December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 11 min read
Navigating the fallout of sexual assault and abuse is difficult and painful. Unfortunately, this process is often made even more challenging when survivors are confronted with victim blaming attitudes from friends, family, and other people in their lives. The following article will establish an understanding of what victim blaming is, why it happens, and how to cope when it arises.
The term “victim blaming” refers to behaviors, attitudes, perspectives, and comments that imply or assert that victims of sexual assault or abuse are to blame for what happened to them. Victim blaming can also happen in the context of other crimes. However, victims of sex crimes, gender-based violence, and intimate partner violence are far more likely to face victim blaming than other crime victims.
Enabled by rape culture, victim blaming can show up almost anywhere in a survivor’s life – from doctors’ and therapists’ offices to police stations and family gatherings. Victim blaming attitudes are also perpetuated through the media.
Victim blaming can also be internalized. This happens when a survivor starts to believe that they are actually at fault for what happened to them. Internalized victim blaming can lead to persistent feelings of guilt and shame, which can make recovering from sexual trauma more difficult. For information on how to cope with these feelings, check out our article “How to Cope with Shame and Guilt After Sexual Assault or Abuse.”
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Any comment, attitude, or perspective that implies or asserts that a victim is partially or entirely to blame for the abuse or violence they experienced can be considered victim blaming.
Some common examples of victim blaming include comments like:
One theory for why victim blaming is so common is the “just-world” hypothesis or just-world fallacy.
The just-world fallacy refers to the cognitive bias or assumption that “people get what they deserve.” Many people cope with the complicated and often chaotic nature of existence by believing that the universe is governed by fairness and justice. When confronted with the news that something bad or unexpected has happened, people with this belief may attempt to maintain their worldview by creating a “logical” explanation. In the case of sexual assault and abuse, this often results in victim blaming.
Accepting that we live in a world where people are unjustly targeted by violence is scarier and more difficult than maintaining the belief that violence and misfortune can be avoided by simply “being good” and “staying in line.” However, sexual violence cannot be prevented by avoiding certain behaviors, clothing, places, etc. Contrary to common misconceptions, sexual abuse and assault happen across all demographics to people of all ages and appearances, often in places typically deemed safe, such as homes and work places.
If the just-world fallacy could explain the entire phenomenon of victim blaming, we would see these attitudes arise in response to all tragedy and violent crime. However, sexual assault and abuse survivors deal with victim blaming far more often than anyone else. This disparity can be explained by the fact that we exist within a rape culture.
The term “rape culture” refers to a widespread and culturally accepted collection of attitudes, beliefs, norms, and behaviors that normalize, excuse, enable, and minimize the severity of sexual violence and abuse. One aspect of rape culture is the belief that victims of sexual assault and abuse are to blame for what happens to them. Rape culture also contributes to the idea that sexual assault and abuse aren’t real social problems, which leads to victims being viewed with suspicion rather than compassion.
On the most personal level, victim blaming can make it harder for a survivor of sexual trauma to feel confident in their truth and navigate emotional healing. On a much larger scale, victim blaming makes it easier for sexual predators to avoid punishment and retain positions of power in society, government, etc.
Victim blaming may also hinder survivors from speaking out about their abuse for fear of being blamed or judged. For survivors who have already come forward, victim blaming can contribute to low self esteem and make it harder to find sources of empowerment and support.
In its worst expression, victim blaming makes it notably more difficult for survivors to seek solutions and legal protections through the criminal justice system. Despite the false notion that law officers, judges, and juries are impartial, each individual working within the criminal justice system is a human being susceptible to biases. When victim blaming and other attitudes linked to rape culture are expressed through people working in the legal system, this contributes to the difficulties survivors face when pursuing legal action.
Now that we’ve looked at what victim blaming is, why it happens, and how it impacts us, let’s go over a few strategies for coping.
The best and quickest strategy for coping with victim blaming is to simply tune it out when you hear it. Even if it feels challenging, try not to take the comments and perspectives of people who blame victims too seriously. While you may still feel affected by these comments and attitudes when they arise, limiting the amount of time you spend being subjected to them can help. Just remember that even if someone else believes you’re to blame for what happened to you, that doesn’t make them right.
To combat victim blaming, educate yourself on the facts of sexual assault and abuse.
For example, victim blaming tells us that if we simply avoid certain places, we can keep ourselves safe. The facts, however, tell us that most sexual assault and abuse occurs in places typically deemed safe, such as homes and work places.
Another way to debunk victim blaming is to recognize that well over half of all sexual assaults occur when a victim is not under the influence of alcohol. Furthermore, approximately two thirds of all sexual assault is committed by perpetrators who are not under the influence of alcohol, debunking the myth that rape and sexual assault are simply the consequences of partying or irresponsible behavior.
As a last example, consider the following statistic – approximately 80% of all sexual assault and rape is committed by someone know to the victim. Knowing this can help push back against the false idea that victims of sexual assault were simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
One of the best ways to cope with victim blaming and rape culture is to surround yourself with people and perspectives that do not support those ideas. Make sure that the shows and movies you watch don’t further these narratives, and try to limit time spent with friends or family who make victim blaming comments.
Having supportive friends and family around you can be particularly helpful, as they can help you feel more confident in the face of victim blaming.
Though it may feel challenging, try to practice calling out victim blaming when you hear it if you feel safe doing so. If you hear friends or family making victim blaming comments, let them know that these types of comments are not okay. If you feel up to the task, you could even try offering them some alternative information to help shift their attitudes. That said, changing the minds of people who do not support survivors is not your responsibility as you navigate your healing process.
Setting boundaries with unsupportive friends or family members can also be helpful, albeit challenging. If the people in your life make victim blaming comments, let them know you’re not okay with being a part of those types of conversations. For example, you might say, “I appreciate our time together, but I’ll need to leave or end the conversation if you say things like that.”
No matter what victim blaming tries to tell you, establish a clear sense of your own truth that you can hold onto in difficult moments. Though it can be difficult not to be swayed by the attitudes of others, practice establishing your own understanding of what happened to you, and stick to it. This might require reminding yourself often of things like “it wasn’t my fault” or “I did nothing wrong.” Repeat these things to yourself as often as you need to hear them. For more help with this, check out our article “How to Cope with Shame and Guilt After Sexual Assault or Abuse.”
As you navigate each aspect of your healing journey after sexual assault or abuse, having help from a therapist or counselor can be a big help. If you’re struggling to cultivate a sense of inner truth, strength, and self-esteem in the face of victim blaming, consider seeking support from a therapist trained to work with sexual trauma survivors. For more information on how to do this, check out our “How to Find a Trauma Therapist” quick guide.
Dealing with victim blaming as a survivor of sexual trauma can be extremely disheartening and frustrating. While some of the more serious impacts of victim blaming can’t be resolved on the individual level, there are several powerful ways to cope with victim blaming when it arises in our personal lives.
For more help developing a strong sense of self as you navigate recovery from sexual trauma, check out our article titled “Tools for Survivors: How to Rebuild Self-Trust After Sexual Assault or Abuse.” If you’re a friend, family member, or partner to someone who has been sexually assaulted or abused, check out “How to Support a Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted.”
“Victim blaming” refers to any attitude, perspective, or comment that suggests or asserts that a victim of violence or abuse is at fault for what happened to them. Although victim blaming can be applied to anyone who has experienced abuse or violence, victims of sex-, relationship-, and gender-based crimes are far more likely to experience victim blaming than anyone else. Researchers agree that victim blaming is the combined result of the just-world fallacy and rape culture. Victim blaming has numerous negative effects, ranging from the personal to the political and legal. To cope with victim blaming, survivors should try their best to tune out these perspectives, surround themselves with supportive and understanding people and media, establish a strong sense of inner truth, get clear on the facts of sexual assault and abuse, and seek out support from a therapist.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
November 28, 20239 min read