March 21, 2017
The Science of Victim Blaming
By Leslie Berntsen
Leslie Berntsen is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Psychology and the recipient of the 2016 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award from Division 2 of the American Psychological Association. She helped develop RSVP’s VOICE program in Spring 2015 and currently serves as a VOICE Year 2 Representative.
In 1981, noted anti-feminist and Equal Rights Amendment foe Phyllis Schlafly suggested in Senate testimony that “sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman.” Decades later, similar attitudes persist. During a live television interview, CNN anchor Don Lemon advised Joan Tarshis (one of Bill Cosby’s accusers) that “there are ways not to perform oral sex if you don’t want to.” Although different in content, these comments carry the same underlying message: that the onus is on survivors to avoid violence (by changing their personalities or behaviors), rather than perpetrators not to commit violence to begin with.
Those of us who engage in anti-sexual violence advocacy and activism know these sentiments all too well. We see them on the news, but we also hear them in random conversations while walking through campus, and sometimes even directed at us personally. We know these beliefs exist, and we know they have harmful consequences, but do we know why people might endorse beliefs like this in the first place?
At this point, it’s worth pausing to note that there is a very fine line between trying to understand why someone holds harmful views and excusing those harmful views. Without a doubt, the devil does not need any more advocates. However, effective persuasion requires more than factually countering what your opponent thinks. More importantly, it requires unpacking and dismantling the fundamental (often emotionally-laden) assumptions that help explain why they believe those things in the first place. While there’s certainly not a single answer that can explain why people victim-blame, I have found, in my advocacy work and in my teaching that the following explanation starts to get non-activists thinking about rape culture from a fresh perspective.
In 1980, social psychologist Melvin Lerner coined the term “belief in a just world” to describe the extent to which people consider the world around them to be a fundamentally good and fair place. When people strongly believe in a just world, they believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. By extension, this means that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Following this logic through to its natural conclusion, if a bad thing happens to someone living in a just world, it is because they are a bad person. You can think of the belief in a just world as an ideologically rigid form of cosmic justice. It is a core belief that informs someone’s entire worldview. As a result, the opinions that are influenced by this belief are highly resistant to change, no matter how many different thoughtful analogies are thrown at them.
In a theoretically just world, sexual violence (i.e., a bad thing) only happens to certain (i.e., “bad”) people. If a “good” person were to become victimized, the world would no longer be just. (And remember, people are highly motivated to maintain their belief that the world is a good and just place.) Suddenly, it begins to make sense why some people seem to go out of their way to look for victims’ character flaws or “faulty” decision-making. If someone can find any evidence that makes it seem like a victim “deserved” their fate, the world remains a good, safe, existentially comforting place that makes sense to them.
This line of reasoning can also offer a form of personal reassurance to those who believe it. If sexual violence only happens to bad people who do something to deserve it, then it doesn’t happen to good people. So, if sexual violence doesn’t happen to them personally, it is because they are good people who behave “virtuously” or make prudent decisions. At the same time that they blame others for being victimized, they can also congratulate themselves for avoiding victimization, which not only makes them feel safer, but also continually reinforces the version of the world they have imagined for themselves.
So how can we use this knowledge to more effectively combat victim blaming? First, use it as a guide for a conversation, rather than a script. In general, people don’t tend to appreciate being matter-of-factly informed why they believe what they believe. Instead, use this knowledge to ask a person appropriately framed and progressively more pointed questions until you can get them to actually verbalize their own just-world beliefs. For example:
“Okay, so it sounds like you’re saying that this victim was asking for it because they were drinking. If they weren’t drinking, this wouldn’t have happened to them. Is that right?”
“But is it possible for sexual violence to affect someone who’s never had a drink in their life?”
“And, in general, it’s possible for a bad thing to happen to a perfectly good person who doesn’t deserve it, right?”
Once you start making these implicit beliefs an explicit focus of the conversation, it becomes easier to bring in more traditional talking points, like how victim-blaming rhetoric impacts survivors’ mental health and perpetuates a single survivor narrative. In other words, simply telling someone that victim blaming is wrong because it has harmful consequences is not going to be an effective technique if they still believe that victims bear responsibility for those consequences in the first place.
Again, it’s worth pausing here to note that these are suggestions based on strategies that have worked for me, rather than some kind of mandatory playbook. Demanding that survivors must calmly and coolly engage with someone who has just blamed them for their own victimization is never a good look. Instead, feel free to try this approach the next time you consciously decide to start a conversation with someone about victim blaming.
The world is certainly not cosmically just, but we can all do our part to help make it more socially just. Sometimes, that requires understanding how people think in order to change what they think, so that they can begin to recognize and combat injustice all on their own.