Three Simple Steps You Can Take to Avoid Victim-Blaming

Why it's so easy to fall into the victim-blaming trap & what you can do about it

Posted Sep 22, 2014

Most people want to support victims, not blame them. Yet, the media, some people in the general public and sometimes even professionals such as judges and psychologists engage in victim-blaming behavior. However, even many people who say victim-blaming things want to be supportive. #WhyIStayed and #YesAllWomen and other recent movements are encouraging people to be less victim-blaming, but they don't always take the next step of explaining how people can learn to be more supportive. Why does victim-blaming happen so often? How can you avoid falling into the victim-blaming trap? This article discusses the mental traps that can lead to victim blaming and offers 3 steps to avoid them.

Good things happen to good people, so if bad things happen…..

Many years ago the social psychologist Melvin Lerner identified one important piece of the puzzle. He called it the "just world" hypothesis. We all want to believe that the world is fair and that people get the life they deserve. This is an especially strong belief in individualistic, wealthy cultures like the United States. In other parts of the world, poverty or war will teach almost everyone that sometimes very bad things happen to good people. Life is not always fair, but sometimes believing that myth is easier than a clear-eyed view of tragic events.

Better safe than sorry?

If you really wanted to insulate yourself from the risk of interpersonal violence, the best thing might be to move to a mountain and become a hermit. Hopefully this sounds like too extreme a solution—you would be giving up too much for the increase in safety from violence. However, we often endorse all sorts of risk reduction without really thinking about what we are giving up. Humans are not very good about thinking in statistical terms. In a famous example, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a jury assigned more blame to the owners of the building than they did to the terrorists! That is a perfect example of unreasonable expectations.  It is impossible to somehow predict and avoid every bad thing that might happen. What is more, we often hold unconscious beliefs that no security step is too expensive—either in terms of money or in terms of social costs.

Ah, gender

Gender is another factor that influences victim-blaming. The types of assaults that lead to the most victim-blaming—rape and domestic violence—have far more female than male victims. Remarkably, the characteristics of female victims often have more influence on how the legal system responds than the characteristics of the perpetrators or of the assault. What contributes to blaming female victims?

One common problem is the perception that perpetrators are not in control of their actions, but victims should be in control. This is a false myth. Perpetrators carefully choose their attacks and are always looking for easy targets. Women are more vulnerable to certain kinds of assaults because many perpetrators are confident they can overpower women (this is also the reason that childhood is the highest risk period of sexual assault for males). The same perpetrators that assault their girlfriend or wife or child would never attack their mother, their boss, or their minister, for example. They most certainly are in control and they are picking the time and place of attacks that maximize their chances of defeating their victim.

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3 Steps to Being More Supportive and Less Victim-Blaming

1) Be aware of these mental traps. The first step is awareness. We all struggle with these beliefs. I would like the world to be perfectly fair too and sometimes I have to remind myself that bad things can happen to good people. Remind yourself that no one wants to become a victim of violence. Most people who get victimized are simply trying to get the same things we all want from life—social relationships, fun experiences, nice things. There's nothing wrong with wanting any of that and in a perfect world it would not be risky to pursue these goals.

2) Try thinking in terms of "hardening the target." This is a common term in criminology. When you lock your front door or when you avoid flashing cash in public, you are making yourself a harder target. "Take back the night" is a terrific political goal, but that doesn't mean that walking alone at night is currently good advice in many places.

When you think about hardening the target, be sure to consider the pros and cons of any step. Never going on a date, for example, is probably too high a price to pay for risk reduction. However, picking a familiar public location for a first date is probably a reasonable step for many people. The specific steps are not as important as learning to balance the pros and cons of safety choices.

3) Work to strengthen yours and other people's "resilience portfolios" (Grych, Hamby, & Banyard, 2014). If you go to a jail and show a bunch of offenders some pictures of a crowd at a mall or children at a playground and ask them to pick a target, their answers are remarkably consistent. They tend to identify the same people. If you want to help people, don't blame them, strengthen them. Remember, no one wants to be a victim of violence. However, past victimization and other bad events can sometimes lead to a risk of re-victimization. Even when that first perpetrator or first tragedy is gone from someone's life, they can still bear the scars of past trauma. We need to build up people's strengths, especially their interpersonal, self-regulation and meaning-making (spiritual) strengths.

We teach children not to talk to strangers and too many of our prevention programs focus on warning signs. If you want to protect children, teach them to walk confidently with their head held high and not be afraid to speak up. Another good strengthening technique is narrative, or writing, exercises. These don't have to be great works of literature, but even a few sessions writing about past difficulties has been shown to improve mental health and well-being.

There are no steps that completely erase the risk of violence, but supporting others, instilling confidence, and processing past experiences are good ways to reduce vulnerability to victimization.

© 2014 Sherry Hamby

Interested in learning more? This article is based on The Complex Dynamics of Victimization: Understanding Differential Vulnerability without Blaming the Victim by Sherry Hamby & John Grych [to appear in the forthcoming book: Carlos Cuevas & Callie Rennison (Editors), Handbook on the psychology of violence, Wiley-Blackwell publishers]. You can download the full chapter at http://thevigor.org/papers/ or on Research Gate. A safety planning tool that balances the pros and cons of various safety steps, the VIGOR, is also available for free at http://thevigor.org.