There are some questions that should never be asked. Questions that put people on the back foot before they’ve even opened their mouths to answer. Questions that trigger guilt and shame that can reverberate for years.
“What were you wearing?”
“Had you been drinking?”
“Why would you there in the first place?”
They question our judgment, our morals and our sensibility. They insinuate that we should’ve known better.
None of them are helpful. All of them can be harmful. And yet, even when they go unasked, they often seem to hang in the air. Like a poisonous gas; invisible, but recognisable by the faint whiff of judgment.
Victim-blaming has been present throughout history and is linked to the ‘false accusation’ trope. Elizabeth Conway describes the case of Margarey Evans, “a young woman who was returning home through the woods from a Midsummer’s Festival, was raped by two men, and when she went to report the crime, she faced hostility from the law enforcement and courts, who were heavily influenced by the perpetrators themselves.” The case, which occurred in 17th century England, still strikes uncomfortably close to home today.
As counter-intuitive as it is pervasive, victim-blaming may be much more than a historic hangover. The question we should be asking: Why do we blame the victim?
According to Dr Juliana Breines, victims present a challenge to the way we view the world: “victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability, it's also about avoiding vulnerability. The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe, that no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable.”
The “belief in a just world” was also found to be a factor in victim-blaming by researchers Stromwall, Landstrom and Alfredsson (2014). In their study Perpetrator characteristics and blame attributions in a stranger rape situation, they discovered the attributing blame to the victim was positively correlated with a belief in a just world. They also found that, “participants high on BJW (belief in a just world) were less willing to label the assault a rape. This finding indicates that just-world beliefs play a part in how individuals perceive the blameworthiness of rape victims and rape perpetrators.”
But it’s not just a rose-tinted view of the world that contributes to victim-blaming, traditional notions of masculinity and femininity may also play a part.
While most victims in a rape or sexual assault are assumed to be female, male victims may face even higher levels of victim-blaming. Why? The Atlantic’s Abigail Rine hypothesises it may be due to the subverting of traditional gender roles. “Rape myths spring from deeply entrenched gender norms about permissible and idealised behavior for men and women, and rape victims of both sexes are blamed when they openly transgress the social expectations of their gender,” she writes. “A man who fails to physically overcome his attacker is likewise seen as contributing to his own victimisation; he must have secretly wanted it.”
The University of Leicester’s Emma Sleath and Ray Bull also found gender differences when researching victim-blaming. They concluded that “male participants blamed the rape victim more than female participants” and that “the male victim was blamed more than the female victim”.
Whether the victim is male or female, victim-blaming is apparently widespread. Over half (56%) of respondents to a UK randomised survey of over 1,000 people in London, aged 18-50, believed that victims/survivors should take some responsibility for their rape in some situations. 64% said victims should take responsibility when they had been drinking, 28% said victims should take responsibility when they had dressed “provocatively”.
From Margarey Evans to modern day survivors, it’s a sad snapshot of society when victims are blamed for the criminal actions of others. So let’s ask the real questions: “how do we as a society take real steps to lower the incidence of rape?”, “when are we going to start having open and searching discussions about consent?” and, most importantly, “why are we blaming the victim?”Support Villainesse