When a person is victimized, especially when it comes to domestic violence or sex crimes, we are more likely to scrutinize the victim’s actions than those of the perpetrator. Why is that?
Psychologists describe this tendency to blame victims as the “just-world phenomenon,” and it stems from a deeply rooted need to believe that the world is a good and just place. To see examples of this, look at news reports about abuse.
A headline from the March 29, 2017, Journal de Montréal read: “Presumed gang-rape victim had consumed too much alcohol.” Now let’s look at the facts of the case. The victim was a 15-year-old child. Three adult males were accused of gang-raping her. Somehow, I didn’t get that from the title.
Consider the case of Larry Nassar, the former Team USA gymnastics doctor who is perhaps the most prolific child molester in history. Over 150 women and girls brought allegations against him, one as young as 6 years old. While he was finally sentenced in 2018, complaints about his aberrant behavior reportedly reached Michigan State officials as early as 1997. Why were the reports ignored for so long?
“No one did anything because no one believed me,” stated former gymnast, Katie Rasmussen. When former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher first came forward in August 2016, she received an onslaught of verbal abuse on social media. “They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all of this up to get attention,” she told the court. In a March 25, 2018 tweet, @Aly_Raisman calls attention to a more subtle version of victim-blaming: “Leotards r not the problem. The problem is the many pedophiles out there & the adults who enable them. By saying clothing is part of the issue, u are victim shaming/implying survivors should feel it’s their fault.”
Why is it our natural inclination to blame victims of the crimes committed against them? Are we bad people? I don’t think so. I think most of us at our core are good people. It’s just that to cope, to survive in this world, we need to create some semblance of safety and fairness.
We need to know that we are not walking around with targets on our backs, under the constant scrutiny of predators. If we believe that victims played a role in their attack, we can differentiate ourselves from them. If we are not like them, if we don’t behave similarly, then we won’t fall prey to a similar fate.
It comes down to self-preservation. When we see something on the news, we immediately do a character assessment of the person harmed. Oh, bad part of town, oh, drug addict, oh, this race or ethnicity, oh, uneducated, oh, promiscuous, and, you get the point. We are looking for how they are different from us, how they brought on their misfortune so that we can rest assured we are not also in danger.
I’ll admit that even as a victim of therapist abuse, even after I fell prey to a predator’s schemes, I will hear about another form of grooming or manipulation and think—I wouldn’t fall for that.
The truth is I don’t know how I would react. I don’t know what I would do in any given situation. Would I freeze and remain silent? Would I fight back? I don’t know and I don’t think any of us do if we’re being honest.
This concept of the need for a just world was first formulated by Melvin Lerner in the 1960s. In a study published in the Psychological Bulletin, Lerner and his colleague, Carolyn Simmons, asked a large group of women to observe, via a computer monitor, as other people received a series of electrical shocks. The women were told that they were watching an experiment in human learning. They thought the electric shocks were the punishment due for mistakes made on a word memory game. Unbeknownst to them, the volunteers receiving the “shocks” were actors, and no one was being harmed.
As you might imagine, at first, all of the participants were disturbed by the apparent suffering. But this is where things took a twist. Some participants were given the chance to relieve the victims from being shocked and instead were able to reward them when they got an answer correct.
In other words, they were allowed to bring back a sense of justice and fairness to an otherwise unfair and uncomfortable situation. The second group of participants was not afforded this option. Instead, they were forced to continue to watch the victims get repeatedly shocked, helpless to do anything about it.
Afterward, both groups were asked to describe their views of the victim, and the results were interesting. The group that was offered the ability to reward the victims, thereby regaining a sense of justice, generally saw the victims as good people. The group that was left to watch the brutality, helpless to affect the outcome, had a very different opinion of the victims. They saw them in a negative light and believed the victims deserved what they got.
In other words, this group was not able to restore justice on their own so they resorted to the next best thing. They kept their world view intact by trusting that the victims, in a sense, deserved the painful shocks. If it was somehow warranted, their belief in a fair world remained unchallenged.
Victims do this to themselves, too. They look for what they did to bring on the attack. I know I did. If I understand what I did to trigger the abuse, I can stop it from happening again. And if I can stop it from reoccurring maybe I can fix it and get my father figure and mentor back, make him see me as a daughter again instead of a sex object.
I searched for the ways I could have caused it. Was I wearing something more suggestive than usual? Is there something defective inside of me that made this happen? Was I too needy?
The answer, of course, is a resounding no. But walking away seemed impossible. I had grown so attached. My attacker had made himself seem so fragile. He needed me. He begged me not to leave him, and he had done so much for me already.
In the case of Aly Raisman, she told Nassar: “You made me uncomfortable, and I thought you were weird. But I felt guilty because you were a doctor, so I assumed I was the problem for thinking badly of you.”
There is a group in our society that doesn’t receive this harsh scrutiny. Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie coined them “ideal victims.” The one hurt must be: (1) weak/vulnerable, (2) involved in a respectable activity at the time of victimization, (3) blameless in all aspects of the interaction, (4) victimized by an obvious offender, and (5) someone who does not know the offender. Roger Canaff, a former special victims unit prosecutor and the former president of End Violence Against Women International describes the group like this: “Young or very old, sober, conservatively dressed white women with limited sexual histories who are assaulted by men they don’t know”—in other words, people from a demographic that society prefers.
I recall wishing I had been a member of that “ideal victim” group after my abuse. If only I had been a child or elderly, I would be believed. If only my abuser had grabbed me from behind a bush while I was jogging in a park instead of inside of a counseling office, people would be outraged. They would come to my defense. But as a middle-aged adult woman in therapy, I wasn’t afforded that luxury.
The idea of the victim creating their misfortune does have an upside. It creates a false sense of safety and stability. It lessens anxiety. I mean, think about it—if we viewed the world as it truly is in every circumstance, it would be terrifying. To wake up every day knowing we are in danger and that we truly can’t identify a predator from a good Samaritan, an abuser from a pastor. So to some degree, this tendency is beneficial, except…
Think about what we are doing to the survivors when we blame them. We are telling them they are at least partly to blame and at the same time, expecting them to come forward and report what happened to them because that’s what good people do. Ultimately, we are compounding their trauma.
The lack of empathy leaves the victim alone in their sorrow to suffer not only the effects of the original incident—rape, assault, betrayal—but now the added effects of judgment and blame from those around them. And the judgment need not be spoken; victims can sense it.
Dr. David Feldman tells us that when we victim blame, we are also minimizing the crime and we are shifting our focus from the perpetrator to the victim. Why are we skipping right over the criminal and their sociopathic and narcissistic and downright evil behavior to analyze the victim? Yes, we may feel reassured for a time, but at what cost? We are sacrificing another human being’s well-being for our own need for momentary comfort and safety.
Victim blaming won’t keep us out of harm’s way. It might, however, prevent those who attack us from being punished. Look how long Nassar practiced before being stopped. Complaints came to light almost 20 years beforehand. My abuser had been in practice for 36 years before my complaint to the Medical Board caused him to lose his license.
When we turn a blind eye to abuse, whether to keep our sense of safety intact or because the predators seem like good people, we are giving them a pass to continue to mistreat others. We are agreeing to keep their secret so that they can continue to destroy people’s lives.
My abusive therapist was also an elder at my church. I tried to tell a church staff member what was happening to me in that counseling office, on more than one occasion, and do you know what I was told? “I trust him implicitly,” she said. Her words, her tone, all made the message clear—drop it. I don’t want to deal with this. Make it go away. So I did. I went back to my attacker and tried to figure it out on my own, and unfortunately, the abuse continued.
According to Sarah Spain with ESPN, “Michigan State gymnast Lindsey Lemke said in her statement that coach Kathie Klages defended Nassar when approached with concerns about his abusive behavior. And according to Outside the Lines, Lemke said Klages circulated a card during a team meeting in September 2016, shortly after Nassar was fired by the university, asking gymnasts to sign it as a show of support for him.”
We confuse people’s characters with their abilities, Canaff points out. The greater the abilities and talents—musical, artistic, athletic, or otherwise—the more likely we are to excuse the abusers’ behavior. Largely because our just-world theory tells us that success comes to those who have earned it through good choices and right living.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the Brock Turner rape case. A former Stanford University swimmer, Turner was convicted of three counts of sexual assault against an unconscious woman in March 2016. Part of what made the case so high-profile was the defendant’s success in the pool. In a June 6, 2016, article entitled, “Brock Turner’s Swimming Times Don’t Matter, So Please Stop Asking About Them,” Emma Lord stated: “By citing his career and behavior, his father argues that his son doesn’t deserve to be punished to the degree of other people who have committed this same crime. In his eyes, the assault does not outweigh his son’s potential—a clear statement of entitlement that blatantly perpetuates rape culture by putting the assaulter’s needs before the victim’s.”
So what are we to do? We need to maintain a sense of rightness in the world, but we don’t want to continue to turn our backs on victims or give abusers a ticket to continue to hurt people. The solution? Empathy.
According to research by David Aderman, Sharon Brehm, and Lawrence Katz, the antidote to victim-blaming is empathy. They repeated Lerner and Simmons’ experiment but changed the rules slightly. In the original experiment, volunteers simply viewed the victims as they were being shocked. This time, they wanted the participants to put themselves in the shoes of the victims. Essentially, they wanted to know how they would feel had they been the ones receiving the shocks.
And that is when they made the discovery. The participants no longer blamed the victims for what occurred; instead, they felt empathy towards them.
Victims threaten us. They rattle our sense that the world is a safe and good place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If evil can befall good people, then we are all vulnerable and we don’t like vulnerable. We like to be in control. If misfortune can strike anyone at any time, the world is much too frightening a place.
So we need to challenge ourselves and entertain the frightening reality that it could have very well been us on the tv set or in the crime section of the newspaper. It’s uncomfortable, but according to Dr. Juliana Breins, “It may also be the only way that we can truly open our hearts to others’ suffering and help them feel supported and less alone.”
Then we can put our focus where it needs to be—on the perpetrators. We can look at the crimes committed and begin to dissect how the abusers got away with it. How many other victims might there be? What red flags did we miss? How can we prevent them from hurting anyone else?
Do we have laws in place so that mental health professionals, for example, cannot “have their way” with a patient and then play the “mental illness card” when they attempt to report it? My abuser did this—told his colleagues I was “delusional,” that I imagined the assault. He told another victim that she could try to tell but he was best friends with the DA and that no one will believe a person once they’ve been in therapy. And we live in a state that does not have any legislation against therapist sexual abuse, so our hands were tied.
Serial predators rely on the protection of their loyal fan base. Without it, their schemes wouldn’t work. They count on two things: Their fans will go to bat for them if anything leaks out and their victims will be vilified. These were the odds I faced when I came forward, but I was lucky—when I went to the medical board, I was believed.
It is a terrifying prospect that an outwardly Christian church elder can also be an evil sociopath, that a supposedly kind and gentle grandfatherly type can be a sexual predator. I know it was for me. But waking up and facing this harsh reality is the only way we can begin to experience empathy—the only way we can truly be there for a victim. The only way we can make abusers accountable for their crimes. And victims need us. I know I do.