What is Victim-Blaming?

Victim-blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault. Victim-blaming occurs when it is assumed that an individual did something to provoke the violence by actions, words, or dress. Many people would rather believe that someone caused their own misfortune because it makes the world seem a safer place, but victim-blaming is a major reason that survivors of sexual and domestic violence do not report their assaults. Many survivors are already grappling with feelings of guilt and shame for what has happened. It is essential that administrators do not reinforce these feelings. No matter what they were wearing, how much they had to drink, or whether they had a previously consensual relationship with the perpetrator, the victim should not be blamed. It is never the victim’s fault.

Victim-blaming advice to drink less, if it works at all to lessen the threat of violence for one individual, merely displaces the violence. It is the equivalent of saying “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your slowest friend.” It is essentially telling the potential victim to make sure the rapist rapes someone else.

General Statistics:

  • More than 20% of female undergraduates report experiencing sexual assault and misconduct while in school (AAU Campus Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, 2015)
  • 90% of campus sexual assaults are committed by individuals known to the victim.(Bonnie S. Fisher, Francis T. Cullen, Michael G. Turner, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” National Institute of Justice, 2000)
  • Only 12% of student survivors report the assault to the police. This number drops to 7% if they experienced incapacitated sexual assault. (Dean G. Kilpatrick, Heidi S. Resnick, Kenneth J. Ruggiero, Lauren M. Conoscenti, Jenna McCauley, “Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study,” 2007)
  • Only 2-10% of rapes are false reports – roughly the same for other crimes. This number also includes “unfounded” reports, where law enforcement declines to move forward with a case for whatever reason. (David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, Ashley M. Cote, “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” 2010)
  • For every 100 rapes, approximately two rapists will ever serve a day in prison. (Department of Justice, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties: 2009)
  • 34% of student survivors experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared with 9% of non-survivors. (“Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study,” 2007)
  • 33% of student survivors experience depression compared with 11% of non-survivors.(“Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study,” 2007)
  • 40% of student survivors report drug or alcohol abuse, often used to self-medicate compared with 17% of non-survivors. (“Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study,” 2007)

Remember: Some problematic behaviors on the part of the victim (poor academic performance, alcohol or drug abuse, etc.) may be the direct result of the sexual assault. Do not blame them for these behaviors or allow that to color how you treat them and their story.

Challenging Common Rape Myths:

  1. She asked for it. – No one asks to be raped. This is victim-blaming pure and simple.
  2. It wasn’t really rape. – Apparently people still feel the need to differentiate between “legitimate rape” and presumably “illegitimate rape.” This misguided sentiment has a silencing effect on survivors, many of whom will say they chose not to report because they didn’t think it was serious enough or that they would be believed.
  3. He didn’t mean to. – There aren’t “blurred lines” when it comes to consent. Studies suggest that most campus rapes are committed by repeat offenders.
  4. She wanted it. – This is a variation of #1.
  5. She lied. – Again, best research puts false reporting rates somewhere between 2-5%. That means 95-98% of rape reports are true.
  6. Rape is a trivial event. – Rape and other forms of gender-based violence can have an immense impact on an individual. You may see the effects reflected in academic performance, substance use, depression, and more.
  7. Rape is a deviant event. – As much as we’d like it not to be, sexual violence is prevalent on college campuses. The shaming and silencing of victims leads to a feeling of impunity for perpetrators, who often commit multiple assaults during their time on campus. This is rape culture in America today.

(Diana L. Payne, Kimberly A. Lonsway, and Louise F. Fitzgerald, “Rape Myth Acceptance: Exploration of Its Structure and Its Measurement Using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale,” Journal of Research in Personality 33 (1999): 27-68)

Things that DO cause rape:

  • Rapists
  • What is the one thing that every single rape has in common? A rapist who chooses to rape.

Things that DO NOT cause rape:

  • Drinking or drug use (whether intentional or unintentional – e.g. date rape drugs)
  • Clothing or make up
  • Flirting or previous consensual encounters

Avoiding Interpersonal Victim-Blaming, DOs:

  • Make sure the survivor feels comfortable and in control.
  • Remember that telling their story can be extremely triggering. Give the survivor the time they need.
  • Inform the survivor of their options and appropriate resources.
  • Understand that part of the brain’s response to trauma is to block out certain memories.
  • Take care of your own emotional wellbeing.

 DON’Ts:

Do not ask accusatory questions such as:

  • What were you wearing?
  • How much did you have to drink?
  • Do not expect each and every victim to act the way you think a victim would act. Trauma impacts all of us differently. There is no “perfect victim” or perfect way to respond to trauma.