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What is Victim Blaming?

Apr 04, 2024
Last updated Jun 17, 2024
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Sexual violence significantly alters the landscape of a person’s life. Sexual violence survivors face a myriad of challenges after an assault, and their healing can be further aggravated when they face blame from other people, the media, and regressive ideologies that back the current victim-shaming landscape. In the United States alone, a person who has been sexually victimized is 63% less likely to even report their assault, and the practice of victim blaming contributes to this alarming statistic. 

Victim blaming often happens subtly, and the survivor of abuse is left to sort through the wreckage of not only their assault, but of the feelings of shame and guilt these attitudes and victim-blaming phrases produce. This is why at Edwards Henderson, our sexual abuse attorneys are committed to empowering survivors of sexual abuse and assault to seek justice so they may preserve their dignity and feel heard. 

Key Takeaways

  • Victim blaming is the practice of shifting the burden of guilt away from a sexual predator and onto their victim.
  • Victim blaming is a socio-cultural phenomenon that can result in unreported crimes, self harm among survivors, and trivialization of sexual abuse.
  • An experienced sexual abuse attorney can help understand what happened and discover what legal options are available to you.

Victim Blaming Definition

Victim blaming can take different forms, but the supposition that the survivor of abuse could have, in some way, prevented the abuse or attack from occurring, is both false and harmful to the overall health of our society. Sexual abuse does not have any correlation with the survivor’s actions, locations, clothes, age, job, or behavior. 

Victim blaming is alarming not only because it can significantly decrease the likelihood that a survivor reports the crime, but also because it perpetuates the myth that any survivor has control over crimes like these. This dangerous narrative is why many sexual abuse and assault crimes go unreported, with many criminals walking among us, perpetrating the crime. Thus, victim-blaming supports powerful people and institutions that continue this abuse, placing the onus of the crime on the survivor and allowing the abuse to continue. 

Examples of Victim Blaming

It would be easy to assume that the only examples of victim blaming were obvious. Comments like “you should have known better” or “you could’ve done more” are on-the-nose examples of victim blaming that, while still wrong, are not as common as some more subtle examples:

  • Just-world hypothesis: This theory is adopted by people who believe that the world must always be fair and balanced. Therefore, if something bad happens to a person, they must have deserved it or contributed in some way to its occurrence. 
  • Attribution: When someone is sexually assaulted, others may attempt to explain the abuse by attributing some facet of the survivor’s character, actions, or clothing as a factor for the abuse. An example of this is classified as the “what were you wearing” question, which suggests that a survivor would not have been abused had they chosen clothing other than what they were wearing at the time of abuse. 
  • Hindsight: Victim blaming might also look like an armchair quarterbacking the crime, giving the survivor unsolicited advice about what they could have done differently or better which could have prevented their abuse. Questions like “Did you scream” or “Did you fight back” are some examples. 
  • Projection: When a survivor shares their story with another person, that person may engage in victim blaming to make themselves feel safer and less likely to suffer from the same type of abuse. A statement such as, “I always carry pepper spray with me” can suggest that had the survivor been doing the same, they would have somehow managed to avoid their abuser. 
  • Lack of empathy: People who have low empathy find it difficult to place themselves in another’s situation, which results in an inability to feel compassion for them or their situation. Victim blaming, in general, carries an underlying lack of empathy.

Victim blaming can also be a tool for perpetrators of sexual abuse, who use this tactic in an attempt to exonerate themselves and raise public opinion for their case. Most frequently, however, victim blaming occurs through media outlets, friends, family members, and even law enforcement officers

Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond

In August 2012, a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by her peers, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. She was blamed for the abuse from the moment she woke up after the incident (she was unconscious at the time of the assault). Her friends chastised her that morning, the abusers sent repeated threatening text messages to her, and other people who saw her before the incident began to take to social media. 

Her own family was reluctant to report the crime, and waited two days before reporting it or seeking medical assistance. Once the crime was reported, she was told by doctors that a rape kit would not show evidence of a crime due to the lapse in time between the incident and her report. When her family decided to bring charges, the media painted a picture of a girl who got drunk at a party and ruined the lives of two promising football stars through her allegations of abuse. 

Finally, with the help of peer testimony, photo and video evidence of the events, and text messages sent from the defendants to the survivor and others, the two boys were eventually charged with rape of a minor. 

Omar Best 

In 2014, an inmate serving time for prior sexual crimes, Omar Best, choked a prison worker until she was unconsciousand raped her for 27 minutes. In the lawsuit that followed, a senior deputy attorney wrote that the survivor, “acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed to the events.” 

However, for two weeks before the attack, the survivor had made complaints about feeling unsafe in her office, and uncomfortable (in particular) around Best. Just prior to the attack, the superintendent of the prison had relocated the survivor’s office to a cell block which did not provide adequate safety measures (like locked doors and restricted access) from prisoners. 

Ultimately, Best was convicted of the rape and the superintendent of the prison was removed from his position. 

Matt Lauer

One of the most intensely public displays of victim blaming is the Matt Lauer case. In this case, Lauer used his public image as America’s favorite morning talk show host to discredit the victim’s accusations that he raped her during their time covering the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. 

In an open letter written by Lauer, he states that the victim’s accusations “defy common sense” and that she was a “willing partner” in what he calls an affair. Eventually, this case was settled out of court with the survivor being compensated for the abuse. 

Harvey Weinstein

The Hollywood screenwriter and producer was accused of sexual assault by at least 87 women, and the amount of victim-blaming by the press, Weinstein himself, his colleagues, and his defense team could fill multiple books. 

In one piece, the survivors of Weinstein’s proven abuse are discredited by attributing their continued relationships with Weinstein as evidence they could have prevented the abuse. This is a classic example of victim blaming in relationships, which suggests that if the survivor had only ended the relationship, the abuse could have been avoided. 

This type of case is particularly difficult to navigate, as it involves high-profile, financially affluent abusers with seemingly unlimited resources that can be weaponized against their victims. In addition, there is an underlying, real perception that in order to achieve work in the entertainment industry, this type of abuse is expected and is simply a part of the process. 

Why Do People Blame the Victim?

There are numerous reasons why people blame survivors for their abuse. One of the most common reasons is self-preservation. The idea that a survivor could somehow have played a role in their abuse allows other people to feel safer. We like to think we have control over unfortunate events, although this is far from reality.

In addition, rape culture that trivializes and normalizes sexual assault, has made it socially acceptable to question every aspect of a survivor’s story, undermine their allegations, and place some, if not all of the blame on their shoulders. 

A woman sitting on her bed in the dark

What Are the Effects of Victim Blaming

Although the impact of victim blaming is individual-specific, here are some of the common effects of victim blaming: 

  • Feelings of guilt and self-blame in the survivor: These feelings are likely already present in the survivor due to rape culture and exposure to current events, which may be exacerbated due to victim-blaming in news and social media. 
  • Prevents or delays survivors’ care and support: Due to victim blaming, a survivor may internalize those feelings, and never report the abuse or seek care. Instead, they may turn to self-harm as a means to deal with painful emotions. 
  • Promotes myths related to rape and sexual abuse: Questioning the survivor on their contribution to the crime supports the myth that a survivor could have prevented their abuse. This perpetuates the idea that the survivor plays some role in their abuse. 
  • Discourages them from speaking out: This is especially important in high-profile cases, where there is large-scale media coverage that brings the reputation and moral character of the survivor into question. Even in private cases, the survivor may not confide to their loved ones out of fear of being judged or blamed. 
  • Condones abusive behaviors and rape: Victim blaming takes a portion of the guilt away from the abuser and places it on the survivor, fueling rape culture.
  • Condones inherent bias such as misogyny, transphobia, or racism: Comments like “boys will be boys” or “trans people cannot be abused” fuel the furnaces of outdated, yet still practiced biases. 
  • Allows the perpetrator to continue committing sex-related crimes: Possibly one of the frightening results of victim blaming is the fact that, when it is present, the abuser may be able to continue abusing the survivor, and others, without any consequences. 

The effects of victim blaming are long-lasting, and extinguishing them means taking an active role in supporting the survivors of abuse. 

What is Rape Culture?

Rape culture is sadly prevalent in practically every society. It pushes for male sexual aggression as normal, expected, and something to be accepted, simultaneously ignoring the intersectionality of sexual crimes. 

Examples of rape culture are:

  • Making comments like “She asked for it”
  • Inflating the incidence of false sexual abuse reports
  • Questioning the survivor’s “contribution” to the crime
  • Trivializing abuse in any form
  • Expecting women to be sexually submissive
  • Expecting men to be sexually aggressive

While rape culture is a concern across countries and cultures, some cultures are more negatively impacted. For instance, the South Asian community and people of Middle Eastern descent are more likely to experience instances of rape culture due to inherent patriarchy and lack of awareness in larger parts of the population. South Asian communities may view rape as something that “brings dishonor to the family”, thereby discouraging the survivor from speaking out about the crime. Separately, in many Middle Eastern countries, rape of women is reported to be a political tool to systematically silence opposition

How to Stop Victim Blaming

Eradicating victim blaming from the landscape of our society will not be an easy task, but there are steps we can all take to ensure that survivors of sexual abuse do not feel marginalized, scared, or shamed:

  • Be respectful of everyone: Everyone has the right to consent to sexual activities, including sex workers, people with criminal histories, and people from all cultural backgrounds.
  • Never assume consent: Consent is intentional. Consent should not be assumed when a person is under the influence of alcohol and drugs. It cannot be given when a person is unconscious or sleeping. This is particularly important to understand in cases of marital rape where the survivor may be made to believe that marriage equals implicit consent. 
  • Avoid language that objectifies or degrades survivors: Talking about a survivor’s attitudes, actions, dress, or character, shifts the blame away from the abuser and onto the abused. 
  • Always speak out when someone uses derogatory language against survivors: Whether the case is public or private, it’s important to speak up when you hear someone using any type of victim-blaming speech. 
  • Challenge your views or conditioning when it comes to rape culture: Sexism, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and homophobia are often linked to victim blaming. If you are made aware of a bias you may not have known you have, explore this and be open to challenging this view as it may help you avoid victim blaming. 
  • Provide a safe space for survivors to come forward with their experiences: The best way to assist a survivor of a sexual crime is to help meet their immediate needs and encourage them to get the help they need. Educational content like podcasts and books, as well as professionals like therapists and sexual abuse attorneys are useful resources. 
  • Listen to survivors’ stories without judgment and show support: A sexual abuse survivor may feel a torrent of emotions that cause them (and sometimes, others) a great deal of pain. Providing emotional validation to a survivor can help them deal with the short and long-term consequences of sexual abuse. 
  • Validate the survivor’s story: Assuring the survivor that you believe them and they are not to be blamed, can reduce their fear of judgment or shame. 
  • Hold sex abusers and enabling third parties accountable for their actions: Sexual abuse is nothing to sweep under the rug. Taking the appropriate parties (including negligible third parties) accountable for their actions can greatly help survivors to reclaim their lives.

I Was Blamed for My Abuse: What Should I Do Next?

If you’ve been blamed for the sexual abuse you experienced, there are actions you can take to regain your voice: 

  • Understand and remind yourself that sexual abuse is not your fault: Your abuse is not your secret to bury; it is the sexual abuser who should feel shame and guilt for committing such an invasive act. 
  • Confide in someone you trust: A family member, friend, or loved one can help you as you recover from the consequences of the abuse. 
  • Seek therapy and guidance from a mental health professional: Sexual abuse is traumatic, and you’ll need professional care for recovery. Do not underestimate the effects of sexual trauma – even if you think you feel fine, it is always advisable to speak to a licensed therapist who can help you unpack the trauma. 
  • Challenge the narrative surrounding victim blaming and rape culture: Stand up for yourself and others when you see victim blaming. Do not believe in any narrative that puts even the slightest blame on the survivor.
  • Report the crime: It is always important to report the crime. This is one of the most powerful actions you can take to recover and ensure your abuser is brought to justice. 
  • Contact a sexual abuse attorney to file a lawsuit: An experienced attorney is a valuable resource as you navigate your sexual abuse case. You have a right to seek justice and feel safe, and an experienced attorney can see that your abuser pays for their crimes. 

Helpful Resources for Sexual Abuse Survivors

If you have been sexually abused, here are some helpful resources available to you:

  • National Assault HotlineYou can reach a live person 24/7 via chat at or 800-656-4673.
  • After Silence: This is an online support group, message board, and chat room for survivors.

I Was Sexually Abused. How Can a Sexual Abuse Attorney Help Me?

If you decide to take legal action after your sexual abuse, you need to be well-informed about your rights. A sexual abuse attorney can provide you with right the information and resources you need to understand your legal options. Since sexual abuse cases can be difficult to prove due to the nature of the crime, you want an experienced sexual abuse lawyer by your side who understands the nuances of a sexual abuse case. 

While many survivors understand that sexual abuse is a crime, what people generally do not know is that you can always file a civil sexual abuse lawsuit to recover compensation for the crime. A civil suit has a lower burden of proof compared to a criminal case, which means your attorney needs to show that the abuse was more likely than not to have happened to you, and claim relief based on the evidence proved. You can file either or both civil and criminal lawsuits, depending on your personal goals. 

What is Victim Blaming: FAQs

1. Is victim blaming a crime? 

No, victim blaming is not a crime punishable by law. Hiring a sexual abuse attorney, however, will present and argue your case in a way that throws any blame coming your way toward the person who committed the crime. For example, a skilled attorney who understands how fundamental biases and rape shield laws work will be able to help ensure the jury does not get swayed by any false notions attached to victim blaming and rape culture. 

2. What is victim shaming? 

Victim shaming occurs after a survivor of sexual abuse is blamed, in whole or in part, for their abuse, leaving them with a feeling of shame and guilt that should be a problem for the abuser.

3. Why is victim blaming dangerous? 

Victim-blaming effects are long-lasting and dangerous. Blaming the survivor perpetuates and fuels rape culture, and can lead survivors to practice unhealthy coping mechanisms and self-harm. It also allows abusers to continue with abuse by supporting the normalization of an act as heinous as sexual abuse. 

4. My teenager says they were sexually abused. What should I do? 

First and foremost, believe your child and get them immediate help, including medical attention. People process abuse differently, so do not assume that your teenager is lying or is unharmed based on any prior notions of how survivors should behave. Lastly, you may hire an experienced child sexual abuse lawyer to discuss legal options.

5. What is the statute of limitations on sexual abuse?

The statute of limitations, or the window within which you may file a sexual abuse lawsuit, varies by state. You can check your state’s specific limitations here.

6. What is the difference between a civil lawsuit and a criminal lawsuit?

A criminal lawsuit is filed by the state against a person for violating provisions of the criminal code. Once a defendant is proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they are typically punished via imprisonment and/or fine. On the other hand, a civil sexual assault lawsuit is meant to help the survivor get compensation for their losses so they may access resources such as therapy, medication, and others.

You’re Not Broken: Contact a Sexual Abuse Attorney For Help

Hiring an experienced sexual abuse attorney is one of the most important steps you can take if you have experienced sexual abuse. An attorney can help you bring your abuser to justice, which is an important part of recovery for many survivors. It can also help prevent the abuser from committing the same crime. At the same time, a civil sexual abuse lawsuit against the abuser and an enabling third party that neglected to prevent the abuse, can be mandated to compensate the survivor for their losses.

If you’ve been sexually abused, you do not have to fight alone. Our team of professionals is ready to help you regain your voice. Contact us today to start your journey.

Article Sources

  1. Victim Blaming: Why People Sometimes Blame Crimes on Survivors Rather Than Abusers
  2. The Psychology of Victim Blaming
  3. The Steubenville Victim Tells Her Story
  4. Pennsylvania woman blamed for her own rape in state response to lawsuit
  5. Matt Lauer's rape denial 'a case study in victim-blaming', says accuser
  6. The Weinstein Trial and the Myth of the Perfect Victim
  7. The Culture of Rape in South Asia
  8. Rape and the Arab Spring
  9. What Is Emotional Validation?
  10. National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential 24/7 Support
  11. After Silence
  12. State by State Guide on Statutes of Limitations

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