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.