Blaming the victim

Here’s a recent study that compares blame between rape cases and robberies.  It’s important to look at how we blame victims because anyone can be guilty of this – the police, the judiciary system, the medical field, and the media – and we owe it to victims to extend empathy and compassion, not blame. From headlines that claim “nagging” was the cause of a murdered wife or that proclaim a “nice guy” “snapped” and killed his family to the appearance/demeanor of a sexual assault, we need to re-evaluate how we assess these crimes.

Blaming the Victim and Exonerating the Perpetrator in Cases of Rape and Robbery:  Is There a Double Standard? 


Steffen Bieneck and Barbara Krahé  

 Research in legal decision making has demonstrated the tendency to blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator of sexual assault. This study examined the hypothesis of a special leniency bias in rape cases by comparing them to cases of robbery. and robbery of a female victim by a male perpetrator and made ratings of victim and perpetrator blame. Case scenarios varied with respect to the prior relationship (strangers, acquaintances, ex-partners) and coercive strategy (force vs. exploiting victim intoxication). More blame was attributed to the victim and less blame was attributed to the perpetrator for rape than for robbery. Information about a prior relationship between victim and perpetrator increased ratings of victim blame and decreased perceptions of perpetrator blame in the rape cases, but not in the robbery cases. The findings support the notion of a special leniency bias in sexual assault cases. 



 The tendency to shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim has been widely demonstrated to affect judgments about sexual assault cases, both in the field and in controlled laboratory research. Analyses of police files, trial observations, and interviews with legal professionals have shown that holding women responsible for precipitating sexual assaults is a common aspect of legal decision making that has been linked to the problem of high attrition rates in sexual assault cases (e.g., Brown, Hamilton, & O’Neill, 2007; see Temkin & Krahé, 2008, for a review). Experimental studies using case scenarios have also shown that observers are quick to attribute blame to a victim  of sexual assault and to correspondingly reduce the blameworthiness of the alleged perpetrator, especially in those cases that deviate from the “real rape” stereotype of a violent attack of a stranger on an unsuspecting victim (Stewart, Dobbin, & Gatowski, 1996). For example, observers tend to attribute more blame to the victim, and less blame to the perpetrator, the closer the prior relationship between the two (e.g., Krahé, Temkin, & Bieneck, 2007; Viki, Abrams, & Masser, 2004). Research has further shown that if the perpetrator exploits the fact that the victim is too drunk to resist rather than using force, an incident is less likely to be considered a genuine rape complaint and the perpetrator is seen as less likely to be culpable (Schuller & Wall, 1998).

From the discussion:
It was found that perpetrators of robbery were blamed more than perpetrators of rape and that victims of rape were blamed more than victims of robbery. More important, the study showed that within each type of crime, background information about victim intoxication and prior victim–perpetrator relationship operated differently. For the robbery cases, perpetrator blame was the same regardless of whether the victim was drunk or previously known to the perpetrator, and perceptions of victim blame were equally unaffected by these characteristics. By contrast, this information critically affected perceptions of perpetrator and victim blame in the rape cases. If the victim was too drunk to resist, she was blamed more and the perpetrator was blamed less than if the victim was overcome by force. Victim
blame also increased the closer the prior relationship with the perpetrator, and perpetrator blame showed a corresponding decrease. The findings support previous research summarized by Krahé and Berger (2009) demonstrating schematic information processing in rape cases that undermines the victim and exonerates the perpetrator.  No gender differences in judgments about the scenarios were found in the present data. Typically, men are more inclined than women to blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator in rape cases (although some recent studies showed similar tendencies in men and women; see Temkin & Krahé, 2008). This should make them less likely to differentiate between rape and robbery in their perceptions of perpetrator and victim blame. That clear differences
between judgments about rape and robbery were found despite the fact that women were overrepresented in our sample by about 3:1 attests to the robustness of the double standard.


4 comments on “Blaming the victim

  1. Thank you for the response. I appreciate that you took the time to respond. Just to be clear, I was not attempting to fuel any myths, so much as simply stating what had happened, but I understand your point. Also, my concern at the time of writing my story, was obviously not statistics so much as trying to heal break the silence. Would she have been believed? I don’t know? Would I have served time? I don’t know, nor do I think I should have been put in the postion where I had to be concerned about either. At that point however, it was a too late as the rape had already been ongoing and I presently care a lot less about the answers to those two questions than I do about why she thought she had the right to rape me. At the time I initially told my story online, I was very triggered and with the psychological band-aid ripped off, the wound was freshly raw. It was like it had just happened even though so many years had passed. I told it too early, that much was clear.

    I am aware of the statistics on abused children who offend as adults, but I take umbrage at those who use it as a means of transfering blame or minimizing the traumas inflicted on their victims. Further, I personally find it insulting to those survivors who don’t grow up to become offenders. This happens a lot, and while it is often meant to make a survivor feel better, it usually has the opposite effect by turning their attacker into a sympathetic victim, leaving the survivor feeling like they have less of a right to their emotions. This is a horrible form of secondary wounding. Statistics have their purpose, but I don’t think they are appropriate when dealing with individual survivors in need of validation or support.

    As far as being concerned about my story online, perhaps it would be helpful to understand how early in my healing that I had written about it – and why. I spent nearly 20 years in denial and needed to take away my ability to go back into denial in a very irreversible manner. So I wrote about it and deployed it clumsily and too early in my healing. If that concerns you, I cannot apologize for that. She raped me and silenced me all those years ago. She is done silencing me forever.

    After a great deal of therapy and further exploration, I’ve learned and remembered more about that night and what happened and gotten much stronger along the way, which has helped me to make progress on the healing road far beyond what I could have expected when I first sought help. Like all the survivors I know, I have more healing always on the horizon and further processing of triggers, memories and stuck points.

    At present, I am a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau speaking on panels, Take Back The Night events, and on college campuses/high school groups, so I am definitely involved in far greater survivor work than just blogging about the topic. I’ve also contributed content to a few healing handbooks (not yet published). In addition to serving as a moderator for Pandora’s Aquarium, I am a member of the Survivor’s Caucus of Virginia, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and have trained other survivor speakers for the Caucus. I’m not sure where you live, but if it is Virginia, we are always looking for more members and willing speakers.

    • miss j says:

      Thanks again for your comment.

      In regard to abused children growing up to be abusers – yes, not all abused children do so, as research/advocates often point out – but it’s helpful to understand that we can prevent abuse – it does not have to be inevitable. Focusing on child abuse or dating violence – at a young age – can be really helfpul in lowering rates of rape or domestic violence – in adulthood, for example. That’s the importance of the comment; it certainly is not meant to minimize responsibility or garner sympathy for the perp. I just wanted to be clear that that was not what I was doing.

      I do wish you the best and am glad to see you engaged in activism (I am an activist as well as a blogger too! I wrote a chapter for a book on interpersonal violence; I write articles; and, I serve on 2 boards and 1 coalition).


  2. miss j says:

    I’m sorry you experienced this. I’ve experienced it and have many friends who’ve experienced it. Like you & most people (60% of rapes are not reported, according to RAINN), I didn’t report it. I was a little concerned with your story (on the Internet) though because you do seem to want to educate people on rape. Had this woman falsely accused you of raping her, would she have been believed? Would you have been jailed (again, according to RAINN, only 6% of rapists will spend a day in jail). It just seemed to propagate that old myth that women are always believed, rapists always go to jail, innocent men are falsely accused, women ruin men’s careers when they accuse them – see what I mean? I just believe your story could be told AND at the same time could educate people rather than fuel these myths.

    Also, there is research on childhood abuse leading to violent behavior – a Google scholar search will turn up articles and here’s something I found by going thru RAINN’s web site:

    Violence, Substance Abuse, and Other Problem Behaviors
    Individuals victimized by child maltreatment are more likely than people who were not maltreated to engage in juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and violent behavior.103 A study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice followed cases from childhood through adulthood and compared arrest records of a group of substantiated cases of maltreatment with a comparison group composed of individuals who were not officially recorded as maltreated. While most members of both groups had no juvenile or adult criminal records, being abused or neglected as a child increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53 percent and as a young adult by 38 percent.104 Physically abused children were the most likely of maltreated children to be arrested later for violent crime, followed closely by neglected children.
    Other studies also have found maltreated children to be at increased risk (at least 25 percent more likely) for a variety of adolescent problem behaviors, including delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug use, low academic achievement, and mental health problems.105 It must be underscored, however, that while the risk is higher, most abused and neglected children will not become delinquent, experience adolescent problem behaviors, or become involved in violent crime.

    I wish you the best,


  3. I can attest to being blamed for your rape as a rape survivor. The blame for me came in multiple forms, one frequent type being that I should not have been drinking with a woman I did not know and that I must have wanted it, given I am a man and all men want sex all the time. This one combines the alcohol and gender bias defenses of rapists.

    The other prevalent blame-shifting I am sometimes treated to is the hypothetical prior abuse excuse. For instance, I am occasionally asked to consider “what must have happened to her in her past” to make her drug and rape me like she did. This particular form of blame-shifting is not based on any piece of evidence, even anecdotal. It is simply a desperate grasping at any straw in order to explain something unexplainable.

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