Sexual Assault and Victim Blaming

The Reason Behind the Blame

At first glance, you might question why anyone would ever blame the victim of a sexual assault. But think about it a little more. You may discover that there have been times when you too have put the responsibility on a victim, rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, it’s a common phenomenon.

If you’ve been the victim of a sexual assault, you might have even blamed yourself. You might have convinced yourself that somehow you did something wrong — or that you didn’t do enough to stop it.

It’s important to understand our tendency to blame the victim. Learning more about why it happens can help you learn to recognize victim blaming when you see it — and it can help you stop blaming others or yourself.

What Constitutes Victim Blaming

Examples of victim blaming may include things like:

  • “You had to know what was going to happen if you went up to his apartment.”
  • “You shouldn’t have been drinking.”
  • “You must have sent mixed messages.”
  • “Was your door even locked?”
  • “What were you wearing?”
  • “How hard did you try to stop it?”
  • “Why didn’t you come forward sooner?”

Of course, there are many ways people either outright blame victims or subtly imply they must have provoked the predator (or not tried hard enough to make it stop).

Victim blaming is often seen in courtrooms where defense attorneys insist that victims are at fault. Victims are often blamed in the media as well.

Why It Happens

Victim blaming occurs any time someone says or implies that a sexual assault was the victim’s fault. Sometimes, people do this to help themselves feel better.

They feel safer if they can imagine that the victims did something wrong. Then, they convince themselves that they may be able to protect themselves so that they won’t become a victim or that their loved ones are also less likely to be victimized.

We see this involving other crimes too, not just sexual assault. For example, if your neighbor’s house is burglarized, you might feel better if you learn that they had left the garage door unlocked or that they associated with some not-so-good people. It may help you continue believing that the world is safe and you aren’t likely to become the victim of a random crime.

A Study About Blame

There’s a classic psychological experiment from 1966 that explains victim blaming. In a large study, women were asked to watch another woman receive painful electric shocks. The woman was really an actress, and she wasn’t actually shocked. But the participants were told she was being shocked whenever she got the answer to a memorization test wrong.

Initially, the participants were upset as they witnessed the victim’s suffering. Then, some participants were offered the chance to help the victim by voting to stop the shocks when she got the answers wrong. Instead, they could choose to compensate her with money as a reward for the answers she got right.

The second group of participants was not given this opportunity. Instead, they had to sit and watch the victim repeatedly get shocked without any way to fix the situation.

Afterward, all of the participants were asked to share their opinion of the victim. The results were striking: the group who gave her a reward saw the victim as a good person, while those who were forced to watch the situation unfold were more likely to see her as a bad person who deserved to be shocked.

The authors of the study concluded that the group who couldn’t stop bad things from happening to the victim felt the need to see her as a bad person in order to protect their view that the world is fair and just.

If they could convince themselves that she was a bad person, they would be less affected by her suffering.

Blaming the victim helps us maintain a positive view of the world. It reinforces the notion that “bad things happen to bad people.” It overlooks the fact that perpetrators are at fault for inflicting pain and committing crimes.

And it serves as a form of self-protection. When an individual can say, “I’m not like that person, so bad things won’t happen to me,” they continue to see the world as a good place.

Why Victims Blame Themselves

Victims sometimes blame themselves for the same reason others blame them; they want to believe the world is fair. Blaming themselves may also help them feel safer in some ways.

Sometimes it’s easier to convince yourself, “If I dress conservatively, this won’t happen to me ever again.” Or “If I didn’t drink so much, I would have been able to fend off my attacker.”

Such toxic self-blame, however, is unhealthy. And it can take a serious toll on an individual’s well-being.

Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. It’s always the perpetrator’s fault.

Why Victim Blaming Is Dangerous

Blaming the victim makes it more difficult for that person to come forward and report the assault. On a societal level, it means fewer crimes get reported and fewer predators get prosecuted.

Victim blaming also reinforces predator-like attitudes. It allows perpetrators to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Victim blaming can lead to increased and unnecessary suffering for the victims. They may experience ridicule—while at the same time watching their predators avoid punishment instead of getting the justice they deserve.

This may increase unhelpful emotions like shame and guilt as it delays their healing. It may also add to their toxic self-blame.

A Word From Verywell

Fortunately, victim blaming has become more apparent in recent years, and some courtrooms and media outlets are changing the way they address victims.

But we still have a long way to go before this ends.

If you’re a survivor of sexual assault, know that what happened to you is not your fault. So if other people blame you, or if you blame yourself, it can be helpful to get professional support.

Reach out to a therapist, an online therapist, or a group like RAINN who can provide you with support and guidance as you recover.

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  1. Lerner, M., and C. Simmons. “Observer's Reaction to the ‘Innocent Victim’: Compassion or Rejection?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42, no. 3 (1966): 203–10. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0023562.