October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (#DVAM). It is a time to shine a light on abuse and to educate the public about this extremely damaging and all-too-prolific issue. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about domestic violence that can compound the problem and make it more injurious and demoralizing for victims and survivors. Abuse can be a challenging subject to discuss in theory, let alone with someone who has experienced it. One of DVSN’s core tenets, and something we strive to impart to all, is the importance of listening and believing without judgment. Unfortunately, too many people continue to blame and shame victims. The more individuals are aware of the impact of their words and actions, the more supportive we all can be on a personal and societal level.
What is Victim Blaming?
Victim blaming is, as the term suggests, when people place blame for abuse, either partially or completely, on the victim rather than the abuser. They may believe the victim did something to provoke their abuser or perhaps that the victim could have prevented the abuse by being more careful or making different choices. Victim blaming can sometimes be a subconscious or visceral reaction that the blamer doesn’t realize has such a devastating effect on the victim.
What is Victim Shaming?
Similar to victim blaming, victim shaming is when people, perhaps without implying the abuse is their fault, per se, make victims feel it is something to be ashamed of or that no one outside of the relationship should know about. Shamers may make victims think they are weak for allowing this to happen to them or that others will see them differently, and more negatively, if they knew. It causes victims to believe the abuse is something they must suffer through, or figure out how to stop, on their own.
"Why didn't you fight back?"
For those who have not experienced abuse it is easy to think that if someone started hurting you, you would attempt to stop them or defend yourself by “fighting back”. This would be many people’s reaction if a stranger attacked them, but it is different when it is someone you love and trust. There is a level of shock that can cause victims to freeze in disbelief that this is happening. They also care about their abuser and might not want to hurt them, even if they are being hurt by them. When people ask why they didn’t fight back, it implies that the victim could have stopped the abuse, that they let it happen, that it is, in some way, their fault.
"It's not like she hit you."
When most people think of domestic violence, they think of physical abuse. There are many forms of domestic violence, however, and some can be challenging to identify or may not seem like abuse to everyone. Things like financial abuse, gaslighting, and reproductive coercion are sometimes met with skepticism and scorn. This reinforces the perception that these types of abuse are acceptable, just normal disagreements or power dynamics within relationships. Dismissing these more insidious forms of abuse can make the victim feel like they are taking it too seriously or that it is a private issue they just have to deal with.
"But... isn't he your husband?"
This example is a common victim-blaming refrain in cases of sexual assault and rape. Just because two people have had sex before, are in a long-term relationship, or are married, does not mean sexual activity is obligatory. Any form of physical intimacy must be a conscious choice by both parties every time and at every stage. Learn more in DVSN’s April 2022 blog post, “The Complexities of Consent”. Some people still believe that marital rape is impossible. In fact, it wasn’t a crime in all US states until 1993. The #MeToo movement has done a lot to change the public’s perception of sexual assault and harassment, but many still subscribe to the idea that certain levels of commitment in a relationship automatically denote perpetual consent. The way sex is generally viewed as an uncomfortable topic in society also adds an aspect of shame even before any individual’s reaction to a victim’s experiences makes them feel ashamed.
"You shouldn't have had so much to drink."
Examples like this and the similar, “What were you wearing?” and “Why did you go with him alone?” boil down to the same accusation, that something the victim said or did (or didn’t say or do) caused the abuse. It never would have happened if they weren’t under the influence, were wearing something less revealing, or hadn’t put themselves in a situation the abuser could take advantage of. While certain circumstances may rouse or aggravate them or make it easier to abuse their victims, abusers always make a deliberate, considered choice of who, when, and where they abuse. Comments such as these make victims feel like they brought it on themselves and caused the abuse to occur.
"Doesn't he have PTSD, though?"
While the previous example placed blame on the victim’s actions, this example excuses the abuser’s actions because of a condition or health issue they have. Likewise, statements such as, “He was drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing”, “His father hit him, that’s how he was raised”, and “It’s only because she’s off her meds” attempt to justify the abuser’s actions. Even if they don’t blame the victim directly, they take the blame off the abuser and make the victim feel ashamed of not being understanding or sympathetic enough. People think the abuser is a hero who served the country bravely or a wounded soul struggling to overcome a difficult childhood, and the resulting trauma is not their fault. While this may be true and these kinds of circumstances can exacerbate abusive tendencies, again, the abuser always has a choice about whether or not to express their difficulties by exerting power and control over someone else.
"Why don't you just leave?"
A 2012 study found that participants were more likely to blame a victim if they were told they returned to their abuser than if they were not told either way. There are many complex reasons why some victims either choose to remain with their abusers or return to them after leaving, including that it’s even more dangerous for the victim to leave an abuser. For more details on these motivations, check out DVSN’s July 2022 blog post, “Why It’s Not Always Safe/Right to Leave an Abuser”. When people judge victims and survivors for their choices, it can lower their confidence, self-esteem, and autonomy. Their abuser already makes them feel that way, and negative appraisals from those outside the relationship can compound the harmful effects of the assault and make them ashamed of their choices.
Effects on Victims/Survivors
Sharing experiences of abuse with anyone can be extremely difficult to do even without fear of judgment. When those that hear about the abuse react by blaming or shaming the victim, it can make victims wish they never said anything. The fear of these reactions often keeps victims from doing anything to increase their safety, making them feel even more isolated and trapped. Victim blaming increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicidal ideation in survivors (GoodRX). Blaming and shaming are also tactics some abusers use, so experiencing them from someone outside of the relationship can reinforce the abuser’s power and control. Reliving the abuse by talking about it and receiving a negative or even aggressive response can be retraumatizing and have a tremendously detrimental effect. Abusers can also use this reaction to reinforce their control over the victim by pointing out that other people don’t think anything is wrong or that nobody will believe the victim.
Even when friends and family believe victims and survivors and want to support them, their attempts can sometimes feel like blaming or shaming to the victim/survivor. Knowledge of abuse can cause people to view and/or treat the victim/survivor differently. They may become angry, and, while that anger is directed toward the abuser, the victim may still feel at fault for causing it by making them aware of the abuse. Perhaps employers try to be understanding by giving the survivor time off, reducing their workload, or changing their tasks. Some survivors may see this as a negative consequence of the abuse, that their employer no longer feels they can handle their job or that they are being punished or even re-victimized for sharing their experiences. Loved ones may pressure a victim to see a medical professional or to report the abuse to the police, believing it’s what needs to be done or is in the victim’s best interest. This can also feel like punishment or chastisement to the victim if they are not ready to share their story. Being forced to retell their story again to strangers in positions of authority can be traumatizing, take away from their individual agency, and increase feelings of shame and blame. Even people like therapists and prevention advocates can inadvertently make the victim feel at fault by recommending ways to be more careful to try to prevent further abuse.
Why Do People Blame Victims?
Stereotypes & Myths
Myths and stereotypes about what constitutes abuse and who an abuser or victim is can cause surprise or disbelief when people hear about an abusive situation that does not fall within what they think of as the “norm”. If the abuse is not physical, if a woman or adult child is the perpetrator, if the victim is very strong and masculine-presenting, if the abuser and/or victim is wealthy, influential, queer, or non-binary, people may attempt to rationalize the disparity in their perceptions by blaming or shaming the victim. The 2012 study, “Perceptions of Domestic Violence”, found that participants believing greater domestic violence myths attributed more blame to the victim than those believing fewer myths. A lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues of abuse leads to more victim blaming and shaming.
People instinctually don’t want to believe that bad things happen, especially when someone they know and/or love is the perpetrator. They try to find reasons why the victim’s story cannot be true. The thought that their friend or family member is an abuser makes them so uncomfortable that it is much easier to imagine that the victim is lying. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to believe this happened to the victim, rather they don’t want to believe that someone they love or admire could have been the one to do it. This unwillingness to think the worst of the perpetrator can come out as victim blaming, trying to find reasons they could be mistaken or have provoked an incident. They project their discomfort onto the victim in order to cope with the feeling.
Psychologists theorize that victim blaming is actually an ingrained bias. The “just-world” hypothesis is based on the idea that people get what they deserve. If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Conversely, bad things only happen to bad people. If someone is the victim of abuse, they must have done something to deserve it. Otherwise, the world must be unjust. People don’t want to believe that, because it means that no matter what they do, bad things could happen to them. According to Professor of Psychology Sherry Hamby, this just-world bias is especially prominent in the United States where the culture promotes the “American Dream” and the idea that we control our own destinies. “…As a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people,” she says, “In my experience, people blame victims so that they can continue to feel safe themselves.” It can be a defense mechanism against bad news and a way to exert more control over their lives by “preventing” themselves from becoming victims as well.
Moral Values & Perspectives
Four studies conducted by psychology professor Liane Young and postdoctoral associate Laura Niemi found two major factors that contributed to the likelihood that someone would engage in victim blaming behaviors. The first was their moral values, whether they were more inclined to exhibit “individual” or “binding” values. People with stronger individual values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to individuals and were found to be more sympathetic to victims, while people with stronger binding values favor protecting the interests of the group as a whole and were more likely to see victims as blameworthy. When presented with a scenario of assault, participants with binding values more often assigned responsibility to the victim and suggested things they could have done differently to change the outcome, compared with the opposite reaction in those with individual values. In the binding-values-participants’ idea of society as a collective team, it must necessarily be the victim who did something wrong to cause the assault, not the group for creating a culture where the abuser could thrive. Or, to some, perhaps the abuser’s status as an important, contributing member of society outweighs the harm they did to one individual.
The second factor is perspective. Two versions of the assault scenario were presented to different groups, one from the perspective of the victim (i.e. “Lisa was approached by Dan”) and the other from the perspective of the abuser (i.e. “Dan approached Lisa”). When the perpetrator was the subject of the scenario (“Dan approached Lisa”), ratings of victim blame and responsibility went down significantly, and suggestions of what the victim could have done to prevent the assault also decreased. “It’s an interesting finding because it does suggest that we want to be sympathetic and focus on victims and outpour our sympathy,” said Niemi, “But perhaps that might actually lead us to focus so much on victims and what they could have done that we actually neglect to focus on the agency of perpetrators [and what they] potentially could have done differently.” According to this finding, society’s emphasis on the victim’s viewpoint and even the concentration on assisting them, to the neglect of the perpetrator’s actions and motivations, may be inadvertently contributing to a culture of victim blaming.
Avoiding Blaming or Shaming
So, how to avoid this culturally reinforced psychological tendency to victim blame and shame? A good place to start is by listening to victims’ and survivors’ stories without judgment and letting them know you believe them and that the abuse is not their fault. Acknowledge how it must affect them and that you are there to support them however you can. Sharon Imperato of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), suggests considering the acronym “SEECK” when responding to survivors’ disclosures. SEECK stands for safety, empowerment, empathy, connection, and knowledge. Try to make the survivor feel safe, asking about their concerns and needs. Recognize that survivors are the experts on their own lives, give them options (including whether or not to answer questions or make use of resources, and what kind of support they would like), and let them make their own choices. Try to relate to their experience and let them know they are not alone, that you are there for them and that there are others out there who can lend support and community. Let them know how you can help or seek other resources for them, while recognizing your limitations.
According to psychologists, empathy is an especially huge factor in reducing victim blaming. In a 1974 study on empathetic observation of an innocent victim, participants watched a woman apparently receiving electric shock upon making errors in a learning task. Some participants were simply told to watch her, while others were asked to imagine how they would feel in the same situation. Those just told to watch tended to derogate the “victim”, while those asked to empathize with her tended not to. The empathy prompt made a significant difference in avoiding victim blame. A 2007 study concluded that participants with greater levels of empathy tended to view survivors of rape more positively and those with less empathy tended to view them more negatively.
Not only does victim blaming and shaming marginalize and demoralize victims and make them less likely to report incidents of abuse to the police, seek support, or even share what was done to them with anyone, but on a societal level, it also minimizes the incredibly detrimental act the victim is being blamed for. In the case of domestic violence, victim blaming can make it seem like the issue is not as universal and widespread as it is, but rather isolated incidents that were provoked and/or preventable. It shifts the focus away from the perpetrators so that many are not held accountable. Learning more about what victim blaming sounds like and why it is all too easy to do can help increase awareness and empathy, end stigma and shame, and work toward a better future.
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