim-blaming" that has been claimed to be a predictor of healthy coping on the part of the victim. However, research shows that all types of self-blame for crimes such as rape are generally very toxic, and behavioral (i.e. "My behavior caused it.") vs. characterological (i.e. "It happened because I am a bad person.") is usually used as a not as bad as argument. Neither type of self-blame is productive in cases of rape, and it operates from a feeling of inadequacy that is pushed by social norms against rape victims.
There are several situations that can be called "victim blaming", but are frequently necessary anyway; they may or may not overlap with actual "victim blaming" above, depending on how it's handled. Here are a few notable such situations:
- Warning to others: Importantly, if the victim did something wrong, either in terms of risky behavior or acting in ignorance, their story can be used to warn others. In this situation, it's usually recommended that the description leave the victim non-identifiable, unless verification is so valued over the victim's dignity that it becomes necessary.
- Apportionment of blame: In some legal jurisdictions, it's required to figure out who is responsible for the incident, in order to figure out "who pays for what" (in the case of actual crime, if there's more than one victim and the victims had differing levels of warning and resources to prepare for such a situation). Unless this is your job (i.e., you are a lawyer, insurance adjuster, or something of the like), try to stay out of this; it can hinge on such small details that an uninformed opinion is dangerous.
- Victimology: In the field of behavior profiling of criminals and other predators, there exists a sub-study of looking at known victims to build a profile of the subject's ideal or preferred victim, in order to either form a plan of action ("which potential victims should we prioritize warning?") or find a pattern to deduce other factors.
As a logical fallacy
The term "Blaming the victim" is sometimes also referred to as a logical fallacy, semi-distinct from the above, even though, for the most part, "blaming the victim" is not actually a logical fallacy in and of itself. This is because a lot of victim-blaming arguments are very fallacious for other reasons.
If the argument actually is fallacious, it's usually a problem of the just world fallacy and/or some combination of false cause, false equivalence, ad hominem against the victim, and various other fallacies.
Alternately, the phrase is used to refer to a special case of false cause, where some outside party is actually responsible, and the argument in question conceals or ignores this party's responsibility.
- Stanley Cohen. 2001. States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity Press. Pp. 96-97.
- Judge hands down 30-day sentence in rape case
- Michaud, Stephen G. (2007-06-26) (in en). Beyond Cruel. Macmillan. ISBN 9781429934510.
- http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/04/04/vatican.antisemitism.apology/?hpt=T2 News Report
- Ward Churchill, "Some People Push Back" On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. cryptome.org, 3 February 2005.
- Blaming the victim: Belief in control or belief in justice? by Jürgen Maes (1994) Social Justice Research 7(1):69-90. "Whereas Just World Theory suggests that the belief in a just world is the decisive motive of increased attributions of responsibility, the Defensive Attribution Hypothesis assumes that these attributions are motivated by the need to believe in internal locus of control."
- Self blame in rape victims: A bibliography, citing:Miller, Dale T., Simon Fraser U, Burnaby, Canada Porter, Carol A. (1983). Self-blame in victims of violence. Journal of Social Issues, 39(2) pp. 139-152.