Is victim blaming always bad?

Victim blaming is when someone pushes the idea that the victim rather than the perpetrator is responsible for an assault. The victim went to a party or a hotel room, thereby putting herself or himself at risk. The victim wore suggestive clothes. Stayed out too late. Was too friendly.

The victim did something–or didn’t do something–that caused his or her assault.

Victim-blaming is the biggest reason that survivors of sexual violence don’t report their assaults.  Feelings of guilt and shame in survivors are overwhelming; they’re made worse by unscrupulous attorneys and uninformed family and friends that suggest that the victim contributed to his or her victimhood.

Is victim blaming always bad, though?


I remember reading about an ad campaign in Canada designed to bring awareness of sexual assault on college campuses. There was a picture of a woman, at a party, passed out, the assumption was she’d been drinking.

The caption:

Just because she isn’t saying no doesn’t mean she is saying yes.

Guys are taught over and over that “no” means “no,” that “maybe” means “no,” and that saying nothing means “no.” I was even taught that a guy needs to hear “yes” many, many times as things…progress. Otherwise, “yes” means “no.”

These rules are very clear. No matter the circumstance, what someone is wearing, what he or she is drinking, where he or she goes with someone, nothing is a “yes” except “yes,” said over and over, without any persuasion.


The perpetrators of crime are to blame for the crime, no matter the circumstance–I agree. The problem I have with completely ignoring the circumstances of the crime is that there is value in making sure to protect yourself, both psychological and physical value. I think that gets lost in the zealousness–the rightful zealousness, for sure–of making it clear that we should never blame women.

So, someone breaks into my home, steals my favorite coffee mug, I am not to blame. He or she who stole my mug is the criminal. But, next time, I’m definitely locking my doors when I leave.


But you’re comparing two things that aren’t comparable. Stealing something has no gray area. If your mug is stolen, and I have the mug, it’s obvious what happened.

For some people, sexual assault isn’t that straight-forward.

Some people seem a little fuzzy on whether or not behavior is harassment or flirting. Or assault versus consensual aggressiveness. Before college, and definitely in college, guys get hammered with information on what constitutes an assault. But this is pretty recent; maybe some guys didn’t get that kind of intense schooling, and, maybe for them, the definition of assault isn’t as obvious.

These guys are not making good decisions, and our legal system doesn’t do a great job of prosecuting them: about 99% of people accused of sexual assault are found not guilty.


I think you’re saying that we should never blame victims because it’s too confusing to the victims, too confusing to the perpetrators, and maybe too confusing to the legal system that’s asked to rule on sexual assault.

I think that confusion is important in another way.

When you talk about perpetrators of sexual assault it’s like they’re monsters.


They are.


Actually, I’d say they’re not all monsters and that’s a big part of the problem. Most sexual assaults occur by people that are known to the victim. So, I’m in love with someone who rapes me. That’s super confusing. He’s not a monster (at least not to me). But he did a monstrous thing.

When we can look at ourselves, after a sexual assault, and give ourselves permission to feel more complex views (I was betrayed, for example) then we can hopefully work through the emotion that is at the core of the psychological trauma following the assault. In other words, betrayal by someone you love is different then being held at knife point. They’re both horrible crimes but probably result in different wounds.

Another example: We all like to believe that we have agency, that we can act on our world and change outcomes. So, I’m raped, now I’m afraid to go to college parties. But, if I think about how to protect myself (I won’t drink, for example) then I can feel some degree of control and that helps to dissipate my fear.


You’re talking about counseling, not criminal justice. Dealing with the effects of sexual trauma could include a how-do-I-understand-the-event and how-do-I-prevent-another-event approach. Dealing with the justice of sexual trauma should be about trial and punishment.


Shouldn’t criminal justice include a recognition of the need for victims to heal?


Definitely. But not as a defense to a crime.


I think I agree with that. It shouldn’t be a defense. But it’s effective, unfortunately.

As I was saying, humans like to believe in agency because believing in it makes them less afraid. So, my neighbor was robbed because he didn’t lock his door.

Phew. I lock my doors. I’m safe.

My friend was raped because she jogs at night.

Phew. I would never jog at night. I’m safe.

I feel more confident and less worried because I blame the victim. It’s super effective as a defense.


Effective doesn’t make it right. We need to push against our tendency to feel a certain way (relieved because I wouldn’t do what the victim did) and make sure we see assault for what it is: A crime, and one that needs to get prosecuted more successfully.

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