Useful Notes / Victim Blaming
This page is an overview of the concept of "victim blaming," for those who want to know more about victim blaming in a meta sense for their own writing (and for possibly avoiding it if it's unintended
or being more aware in its use if it is
intended) or for understanding the concept of victim blaming in Real Life
to some extent. If you want to see ONLY fictional examples or examples of how victims are blamed in fiction, please go to Good Victims, Bad Victims
"Victim blaming" is, simply put, the concept of placing the responsibility for a misfortune primarily or entirely on the victim of the misfortune. When "victim blaming" is referred to, it almost always refers to when someone hurt by someone or something did not actively contribute to the misfortune
and is still being blamed for their own misfortune.
This is often a Berserk Button
and can be a trigger
, especially for people who have had or who know someone who has had experiences similar to a blamed victim.
Belief in victim blaming stems from a desire for comfort and hope:
- Victim blaming comforts you by reassuring you that bad things only happen to people who 'deserve' it because they didn't 'do the right thing': "People choose to become victims."
- Victim blaming gives you the illusion of control over your fate, giving you hope that bad things won't happen to you if you 'do the right thing': "I can't be a victim because I choose not to be one."
At the root of this desire for comfort and hope are two fears. Fears that:
- Bad things happen to people who don't 'deserve' it: "People have no choice in becoming victims."
- Even if you 'do the right thing', bad things could still happen to you: "I could be a victim."
We are not instinctively rational beings which decide what to believe on the basis of rational thought. Instead, we instinctively use our reasoning to justify what we believe already. Belief in victim blaming offers us such great comfort and hope, and abandoning it would give us cause to fear. Accordingly, we remember information which justifies our belief in it and ignore or reject information which inspires doubt
. The factual invalidity of victim blaming is irrelevant: if we wanted to do so badly enough, we could keep believing in it forever
Using victim blaming In-Universe
to establish a character
and avoiding or challenging it are the most obvious two for which most writers may find some use. Let's look at using it to establish a character first:
Obvious Victim Blaming
Obvious victim blaming is directly accusing the victim of a misfortune of causing it
Having a character do this will establish them as a Jerkass
Some examples of obvious victim blaming:
Subtle Victim Blaming
- Blaming a rape victim for being raped due to promiscuity, alcohol or drug use, state of dress, being out after a certain hour, etc.
- Blaming disaster victims because they live in an area prone to disasters and/or prepared insufficiently.
- Blaming X "sinful behavior" for Y disaster (though this is almost exclusively the purview of The Fundamentalist).
- Blaming the victim for reacting negatively to hurtful things said to them/about them by telling them that they need to suck it up or that the hurtful things that were said was not meant to be taken seriously.
- Blaming a Domestic Abuse victim for somehow provoking their abuser into violence. Abusers themselves are often known to say things like "Why Did You Make Me Hit You?" to portray their actions as never their fault.
- Blaming a victim of homo/transphobia for being openly queer. Even if people agree that the actions were wrong, GLBT people are still told that violence and discrimination against them wouldn't happen if they "tone it down".
Subtle victim blaming is accusing the victim not of directly causing their misfortune, but of enabling it or bringing it upon themselves via unrelated
Some examples of this:
Avoiding Victim Blaming
- Blaming someone experiencing a misfortune for not having a consistently positive and thankful mental attitude, not praying enough/not being devoted enough/not thanking enough or not being submissive enough to an authority the blamer values, such as a parent, leader, spouse, etc.
- Blaming someone who became addicted to a substance or mentally ill for being "weak-willed."
- Saying that "true victims/survivors" only act in a certain prescribed way. Saying that someone's feelings are not legitimate because they are expressed in even a way normally connected to a stereotype or fakery is blaming them for not expressing their feelings "properly."
- Questioning the reactions of a victim, also known as the "Why didn't you do something different?" argument. This is a common question in real life, partly because most people would prefer to think that they, in a similar situation, would handle it logically or rationally in such a way that would prevent or end whatever victimization occurs. This comes up often in cases of abuse of all types, but the core idea is that the victim could have done something to stop it, but didn't, thus it's their own fault for letting it happen.
- It should be noted that the phrase "fight or flight instinct", referring to the adrenaline rush that gives people the necessary energy and strength to either run from or fight off a threat, is over-simplified, leading some people to think that not fighting or escaping means that there was no survival instinct and thus the victim didn't really feel threatened and thus allowed themselves to be victimized. The more correct idiom would be "fight, flight, or freeze". It's an equally valid instinct to simply wait for the attack to end in order to walk away alive, especially against an attacker who is likely to be further provoked by resistance. It may sound counter-intuitive, but there are times when the safest and smartest thing a person can do to survive an attack is to do nothing at all.
- Or to even collaborate and bargain with the attacker/abuser/person threatening you - for example, begging a rapist to put on a condom or doing what they tell you to do even if you're doing something illegal or "wrong" in the process, just to get out of there alive and somewhat less harmed. Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome are also very real things, especially in situations of abuse and/or confinement (e.g. a situation one cannot leave without potentially getting killed or otherwise put in danger, anything from being in an abusive family or religious sect to, in some cases, simply being in someone's car and not knowing if there is a gun hidden under the driver's seat/if he'll stop and let you out somewhere safe if you say no). Doing what you have to do to protect your safety and life does not make you "less of" a victim or somehow complicit.
Let's say you want to avoid victim blaming entirely, which is probably the best course of action in social media discussions, in some forms of writing (generally nonfiction works and in fictional works where you don't want to address the issues which it brings up), and in some other places.
- There are many forms of victimization that don't "just happen" to people; they have a perpetrator, someone who actively harms someone else. Writing characters or situations where someone has invited retribution on themselves may make for good drama, but drawing a connection between someone murdering puppies and then being sexually violated by an unrelated stranger is at best lazy writing and at worst evokes Values Dissonance. We love to see a bad person get punished, but the punishment should come from the consequences of their actions, not whatever misfortune would best pay off their karmic debt (that's what puts the "Laser" into Laser-Guided Karma, and why it's not called "Random-Ass Unguided Karma"). Doing otherwise insinuates both that other victims of similar events must have done something to deserve it, and can create ugly Double Standards; avoiding it keeps the trauma dramatically viable for other characters.
- On the other hand, there are many forms of victimization that do "just happen" to people. Natural disasters, diseases, blights, and droughts fall under that umbrella. In fiction, there's a little more leeway to let these types of things be karma-driven (there's a reason they're sometimes called "Acts of God"), but again, these things need a connection to the victim's actions or attitude to be viable punishment if the reader is expected to think they deserve it. For a very, very broad example, one might argue that the guys who named it the Titanic and proudly assured everyone that nothing on Earth could sink it deserved to be punished for their hubris, but did they really deserve to die a gruesome death for it? And what about the passengers, who only wanted a boat ride?
- People react differently to stressful situations of all kinds, and different pressures on a person can result in different, sometimes counter-intuitive, actions and ideas. A victim's personality, their level of self-confidence before and after the victimization, the amount of support they have in recovery and the circumstances of the event itself can all have a huge impact on how they cope with it, before, during and after, and while there may be a few observable trends, there is no pre-written script for dealing with loss, pain, suffering, and grief. A victim's reaction, no matter how bizarre, or passive, or self-destructive, is never an indication that they had it coming.
- In real life, personal morality, kindness, and a good attitude don't deflect random tragedies. Likewise, wild sex acts, excessive drug use, and acting like a prick don't invite them. Hurricanes are not summoned by gay sex, eating 6 servings of fruit every day will not ward off rapists, earthquakes are not caused by cleavage, and donating to the Salvation Army does not prevent cancer. We like to think that our day-to-day actions can dictate the course of our lives because it gives us a measure of control over what is often, to our limited perspective, a chaotic and unsympathetic world. We want good to be rewarded and evil to be punished, and that just plain doesn't happen unless we take it into our hands to do exactly that.
- Even in cases where there is a definite cause and effect relationship between the action and the tragedy, that still doesn't necessarily justify placing all blame upon the victim and their choice. For one example, their choice may well have been itself compromised, made for them by another person or by a situation, or otherwise not fully their own. Even if it was their complete and free choice to smoke or to be the receiver in an unprotected sex act or to live in an area prone to a specific disaster, for example, there's still an element of chance as to who falls victim to the tragedies and who does not. People who do the same exact things or take more or worse risks can survive unscathed, whereas others don't. It's often more constructive, in general, to focus on what happened and what can be done for it than why, especially in regard to something that truly can't be undone anyway, even if the person entirely accepted "their responsibility."
- Don't confuse cause and effect. A person doesn't deserve to have their home broken into because they didn't buy a security system, and not buying a security system didn't summon a criminal to their house. A person doesn't deserve to be raped because they didn't dress modestly, and not dressing modestly did not summon a rapist to their car. It's that cause-and-effect fallacy again; we want to reassure ourselves that the victim was responsible for their own misfortune because we want to believe that it won't happen to us. If we define a right and wrong course of action in order to classify the break-in or the rape as a reaction, rather than an action taken by others over which we have no control, we maintain the illusion that we are, and will always be in control, and thus will never be made a victim.
- Secondary to this is the "failure to prevent" fallacy. A person who fails to sufficiently protect themselves from danger that they know exists is often blamed for their misfortune, because they are seen as having consciously taken a risk by exposing themselves to danger. This ignores any reason beyond outright hubris a person may have for being in such a risky situation, and places the blame on the victim by directly removing it from the perpetrator. Not only that, but the exact criteria for "optimal protection" widely differs in each person's opinion. For example, in the matter of sexual assault, when it comes to "non-provoking clothing", some people find a regular and decent T-Shirt with a pair of jeans doing the trick, other think that one must wear long and thick sleeves as to not expose anything other than their hands and head, a third faction thinks that one should be almost completely veiled (like women wearing burkas). Never mind that there are (still to this day) rape victims who were wearing clothes of each of these categories at the moment of the crime.
- And tertiary to that is the "universal consent" fallacy, the idea that anyone who appears to want to have sex is offering themselves to literally anyone, rather than exercising their right to consent or refuse sex at their discretion; most commonly this is phrased as "She was asking for it". It is an open declaration that a person who wants to have sex is obligated to sexually service anyone who wants them to do so. Some have argued that this brand of Insane Troll Logic is an extension of Men Are Generic, Women Are Special. Any woman seeking sex (or just looks like she is) is implicitly making herself available to any man or all men, and her wants and desires are just her "being picky".
- And a nasty Double Standard version of the "universal consent" fallacy centers around male victims of rape as well - when A Man Is Always Eager becomes "universal consent," e.g. that simply by being male and present, one must want any and all sex that doesn't involve anal penetration by another male, and this is often paired with the "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization. For example, a young teenage boy who is molested by a female teacher may well get blamed and demanded to take responsibility for ruining her life/getting her pregnant/initiating the "relationship," never mind that it was the teacher's responsibility to understand the boy wasn't a consenting adult and was therefore off limits, nor that the student may have been horribly scarred/traumatized from this unwanted experience.
- Furthermore, there is the unsettling fact that no crime or misfortune is 100 percent preventable. Carrying a weapon (lethal or nonlethal) can allow a victim to fight off an attacker, but there are a hundred different ways that an attempt at self-defense can be thwarted. Pepper spray can simply not work. Guns can miss. Or the attacker could be armed as well. While suggesting potential victims arm themselves is good advice note , one should never, ever, ever write off a crime with "You should have been carrying mace/a gun/that katana I gave you last Christmas." Even if the victim had been prepared at the time of the attack, that is no guarantee the crime would have been prevented.
- Be careful with the words "You're just asking for it!" and "You brought it on yourself", because no one ever is. Unless someone is deliberately harming or violating the rights of others (and no, no one has the right to exist in a perfect vacuum where they never have to hear or see anything objectionable), they are not doing anything that gives those others the right to punish or retaliate against them. An intelligent being (or a group of intelligent beings) that presents a danger to others because of their intolerance does not mean that anyone they choose not to tolerate is "asking for it". Doing this holds the victim responsible for the behavior of the perpetrator, and absolves the perpetrator of being responsible for their own behavior. Unless the perpetrator is a very small child, a mindless animal, or otherwise mentally compromised, their inability to behave properly is no one's fault but their own.
- It also implies that the perpetrator has the understood right to deliberately harm another person, if that person meets certain criteria. An easy reference is any movie with an interracial romance where one partner is told they're "asking for trouble" because the other partner's family will have them killed if they found out; regardless of how likely the negative reaction will be, that doesn't mean it's the lover's fault for falling in love with the wrong person if the family decides to murder the lover, and it doesn't mean the family is morally justified in killing the lover because they don't approve of his or her race.
- In fiction, these can be flexible when the right arrangement of narrative devices are in place; your volcano god may well be known to punish those who don't eat their vegetables with lightning bolts, your villain may have a legion of creepy baby-eaters to send out into the world to eat the children of smokers. The tone your work takes, how it characterizes the events and the people involved, makes all the difference.