Pop Psych

Unpacking evolutionary psychology

Who’s Blaming The Victim?

The role of self-blame in sexual assault.

One phrase – or some variant of it – that seems to crop up in discussions of sexual assault more frequently than almost all others is “blaming the victim” (though I imagine “rape culture” and “patriarchy” are probably in the running for most commonly-used term as well). Coined in the early 1970s, the phrase has been nothing but gaining in popularity if Google’s N-gram viewer is any indication. The way I’ve seen the term used, “blaming the victim” appeared to amount to any suggestion that sexual assault might be reduced through any behavioral modifications on the part of victims of the act; in other words, any suggestion that people bear some responsibility for ensuring their own safety. Now, of course, sexual assault victims are no more at moral fault for the crime they suffer than robbery victims are at fault for being robbed (which is to say not morally at fault at all). The responsibility for the criminal act lies at the feet of the criminal. Nevertheless, one might also responsibly suggest that precautions might be taken to minimize the frequency of such acts, in much the same way that criminals are at fault for stealing bikes, but one might suggest that people lock their bikes up so as to make theft more difficult.

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“Good idea, but your execution of it leaves something to be desired.”

The recent Slutwalks were one of the more notable outcomes of such a suggestion: specifically, the suggestion that women might be able to minimize their risks of being sexually assaulted by dressing less provocatively. While I have no data on hand bearing on the plausibility of such a suggestion, I happen to have some other interesting research on the topic of victim blaming in the case of sexual assault. What’s unique about the current study by Perilloux et al (2014) is the examination of how different parties assign responsibility for a sexual assault: more precisely, how victims of a completed or attempted sexual assault assign responsibility, relative to third parties who were not assaulted themselves, but know a friend that was. The questions of interest here were (a) whether these three groups differ in terms of how much responsibility they assign to various parties, and (b) whether these groups also perceive the motivations of the attacker differently as well.

The sample included 49 women who self-reported experiencing a completed sexual assault after puberty, 91 women who reported an attempted sexual assault, and 152 women who reported knowing someone who was the victim of an assault. The participants were asked to assign blame (totaling 100%) for the assault to six potential sources: the perpetrator, the victim, the situation, the victim’s family, friends, or other categories. They were then asked to response in an open-ended fashion as to why they had assigned blame the way they did. The participants were also asked what they thought the perpetrators hoped to gain from the assault.

The results found some interesting disconnects between the perceptions of these groups. For the most part, the three groups – completed, attempted, and third parties – were in agreement over how much blame the situation, friends, family members, and other factors shared for the assault (approximately 7%, 2%, 1%, and 1%, respectively; so about 10% of the overall blame). Where these groups differed primarily was with respect to how much blame the victim of the assault and perpetrator share. Those women who were the victims of a completed or attempted assault suggested the perpetrator bore about 70% of the blame while they – the victim – were about 19% responsible. Third parties – those women who were not assaulted but knew someone who said they were – reported a different pattern: the third parties suggested the victim (their friends) was only about 9% responsible, while the perpetrator was 82% responsible. In other words, the victims themselves seemed to be doing about twice as much of the victim blaming than their friends were.

Or remember to always make accusations with all five fingers. Problem solved.

That wasn’t the only avenue along which these perceptions diverged, though: the three groups also differed in terms of how they perceived the attacker’s motivation (i.e. why the assaulter did what they did). In the completed assault group, 65% of women nominated “sex” as the primary motivation for the assault, while 22% suggested power was the motivation. These percentages were similar to the attempted group (71% and 18%, respectively). However, the third party women saw things rather differently: only 48% suggested sex was the motivation for the action, while 27% suggested power was driving the act. So the friends of the assault victims appeared to feel the assault was less about sex, relative to the women who were actually assaulted.

Finally, the analysis turned to only the perceptions of the completed and attempted groups. Perilloux et al (2014) examined the most common reasons listed for self-blame: (1) putting oneself in a bad situation, (2) being intoxicated, (3) not resisting enough, (4) sending mixed messages, and (5) being too trusting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, completed assault victims were more likely to list “not resisting enough” (25%) relative to attempted victims (11%), owing to the probability that resistance likely serves as a deterrent, and how much resistance is “enough” is assessed by whether or not the assault was stopped, or when it was. More completed victims (29%) also listed their own intoxication as a reason for their blame, relative to attempted victims (19%), and the completed group also reported more intoxication at the time of the assault. Again, this is might well be related to the resistance factor: intoxicated people could be less capable or willing to resist.

So, the good news from this research should be that, by in large, people seem to overwhelming place the blame for sexual assault on the perpetrator rather than the victim. The blame given to the perpetrator tended to be three- to nine-times that of the blame assigned to the victim. This appears to be true regardless of whether it’s the victim or the victim’s friend. The most interesting finding seems to be the disconnect between the responses of third parties and victims, however: most of the victim blame came from the victims themselves, and these victims tended to see the motivation for sex on the part of perpetrator as playing a more primary role than third parties did. There is, of course, the possibility that other, more socially-distant, third parties would assign more blame to the victims, relative to current groups, but that much remains to be seen. In any case, the question to consider is why these perceptions differ.

*Warning: point of view might not match well to reality.

One possibility is that the victims might have greater insight to what factors increased their risks for the assault, relative to third parties, owing to the fact that they were direct witnesses to the event. This certainly seems like a reasonable suggestion, and should give pause to those who claim that rape is primarily and act of violence or domination, rather than sex. Another, not mutually-exclusive suggestion, that I would advance would be to consider what signals these perceptions of victim blame might be sending. Since there’s no objective truth to the question, “how much blame does party X deserve”, these perceptions are likely to be reflecting something else.

Here are two possible alternatives as to what that something else might be: the first is that “who deserves how much blame?” might be interpreted as “whose side would you take in a dispute between the victim and the perpetrator?” In placing very little blame on the victim, third parties could be signaling a strong willingness to take their friend’s side on the matter. Another (also non-mutually exclusive) potential is that the question about who deserves blame might be interpreted as, “how much did the behavior of this individual increase their probability of being assaulted?” In this case, victims, through their self-blame, might be signaling that they recognize some potential for minimizing their future risk of being assaulted. This recognition could, in turn, make the victim look like a better social ally. Friends who consistently expose themselves to costly risks are, all else being equal, more costly to consistently support and side with than friends who suffer fewer costs. Accordingly, a friend who suggests they will behave more cautiously next time might appear to be at a lower risk for suffering costs, and a better social investment.

If third parties and victims interpret the notion of “blame” somewhat differently, then, this would lead to the following prediction: when rating one’s own blame for sexual assault, victims should rate their own blame higher, relative to third parties, as they did in the current study. However, there’s another prediction we could make: when rape victims are rating another victim’s blame for their sexual assault, the former group should not differ from non-victimized third parties. That is, victims of sexual assault should not both blame themselves and other victims equally; how much blame they assign to themselves or others should vary strategically.

References: Perilloux, C., Duntley, J., & Buss, D. (2014). Blame attribution in sexual victimization. Personality and Individual Differences, 63, 81-86.

Jesse Marczyk, M.A., is a Ph.D. student at New Mexico State University; he studies evolutionary psychology and writes the blog Pop Psychology: The Internet's evolutionary psycholo-guy.

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