Avoiding Victim Blaming

Victim Blaming and Relationship Abuse

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 survivors in greater danger.

Why Is It Dangerous?

Victim-blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the survivor knows that you or society blames her/him for the abuse, s/he will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you.

Victim-blaming attitudes also reinforce what the abuser has been saying all along; that it is the victim’s fault this is happening. It is NOT the victim’s fault or responsibility to fix the situation; it is the abuser’s choice. By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society allows the abuser to perpetrate relationship abuse or sexual assault while avoiding accountability for the perpetrator’s actions.

Where Does It Come From?

In order to stop victim blaming, it is helpful to understand why people do it in the first place. One reason people blame a victim/survivor is to distance themselves from an unpleasant occurrence and 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 reassure themselves by thinking, "Because I am not like the victim/survivor, because I do not do that, this would never happen to me." We need to help people understand that this is not a helpful reaction.

What Does Victim-Blaming Look Like?

Common Victim Blaming Statements:

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 s/he wants to his/her 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.
  • Mary is a battered woman; Being a battered woman is now part of Mary’s identity, and John is not a part of the statement.

As you can see, the focus has shifted entirely to Mary instead of John, encouraging the audience to focus on the victim’s actions instead of the perpetrator’s actions.

What Can I Do About It?

  • 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
  • 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

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.

Exercise to Explain Victim Blaming in Rape Cases

This is an interesting exercise illustrating the victim blaming that occurs in cases of rape.

Download this exercise as a PDF