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). For fictional examples of victim blaming, 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. "Victim blaming" almost always refers to when someone who was hurt by someone or something did not actively contribute to the misfortune, yet is still being blamed for their own misfortune.
This is often a trigger, especially for people who have had or who know someone who has had experiences similar to a blamed victim.
Victim blaming can be used by writers In-Universe to establish a character through obviously or subtly engaging in it, characters avoiding it or challenging it, or narrative implications about victimization.
Why Do People Blame Victims?
Belief in victim blaming stems from a desire for comfort and hope based on these ideas:
- Victim blaming comforts non-victims by reassuring them that bad things only happen to people who "deserve" it because they didn't "do the right thing".note
- Victim blaming gives people the illusion of control over their own fate, giving them hope that bad things won't happen to them if they 'do the right thing'. Therefore, victims "choose" to be victimized, and doing the "right" things will prevent it.
At the root of this desire for comfort and hope are two fears. Fears that:
- People have no choice in becoming victims. Bad things happen to people who don't "deserve" it, which means:
- Anyone could become a victim. Even if someone "does the right thing", bad things could still happen to them.
This line of reasoning justifies what people already believe; people remember information which justifies their beliefs, and ignore or reject information which inspires doubt.
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 at best. Using your narrative to do so may establish you as the jerkass.
Some examples of obvious 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 (whether intentional or not) by telling them that they need to suck it up or that the hurtful things that were said were 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 Domestic Abuse or Child Abuse victim for "letting them do it" and "not standing up to themselves".
- Blaming a victim of bullying for "letting themselves get bullied", pointing out the reason they were being bullied, or excusing the bully's actions or motivations.
- Blaming a victim of homo/transphobia for being openly expressive in public, such as a same-sex couple holding hands, a Camp Gay man, Butch Lesbian, openly transgender person, etc.
Subtle Victim Blaming
Subtle victim blaming is accusing the victim not of directly causing their misfortune, but of enabling it or bringing it upon themselves via unrelated actions.
Some examples of this:
- Telling someone their misfortunes reflect their attitudes or actions: not having a consistently positive and thankful mental attitude, not praying enough/not being devoted enough/not thanking people enough, or not being submissive enough to an authority the blamer values, such as a parent, leader, spouse, etc.
- Saying that "true victims/survivors" only act in a certain prescribed way, and if someone isn't expressing themselves in a stereotypical idea of a victim, they aren't a "real" victim.
- Questioning the reactions of a victim, also known as the "Why didn't you do something different?" argument. 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". This mindset involves an oversimplified understanding of the "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; a more accurate idiom is "fight, flight, or freeze, with "freeze" actually being the most common reaction.Further explanation
- Placing responsibility on someone for not heeding warnings regarding "missing stairs"— known problematic individuals in a social group or subcultural scene (usually sexual predators) who people are privately warned about, but who are never publicly outed or confronted. Apparently, victims are supposed to regard every rumor as truth and "just know" if someone is a predator.
- Blaming someone who is transgender or HIV-positive and didn't disclose it for being attacked by a sex partner who reacted badly to learning that status. In many cases, the victim and only the victim is blamed for non-disclosure, with no criticism whatsoever towards the assailant. Over the years, the "trans-panic" defense has allowed people to literally get away with murder.
- Accusing someone who became addicted to a substance or mentally ill of being "weak-willed."
- Blaming someone's Weight Woe on lack of willpower or lack of self-discipline.
- Blaming someone with an eating disorder for being "vain," "shallow," etc.
- Calling a person who attempts or completes suicide "selfish," "cowards", "negative thinkers," "sinners", etc.
- Blaming someone for ignoring red flags or the concerns of others ("I told you so").
- Telling a victim of harassment to "Just ignore them" or "Log off".
- Blaming former enablers who saw their situation for what it was for "abandoning" the people they enabled.
- Trauma gatekeeping (openly or implicitly stating that someone's trauma does not matter because someone else went through worse/they are from a privileged background/they have access to therapy/etc.).
- Outright refusing to believe a victim can even be a victim in the first place, and therefore must be at fault for their own victimization somehow, or else are lying about their victimization, or else are misinterpreting their victimization for some other form of behavior. (This is a common experience among male rape survivors basead on thinking like "A Man Is Always Eager", "men are naturally strong enough to avoid being raped", "boys should be happy they had sex", etc., especially if the perpetrator is a woman. Another recurring assumption is that only men are lustful enough to perpetrate rape in the first place or that it's impossible for a woman to rape someone.)
Avoiding Victim Blaming in Your Writing
Let's say you want to entirely avoid writing a character who victim blames, or you want to avoid implying a character deserved their victimization. Here are some things to consider:
- Many forms of victimization don't "just happen" to people; they have a perpetrator, someone who actively harms someone else. The responsibility lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. 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 lazy writing at best and evokes Values Dissonance at worst. 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.
- Many forms of victimization that do "just happen" to people, like natural disasters, diseases, blights, and droughts. 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. 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.
- 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 choices. Their ability to choose may have been compromised, made for them by another person or by a situation, or it was just random chance. It's often more constructive, in general, to focus on what happened and what can be done for it than why, which often doesn't have a satisfying answer.
- The "cause-and-effect" fallacy. Don't confuse cause and effect; not buying a security system doesn't summon a burglar to break into a house; not dressing modestly doesn't alert rapists to attack. People want to reassure themselves that the victim was responsible for their own misfortune because they want to believe that it won't happen to them. If we define a right and wrong course of action that classifies a break-in or the rape as a reaction to the victim, rather than an action taken by perpetrators (or chance) over which a victim has no control, we maintain the illusion that we're always in control and will never be made a victim.
- 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 (for instance, it doesn't account for being outright unaware of the danger), 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, the idea of "non-provoking clothing" to "avoid rape" varies from a regular t-shirt and jeans, long and thick sleeves that only expose the hands and head, and complete veiling like a burqa, nevermind that people have been assaulted wearing every kind of clothing.
- The "universal consent" fallacy. It's 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. 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, and saying otherwise is just "being picky" or somehow an insult to whoever they turn down. This is Insane Troll Logic.
- The Double Standard idea that A Man Is Always Eager, and simply by being 1) male and 2) present must mean they want sex, often paired with the "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization. Physiological reactions are not the same as actually wanting it.
- Be careful with phrases like "they're just asking for it" and "they brought it on themselves", because no one ever is. Unless someone is deliberately harming or violating the rights of others, they are not doing anything that gives others the right to punish or retaliate against them. Saying things like 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 right to deliberately harm another person, if that person meets certain criteria.Example
- As a final note, remember that 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, and how it characterizes the events and the people involved, makes all the difference.