Victim-Blaming Theory: Definition and Evolution
Although the study of victimology represents a relatively new field of inquiry, early researchers were drawn to the concept of shared responsibility between victims and offenders in the commission of a criminal event (Karmen 2004). These researchers focused on victim attributes as well as the interaction between the victim and the offender, with the assumption that their interaction led to reciprocal forces causing the victimization. Since then, the controversy over victim precipitation of a crime has come under scrutiny, yet the daily practice of shifting some, if not all, of the blame for the crime onto the victim continues.
Victim-blaming theory describes the practice of holding victims partly responsible for their misfortune. It represents the faulting of individuals who have endured the suffering of crimes, hardships, or other misfortunes with either part or whole responsibility for the event. Often, victim-blaming theories rely on the premise that individuals should recognize the dangers that exist in society and therefore should take the necessary precautions to maintain a certain level of safety. Those who do not take such precautions are perceived as blameworthy for their demise even if they have not acted carelessly. These perceptions in effect shift the culpability away from the perpetrator of the crime onto the victim. When discussing issues of family violence, violence against women, or sexual assault, one often hears victim-blaming statements such as, ‘‘Why didn’t she leave?’’ or ‘‘She was asking for it.’’ Within the context of family violence, victim blaming often includes condemnation of the victim for staying in an abusive relationship.
Scholars theorize that the phenomenon of victim blaming is the result of a belief in a ‘‘just world.’’ In 1965, social psychologist Melvin Lerner coined the term ‘‘just world hypothesis’’ to reflect the belief that ‘‘individuals have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve and deserve what they get’’ (Lerner 1978). Lerner conducted a series of experiments to test his hypothesis by documenting the respondents’ eagerness to believe that those who triumphed deserved their victories, while those who suffered were responsible for their demise. According to Lerner, people have a need to view the world as an orderly, predictable, and fair place. This belief encourages individuals to strive toward goals with an expectation that each action leads to predictable results. Lerner explains that when faced with evidence that the world is unjust, ‘‘just world’’ believers make sense of the situation with claims that the victim ‘‘must have asked for it.’’ Although the belief in a ‘‘just world’’ may provide some comfort and encouragement to attain one’s goals, it also has the potential to provide a false sense of security.
Does Victim Blaming Have an Impact?
Do the expectations of a just world and the act of blaming the victim have any real significance in the understanding of intimate partner abuse and sexual violence? According to Martin (2001), ‘‘In addition to being unjust, blaming victims shows a lack of compassion by disregarding victims’ suffering and by imposing additional suffering in criticizing the innocent.’’ In a quest to effectively aid victims and minimize the reoccurrence of abuse, one must examine the social attitudes that endorse victim blaming and examine the training of the professionals who work with victims.
In an exploration of the trends of how social attitudes influence social policies, Davis examines how the policies of the 1980s demonstrated a shift away from creating the services necessary for women to leave an abusive relationship (i.e., providing or assisting with housing, employment, education, etc.) for the sake of interventions designed to stop individual acts of violence so that families could stay together (Davis et al. 1992). Davis explains that during this time, women in abusive relationships were encouraged to ‘‘gain control over their lives’’ by changing the behaviors that led to the abuse. Rather than providing the services necessary to escape an abusive situation, victims of family violence were encouraged to modify their behavior in efforts to stop the abuse.
As a result of social policies, family traditions, religious institutions, and cultural customs which often encourage victims of intimate partner abuse to remain in the relationship, survivors of family abuse often turn to social service, medical, and justice personnel for nonjudgmental assistance. One would expect that those choosing careers in ‘‘helping professions’’ such as social work, medicine, and law enforcement would not engage in victim-blaming attitudes, yet research shows otherwise. As described by Danis (2003):
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the social work profession earned a reputation as uncaring, uninformed, and unhelpful to battered women. Social workers were faulted for blaming the victim . . . , failing to recognize abuse as a problem . . . , and failing to make appropriate interventions and referrals.
Until recently, little inquiry explored the question of whether or not ‘‘social workers feel academically prepared to address domestic violence.’’ In answering this question, Danis (2003) found that ‘‘the majority of the respondents felt they had ‘none to a little’ academic preparation’’ to provide adequate assistance in family violence circumstances. Social workers not only felt underprepared to work with victims of intimate partner abuse, but expressed some victim-blaming attitudes. Furthermore, within health care settings:
available information suggests that one barrier to appropriate healthcare for abused women may be physician attitudes. . . . Close to one third (30%) [of physicians] hold non-supportive (victim-blaming) attitudes about victims of spouse abuse, and the majority (70%) do not believe that they have the necessary resources to assist victims of domestic violence. (Garimella et al. 2000)
Although some specific medical associations such as Kaiser Permanente in Richmond, California, have implemented family violence awareness trainings for their staff, ‘‘two victim-blaming attitudes stand out: approximately half of all physicians (55%) believe that their patients’ personalities lead them to being abused, and one third (34%) believe that a victim must be getting something out of the relationship, or she would leave’’ (Garimella et al. 2000).
Within the criminal justice processes, victims not only endure their personal suffering, but also the speculation from juries who may perceive them as not having done enough to prevent the victimization. Studies of mock juries have found that ‘‘when presented with negative outcomes, people often engage in counterfactual thinking, imagining various ways that events might have been different’’ (Goldinger et al. 2003). Hence, when faced with a victim who has been injured by an abusive partner or sexually aggressive perpetrator, juries often imagine ways in which the victim’s behavior could have led the events to occur differently without consideration of the real factors affecting the decision-making process at the original moment. Victims may be blamed as ‘‘having poor judgment’’ without receiving acknowledgment for the fact that viewing information in hindsight yields opportunities for better responses than those determined within real-time life constraints.
Using simulations to examine the impact of a victim’s social role in the attribution of contributory fault in sexual assault cases, Pugh (1983) examined respondents’ perceptions of the victim’s moral character in an array of criminal cases. Through the manipulation of ‘‘the victims’ social roles (i.e., nuns, married women, and social workers vs. prostitutes, divorcees, and topless dancers), the victim’s attire (provocative vs. nonprovocative), and the victim’s previous sexual conduct (virgin vs. nonvirgin) [Pugh discovered that] contributory fault on the part of rape victims will reduce the likelihood of a guilty verdict’’ (Pugh 1983). The culpability for the crime is shifted from the perpetrator’s actions to the victim’s attributes or behavior. ‘‘Because of the preoccupation with the victim’s actions, the responsibility of the accused is diminished’’ (Rude 1999). Even more disturbing is the fact that discrimination may heighten the plight of victims of color. George and Martinez (2002) found that ‘‘in judgments about the certitude of rape, the victim’s culpability, the credibility of her refusal, and the perpetrator’s culpability, participants judged women raped interracially as more blameworthy than those raped intraracially’’ (2002). Although these issues are pertinent to the administration of family violence cases within the criminal justice system, one must also recognize the impact of the practice of victim blaming on the creation of social policies and the implementation of services for victims of crimes.
Social attitudes influence not only policies and services available for victims, but also the victim’s willingness to report the offense and seek assistance. Oftentimes, victims may remain silent about their suffering and not report their victimization for fear of experiencing the secondary victimization that follows when social systems respond with statements such as ‘‘Why did you stay?’’ or ‘‘Why didn’t you resist?’’ Victims of intimate partner abuse respond to the social cues of whether their plight will be taken seriously by responding to the reactions of those in ‘‘helping professions’’ as well as the media portrayal of abuse cases.
In an exploration of 150 cases of women killed in Zambia from 1973 to 1996, Rude (1999) found that
newspaper accounts of such killings create a secondary level of silence about domestic violence and homicide by blaming the victims and concealing the brutality of the attacks. . . . Cases are simply described as domestic disputes [and] women are judged to have ‘‘provoked’’ their perpetrators, whose violent reactions are all too often seen as inevitable, understandable, and therefore somewhat pardonable.
In one account used to describe the newspapers’ headlines, language, and tone when publicly describing abuse, Rude (1999) writes:
In 1986, Theresa Mwale was killed by her husband after she questioned him about a girl he accommodated in a hostel. The article, which appeared under the headline of ‘‘Nagging wife killer freed after custody’’, suggested the wife’s behavior was the real crime, not the husband’s fatal beating of her with a hosepipe.
Although the accounts from Zambia appear quite extreme, the silencing effects resulting from victim blaming are similar to those elsewhere in the world. Much like the work of Pugh (1983), who found that ‘‘the presumption of contributory fault . . . mitigates the behavior of the defendant,’’ Rude also discovered that the framework in which the abuse is described (i.e., blaming the victim) has an impact on the handling and support offered to the victims. The silencing effects of the abuse are intensified by the silencing effects of placing blame on victims.
Victim blaming has been studied multiple times within the context of sexual assaults, yet the practice of blaming victims remains prevalent. Intimate partner abuse inherently incorporates the use of psychological blaming of the victim, and the impact of victim blaming from social support systems cannot be underestimated. The significance of understanding victim blaming lies in the limitations such practices place on the services and support for victims. Blaming victims for their pain not only limits the services and support systems available to them, but also ‘‘shows a lack of compassion by disregarding victim’s undeserved suffering and by imposing additional suffering in criticizing the innocent’’ (Martin 2001).
Victim-blaming theories have received considerable attention from social psychologists, yet little has been done to end the practice of shifting the culpability of unfortunate events from the offenders to the victims. Taking responsibility for one’s safety may ensure a specific level of protection, yet it does not provide a guarantee that no bad events will take place. Until the populace gains an awareness of the harm caused by the simple act of blaming victims, victims will continue to suffer needlessly.
- Danis, Fran S. ‘‘Domestic Violence and Social Work Education: What We Know, What We Need to Know?’’ Journal of Social Work Education 39, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2003): 215–224.
- Davis, Liane V., and Jan L. Hagen. ‘‘The Problem of Wife Abuse: The Interrelationship of Social Policy and Social Work Practice.’’ Social Work 37, no. 1 (January 1992): 15–20.
- Garimella, Ramani, et al. ‘‘Physicians, Beliefs about Victims of Spouse Abuse and about the Physician Role.’’ Journal of Women’s Health and Gender-Based Medicine 9, no. 4 (2000): 405–411.
- George, William H., and Lorraine J. Martinez. ‘‘Victim Blaming in Rape: Effects of Victim and Perpetrator Race, Types of Rape, and Participant Racism.’’ Psychology of Women Quarterly 26, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 110.
- Goldinger, Stephen D., et al. ‘‘‘Blaming the Victim’ under Memory Load.’’ Psychological Science 14, no. 1 (January 2003): 81–85.
- Johnson, Lee M., Rehan Mullock, and Charles L. Mulford. ‘‘General Versus Specific Victim Blaming.’’ Journal of Social Psychology 142, no. 2 (2002): 249–263.
- Karmen, Andrew. Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2004.
- Lerner, Melvin J. The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.
- Lerner, Melvin J., and D. T. Miller. ‘‘Just World Research and the Attribution Process: Looking Back and Ahead.’’ Psychological Bulletin 85 (1978): 1030–1051.
- Lipkusa, I. M., C. Dalbert, and I. C. Siegler. ‘‘The Importance of Distinguishing the Belief in a Just World for Self Versus for Others: Implications for Psychological Well- Being.’’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22, no. 7 (1996): 666–677.
- Martin, Mike W. ‘‘Responsibility for Health and Blaming Victims.’’ Journal of Medical Humanities 22, no. 2 (2001): 95–106.
- Pugh, M. D. ‘‘Contributory Fault and Rape Convictions: Loglinear Models for Blaming the Victim.’’ Social Psychology Quarterly 46, no. 3 (September 1983): 233–242.
- Rude, Darlene. ‘‘Reasonable Men and Provocative Women: An Analysis of Gendered Domestic Homicide in Zambia.’’ Journal of Southern Africana Studies 25, no. 1 (March 1999): 7–27.