If you've ever experienced a traumatic event or know someone who has, you may have received hurtful comments or implications from others that suggest that you are to blame for what occurred. This phenomenon of blaming survivors is a common response that often pops up in discussions of sexual assault, violence, and abuse. Understanding why this might occur and how to counteract it can be beneficial if it is occurring to you or someone you love.
What Does Blaming Survivors Look Like?
Survivor blaming may involve placing the responsibility for a traumatic event on the individual who experienced it rather than the individual who perpetrated it. Examples of statements that might fall under the umbrella of survivor blaming could include the following:
- "Why were you in that area of town?"
- "Why didn't you scream?"
- "Why didn't you fight back?"
- "Why did you dress so provocatively?"
- "Why did you have so much to drink?"
- "Were you being flirtatious?"
- "Why didn't you walk away?"
These statements often come from the misconception that people have the power to avoid being harmed by others. The desire to believe other people aren't capable of spontaneous harm or abuse can drive this belief. However, being a survivor of violence, abuse, or trauma is not anyone's fault, even if one believes their actions led them there.
Why Do People Blame Survivors?
While blaming survivors is harmful, understanding where it comes from may help individuals feel more comfortable responding to it or recognizing when they unconsciously participate in it.
It may be challenging to accept that someone you know or admire could be capable of harming others, including in situations like abuse or assault. Hearing information contradicting your view of someone might make you feel defensive or scared. As a result, finding another reason that a traumatic event has occurred might seem less scary.
However, because blaming may be rooted in another person's sense of self and view of the world, it can be helpful to understand that it doesn't reflect your experiences or how "believable" you are. Blaming happens not because your story is not worth believing but because others aren't ready to face it. In addition, other survivors may blame a survivor of a similar trauma that they faced because hearing about it reminds them of their own trauma. In these cases, they might not be trying to harm anyone actively, even if they do.
Other Causes Of Survivor Blaming
Below are a few other common causes that people might blame survivors for what they experienced.
A Positive Assumptive Worldview
The psychology behind victim blaming might not be a conscious decision made by others. Some researchers believe in the "positive assumptive worldview theory," which posits that most people view the world as a positive place where adverse events don't occur without reason.
The result of this perspective may be equating tragedy with poor decisions and success with positive decisions. This mindset assumes that personal responsibility is the ultimate decider of what happens to each person, which can make someone feel less empathetic toward others. It can serve as the foundation for an individual's worldview, coloring many of their opinions and reactions without realizing it. They might ignore how power dynamics between survivors and an abuser can take away free will.
The media reports on many stories that cause fear and stress. As a result, some people believe that others develop an optimistic worldview as a defense mechanism. The world's chaos could seem less overwhelming if people believe that only those who have invited chaos experience it. These beliefs might make a person feel better at the moment and avoid experiencing uncomfortable feelings about the media they consume. However, it might also cause someone to doubt the experiences of others.
Much of the work of psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman from the University of Massachusetts is based on this optimistic assumptive worldview. Many people are raised to believe that the world is a positive place. As they age, they discover harmful experiences occur, even to kind people. Therefore, they might believe that if a bad event happens to a kind person, the person must not actually be a "good" person.
Psychologist and researcher Melvin Lerner did an experiment to look at the concern of survivor blaming.
In his experiment, Lerner and his colleague Carolyn Simmons asked a sample of women to watch through a video monitor as another person received a series of electrical shocks. The women believed the experiment was related to human learning, where the person on the screen received an electrical shock as a punishment for failing to remember words on a word memorization exercise. The people receiving the shocks were actors who were not genuinely receiving shocks. As the experiment began, all participants empathized with the person being shocked and didn't blame them.
In the second round, researchers changed the scenario. They allowed some participants an opportunity to place a vote to stop punishing the subject with shocks. The second group of participants wasn't given the same opportunity. People who could take a vote mostly voted to stop the shocks to the subject out of empathy.
When the experiment was over, the participants were asked what assumptions they would make about the subject. Participants who could vote to stop the shocks didn't blame the subject but saw them positively. However, participants that were helpless to stop the shocks blamed the subject. They felt the subject got what they deserved and were responsible for being harmed.
The results of this experiment provided evidence for why people may blame survivors. For many, blaming survivors allows people to see the world as "good," even when maltreatment occurs. However, blaming a survivor may sacrifice the survivor's well-being and story to focus on their own opinion. It often takes away from the actions of the perpetrators.
The Role Of Empathy In Blaming Survivors
Other studies have demonstrated how creating a sense of empathy can reduce someone's desire to blame the survivor. In research by David Aderman, Sharon Brehm, and Lawrence Katz, a repletion of Lerner's experiment was completed. However, they instructed the participants to imagine how they'd feel if they were about to be shocked. This slight change caused them to be more empathetic, and they were less likely to blame the subject for being shocked.
By challenging one's motives and mindsets, people may see past the optimistic assumptive worldview more efficiently to stop placing blame where it doesn't belong. Empathy and connection with others tend to be healthy tools for overcoming barriers. Listening to the experiences of others and putting yourself in their shoes may help you validate their experiences and believe them about what happened.
How To Cope As A Survivor
If you're on the receiving end of blaming, you may feel alone or question whether you are responsible for your experiences. Note that the opinions of others do not mean you are responsible for a traumatic event. Understanding why blaming happens may help you internalize it less, but being able to reach out for professional support may help you receive extra validation and care.
If you're worried about leaving home due to your experience or want to find a discreet way to receive support, you can participate in therapy online. Online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy for treating symptoms of mental illness or the results of experiencing a traumatic event. One study found that online therapy may be more effective than traditional options when treating symptoms of depression, which can be common in trauma survivors.
When you sign up for an online platform like BetterHelp, you can often match with a therapist within 48 hours. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or chat sessions, giving you control over how you receive support. Your therapist can send you worksheets, journaling prompts, and resources as you discuss the circumstances of what you've experienced.
Empathy and connection are effective tools against these tendencies. A mental health professional can also support those being unfairly blamed or wanting to change their mindset about abuse.
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