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Victim Blaming Revisited

Exploring biases and criticisms in the perception of crime victims, from robbery to rape.

· 6 min read
Victim Blaming Revisited

My son was recently mugged while walking at night near his apartment in downtown Newark. His shoulder was broken in three places, and he had to have surgery. I didn’t think he should have been walking at night in a neighborhood known to be dangerous. Was I blaming the victim?

What if I made the same criticism of a rape victim? For over fifty years, activists have claimed that people blame rape victims unfairly, and that the belief that rape victims can be in any way blameworthy is a myth. However, research suggests that the belief that rape victims are singled out for blame is itself a myth. We sometimes criticize rape victims, but no more than we criticize victims of other crimes, and such criticisms are not necessarily unfair.

To examine the issue, my colleague Chris Palmore and I asked undergraduates to read scenarios that ended with rape or with some other crime.  One group was randomly assigned the following vignette:

On a Friday night, Rachel goes to a bar, meets a guy, and invites him back to her apartment. At her apartment, they kiss and engage in limited sexual activity. When she tells him she wants to stop, the man holds her down and rapes her.    

Another group read the same vignette with one modification: Rachel was robbed rather than raped. Our results showed that students were actually less likely to blame Rachel if she was raped than if she was robbed. We found the same result when we used other vignettes. Some students read about Rachel getting drunk at a fraternity party and blacking out while others read about Rachel getting a lift from a young man she didn’t know. In both these scenarios, students assigned less blame to Rachel if she was raped than if she was robbed. Perhaps that is because rape is considered a much more serious crime than robbery. However, in other analyses, we compared rape to homicide and found that students assigned similar levels of blame to victims of both crimes.

One should not rely too much on the results of a single study, but other studies have found a similar pattern. Three vignette studies found that rape victims were assigned less blame than other victims while the fourth found no effects of type of crime. One involved students from India in the 1980s and another involved American students in the 1990s. These results suggest that inhibitions about blaming rape victims preceded the #MeToo era.  A more recent study asked actual victims of rape, physical assault, and theft what reaction they received from others. Rape victims did not report receiving more blame than other victims. In general, research consistently shows that rape victims are not treated as more culpable than victims of other crimes—whether they are blamed less is unclear.

So why are crime victims sometimes criticized? This happens to both male and female victims when we believe that their reckless behavior made their victimization more likely. We still assign the lion’s share of the blame to offenders since their behavior was intentional. For example, I deserve criticism for not locking my door, but the burglar deserves most of the blame. My mistake gives him no right to burgle my house.

In most instances, we don’t think victims made any mistakes, so we don’t engage in any victim blaming. We only assign blame when we think the victim did something risky. For example, we criticize drunk victims if we think their condition increased their vulnerability and made victimization more likely. Different crimes can elicit different criticisms. We may criticize rape victims for being sexually provocative, robbery victims for flashing money around, and victims of physical assault for being verbally provocative.  

There are biases in victim blaming, but they can apply to any type of crime. These biases can lead us to assign too much blame to victims or too little. In other words, sometimes we are too critical of victims and sometimes not critical enough.

Hindsight can lead us to assign blame to victims when it is not deserved. The critic knows the outcome but fails to consider that victims made their decisions without that knowledge. In other words, the critic believes that the outcome was foreseeable when it was not. As a result of the hindsight bias, we tend to judge behavior more harshly when it has a negative consequence. For example, we found that students were more likely to criticize Rachel when her behavior was followed by a rape or a robbery than when nothing bad happened to her afterwards. Her behavior was the same in all instances so the level of blame should have been the same. She was assigned more blame than she deserved because of the hindsight bias. 

Sometimes we are less critical of victims than we should be because we sympathize with them and desire to support them. We think they have behaved irresponsibly but sympathy leads us to avoid criticizing them, at least to their faces. I did not communicate my criticism to my son when he was mugged, although he will discover it when he reads this piece. Sympathy may explain why many students avoided using the word “blame” when they criticized Rachel. While only 35 percent thought that Rachel deserved at least some blame for the rape in her apartment, 73 percent thought that Rachel’s behavior was at least somewhat irresponsible or that she should not have put herself in that situation. They were more than twice as likely to engage in indirect criticism. It would be unkind to say the victim was blameworthy, so they avoided using the word “blame.”

We are not always so sympathetic towards victims. When we are morally offended by the victim’s behavior, we are more likely to criticize it. We found that students opposed to casual sex were more likely to blame the victim in our vignettes than students who were favorable to casual sex. For example, they were more likely to blame Rachel if she drank so much that she passed out at a fraternity party. They were critical of her even in scenarios where her behavior did not have a bad outcome. Clearly, some students are offended by the campus culture of drinking and casual sex and judge participants more harshly.

Anger at criminal offenders can reduce victim blaming. This bias is the result of zero-sum thinking, i.e., the tendency to treat the total amount of blame in an event as a fixed sum. It leads to the belief that the blame assigned to the victim subtracts from the blame assigned to the offender. It makes us reluctant to assign any blame to victims, even when we believe the victim’s behavior is a contributing factor. Anger towards rapists and the desire for harsh punishment inhibits any criticism of the victims. It may explain why Rachel was assigned less blame if her behavior resulted in an accident rather than a crime. When there was no offender, there was no zero-sum thinking.

A zero-sum approach is recognized in civil law where a plaintiff’s contributory negligence can absolve the defendant or at least reduce the amount of a monetary judgment. Victim blaming is accepted there. For example, if I was intoxicated when I slipped on the ice on a university walkway my lawsuit has less value. The criminal law, on the other hand, prohibits jurors from using the victim’s negligence in their judgments about the accused. While not all jurors follow instructions, they are expressly ordered not to take the victim’s mistakes into consideration. Rachel may have acted irresponsibly but that shouldn’t affect the sentencing of the offender. I may be critical of my son for walking in a dangerous neighborhood but that doesn’t mean I excuse the four teenagers who mugged him. I hope they get severe sentences.

Hindsight bias, then, increases victim blaming, while sympathy towards victims and anger towards offenders inhibits it. These well-known biases affect our judgments of crime and accident victims and anyone who suffers misfortune. They reflect well-known human tendencies not specific to rape. The claim of activists that rape victims are blamed unfairly is mistaken.

The widespread belief that rape victims are likely to be blamed can have very negative consequences. Rape victims may not report the crime to the police if they believe they will be unfairly blamed. In addition, most crime prevention involves the individual efforts of citizens to protect themselves and their property. Blaming those who fail to take precautions is itself a crime prevention strategy, as it encourages citizens to be careful in the future. It is easier to influence potential victims to take care than it is to influence potential offenders to stop behaving badly. We should stop blaming victim-blamers.

Richard B. Felson

Richard B. Felson is Professor of Criminology at Penn State. He is the author of two books and numerous articles, most of them on situational factors in violence.

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