What is Victim Blaming?

This post is part of the Defining Feminism series, and was requested by Linda G from North Carolina.

Defining Feminism is a series providing small, simplified explanations of theories, ideas and issues often mentioned or discussed in feminist criticisms.

The post comes with content warning for talk of sexual violence.

Victim blaming is the discourse of devaluing the experiences of the victim, often citing potential reasons for the crime, or faults the victim may have to warrant the crime that was committed against them. The term was coined 1971 by William Ryan, in an attempt to discuss racism in America. It has since adopted a new usage, and is a very important talking point when discussing rape and sexual assault.

These so-called reasons and faults are rarely aimed at the attacker, hence the name. It is a way of both further stigmatizing survivors and to discredit their stories.

Below are some examples of what victim blaming looks like:

  • She was asking for it
  • She was wearing a short skirt, what did she expect?
  • He didn’t overpower him, so he must have secretly wanted it.
  • She shouldn’t have been drinking
  • She didn’t cry for help
  • She has had a lot of partners in the past
  • But we’re dating

A protester. Her placard reads: Things that cause rape [ ] Flirting [ ] The outfit I'm wearing [ ] Drinking too much [X] Rapists

A protester. Her placard reads:
Things that cause rape
[ ] Flirting
[ ] The outfit I’m wearing
[ ] Drinking too much
[X] Rapists

These examples are shockingly common when media and society discuss rape cases. They don’t sound malicious, but the intent is. The victim’s motives and state are picked apart to find a reason as to why they was assaulted, when the questions should lie with their rapist.

So to clear up, this is what makes these arguments ridiculous:

  • No one is asking for it. To ask for it is to consent. Rape and assault are not consensual by definition. Nothing anybody does is them asking for it.
  • The way a person dresses should not serve as implied invitation. Rape predates miniskirts and rapists would still rape even if everyone covered all of their skin. People should be allowed to wear what they want without fear of sexual violence.
  • Men are not born with the strength of Hercules, and should not be held to this impossible standard of strength. If he cannot overpower his attacker, that does not make him any less of a victim. He did not want it.
  • Alcohol means she cannot consent. If she cannot consent, it is rape.
  • People react to trauma in different ways. No one is asking for it if their body shut down in terror, and it is a common reaction to have.
  • Those partners got consent. A rapist did not get consent. This is why in the US and Canada, Rape Shield laws are in place so that in the event of a trial, the sexual history of the victim is not cross-examined.
  • It doesn’t matter if you have received consent before. If they say no and you continue, it is rape. Partners and loved ones are capable of rape.

The main issue with these comments is obviously that they place blame on the victim. The consequence of this is that they take blame away from the attacker. They learn to justify their actions using that same harmful discourse, and people will believe them. Discussing sexual violence and blaming the victim is not helpful.

This takes a toll on the victim. It fuels their own guilt and shame over the incident. They can feel no one believes them, or worse, that everyone thinks it is their fault. This stigma is one of the reasons why incidents of sexual assault and violence often go unreported.

Finally, some UK statistics, courtesy of An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, released by the Ministry of Justice, Office of National Statistics and the Home Office in January 2013:

  • Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour
  • Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year
  • 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16
  • Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police
  • Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence

These statistics exclude child victims. 15% is an appalling number of reports. The conviction rate does not add much confidence, but things are getting better. Does it help to be blaming these 97,000 people instead of the people who committed the crime?

If you have been affected by this post, there are a number of UK resources available to you:

  • Childline | 0800 1111
  • Rape Crisis | 0808 802 9999
  • Men’s Advice Line | 0808 801 0327