One of the Center’s main goals is to eliminate barriers and increase survivors’ access to safety, resources and support. Victim-blaming attitudes are one of these barriers and place victim/survivors in greater danger.
Victim-blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the victim/survivor knows that you or society blames survivors for abuse, they will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you.
Victim-blaming attitudes also reinforce the manipulative tactics that abusers use to control their partner; abusers tell survivors that it is their fault this is happening. Committing violence is always the choice of the person who is abusing. It is NOT the victim/survivor’s fault or responsibility to fix the violence that an abuser is committing against them. By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society allows abusive people to perpetrate relationship abuse or sexual assault while avoiding accountability for those actions.
Victim-blaming attitudes prevent society from acknowledging and changing toxic masculinity and rape culture.
In order to stop victim-blaming, it is helpful to understand why it occurs in the first place. One reason that people blame a victim/survivor is to distance themselves from an unpleasant occurrence. This gives a false sense that this could not happen to them. By labeling or accusing the victim/survivor, others can see the victim/survivor as different from themselves. People use the Just World theory, Invulnerability theory, and Assumptive World theory in an attempt to feel like they have control over situations where they do not have control. People reassure themselves by thinking, “Because I am not like the victim/survivor, because I do not do XYZ, this would never happen to me.” We need to help people understand that a survivor’s actions do not contribute to a perpetrator’s decision to commit relationship abuse and sexual violence. It is our responsibility as members of society to support survivors and hold abusers accountable.
Common Victim Blaming Statements:
- “The victim provoked him”; FAQ Response
- “They both have problems”; FAQ Response
- “The victim shouldn’t have married him after”; FAQ Response
- “The victim was drunk”; FAQ Response
- “They can’t be abused, because they are in an LGBTQI+ relationship”; FAQ Response
Check out our page on Rape Culture for more examples of victim-blaming.
Example of Victim-Blaming Attitude:
“She must have provoked him into being abusive. They both need to change.”
Reality: This statement assumes that the victim is equally to blame for the abuse, when in reality, abuse is a conscious choice made by the abuser. Abusers have a choice in how they react to their partner’s actions. Options besides abuse include: walking away, talking in the moment, respectfully explaining why an action is frustrating, breaking up, etc. Additionally, abuse is not about individual actions that incite the abuser to hurt the victim/survivor, but rather about the abuser’s feelings of entitlement to do whatever the abuser wants to their partner. When friends and family remain neutral about the abuse and say that both people need to change, they are taking away responsibility from the perpetrator, thereby colluding with/supporting the abusive partner and making it less likely that the survivor will seek support.
Victim Blaming in Language
One of the biggest sources of victim blaming is the way we talk about it. Language surrounding abuse and sexual assault immediately puts our attention on the victim instead of the perpetrator. This is a demonstration developed by Julia Penelope and frequently used by Jackson Katz to show how language can be victim blaming:
- John beat Mary; This sentence is written in active voice. It is clear who is committing the violence.
- Mary was beaten by John; The sentence has been changed to passive voice, so Mary comes first.
- Mary was beaten; Notice that John is removed from the sentence completely. Our attention is completely focused on Mary.
- Mary is a battered woman; Being a battered woman is now part of Mary’s identity. John is not a part of the statement, and he will not be held accountable for his choice to abuse.
As you can see, the focus has shifted entirely to Mary instead of John, encouraging the audience to focus on the survivor’s actions instead of the perpetrator’s actions. The solutions regarding prevention become focused on what Mary can do differently, not on what John can do differently, and not on how society creates a culture that supports John’s behavior.
- Challenge victim-blaming statements when you hear them
- Do not agree with abusers’ excuses for why they abuse
- Let survivors know that it is not their fault
- Hold abusers accountable for their actions: do not let them make excuses like blaming the victim, alcohol, or drugs for their behavior
- Acknowledge that survivors are their own best experts and provide them with resources and support
- Recognize that victim-blaming can take on many forms and manifest in unique ways, which can be rooted in racist, sexist, and/or homophobic attitudes present in society.
- Avoid victim blaming in the media
- Reframe the question “Why does the victim stay?” to “Why does the perpetrator abuse?” See Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship
- Understand the frequently asked questions that often interrupt accountability.
- See Tips for Media Professionals for information on how you can re-frame victim-blaming language.
Remember if you are aware of abusive behavior and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place.*
*Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.
This is an example exercise illustrating the victim blaming that occurs in cases of rape.