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's 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.
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 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.
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:
- 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 a 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, 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 run from danger 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.
Avoiding or challenging victim blaming and using victim blaming In-Universe
to establish a character are the most obvious two for most writers may find some use.
Avoiding Victim Blaming
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. 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. The easiest way to avoid this use of victim blaming is a little substitution:
[Entity responsible] caused [tragic event] to befall [victim] because of [victim's actions].
If you can replace "entity responsible" with "Gandalf
", and Gandalf is engaging in vigilante justice, a hate crime, or is just being a real asshole, you're blaming the victim.
- 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. For a common (but by no means sole) example, one of the core tenets of Rape Culture is that it is the responsibility of victims to monitor their behavior so as to avoid being raped, rather than the responsibility of offenders to not rape people.
- 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.
- 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.
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