Dr Jessica Eaton
23 June 2019
Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence against women and girls and the ways they are blamed for being victims of male violence
Having spent 10 years working with women and girls subjected to sexual and domestic violence of all kinds, I have never had a case or a caseload in which the woman or girl was not being blamed for what someone else (usually a man) was doing to her. Sometimes she is blamed by her family, sometimes by her partner. Sometimes she is blamed by police or by social workers. Sometimes it’s the mental health team blaming her.
Victim blaming is the act of transferring the blame from the perpetrator (who is 100% to blame for sexual offences they commit) and moving that blame back to the victim of the sexual offences.
My interest in the psychology of victim blaming really started to grow about 7 years into my career when I noticed strong patterns in the ways victim blaming was being encouraged and communicated across all sectors I had worked in. I decided to do a PhD in forensic psychology to explore why victim blaming of women and girls was so common.
This article gives an introduction to 5 ways (out of thousands) we are encouraged to blame women and girls for sexual violence perpetrated against them, built on my own research and my new book which will be coming out in 2020.
Let’s look at the ways we blame women and girls when they are raped, abused, exploited, assaulted, harassed or stalked:
Blame her behaviour
One of the first things we are encouraged to do is called ‘behavioural blame’. This is where we are encouraged to examine the behaviour of the woman or girl to look for behaviours that might have ‘led’ to being raped or abused.
Behavioural blame may include blaming women and girls for drinking, going to an event, using a dating app, walking somewhere alone, working in a bar, going travelling around the world, getting the tube at night, wearing headphones, meeting new people at a party and so on until infinity.
The purpose of behavioural blame is to pinpoint the ‘behaviour’ of the victim which ‘led’ to being raped or abused so we can convince ourselves that we would never make the same ‘mistake’ and therefore this offence would never happen to us. This is about denial of personal vulnerability, and us searching for an answer as to why this happened to her.
The problem with this of course, is that the answer has been staring us in the face for millennia. The cause of rape is men who rape. The cause of sexual offences is sex offenders.
Behavioural blame therefore obscures the real reason for the offence and focusses our attention on the victim.
Behavioural blame often leads to behavioural modification, too. This is where the victim (and sometimes women and girls in general) are advised or told to change their behaviours to protect themselves from sexual violence.
In my own research, I found that women and girls who had been subjected to sexual violence had often been told by professionals or by people in their personal support network that they should change their behaviours so they are not raped or abused again.
Just in my one study, this resulted in women telling me that they had changed their lifestyles, stopped dancing, stopped dating, stopped wearing certain clothes, stopped going to bars, stopped drinking, closed down their social media accounts, stopped going to places of worship, quit their jobs, stopped hugging people, stopped walking home from work, stopped smiling at men and stopped making new friends.
However, lots of those women told me that their drastic behavioural changes failed to protect them and many of them had been assaulted, raped or abused again despite following the behaviour modification advice from professionals and family members.
This is completely unfair. This is encouraging women and girls to make their lives smaller and smaller, whilst blaming them for the actions of a sex offender.
Blame her character
When behavioural blame fails to explain a sexual offence against a woman or girl, we very quickly move on to ‘characterological blame’.
This means that when we can’t blame her behaviour, because maybe the circumstances of the rape or assault were such that we can’t find anything ‘wrong’ with her behaviours before, during or after the attack – we will be encouraged to examine her character.
Characterological blame can include blaming a woman or girl for being too confident, too naive, too trusting, too flirty, not assertive enough, too outgoing, too sexual, too ‘streetwise’, manipulative, deceitful, too clever, too stupid, too articulate, too scared, not scared enough, too emotional, not emotional enough and literally anything else they can use to attack her.
Research shows that attacking the character of the woman or girl and finding something that we believe ‘led’ to being raped or abused makes us feel better about ourselves and reaffirms our belief in a just world in which bad things only happen to inherently bad people.
Again, this type of blame obscures the real reason for the sexual offence (the sex offender) and instead encourages us to dig up dirt on the character of the victim – like this cancels out the offence or makes her deserving of rape and abuse.
Characterological blame is central to the defence in some trials, in which the evidence is so clear that the only thing left is to destroy the character of the victim to cause doubt in the minds of the jury. Whenever defence lawyers used this tactic in my courts, I always knew they had nothing left to give to the defence, so instead, they had taken to attacking the character of the girl or woman.
However, whilst this is a sneaky tactic, it often works. Juries are highly influenced by characterological blame of women and girls and I saw many trials take a nosedive at the point where the defence team started to attack the victim for their character and encouraged the jury to take this into account to decide their ‘credibility’.
Blame her sexuality
My research has recently shown that one of the main factors of victim blaming women and girls is to blame her sexuality.
What I mean by this is her choices, preferences, actions, history and experiences of sex.
In a general public sample study in UK, I deliberately manipulated some scenarios about sexual violence against women to contain sexually active women. I then asked participants whether they blamed the woman for being raped or abused.
In some items I mentioned that she had multiple sexual partners. In some I mentioned she was bisexual. In some I mentioned she used Tinder. In some I mentioned she had been having a sexual affair. In some I mentioned that she enjoyed a good sex life. In some I mentioned that she liked feeling sexy and desirable. In some I mentioned that she takes nudes of herself. In some I mentioned that she likes to dress sexily sometimes to make herself feel good.
Long story short – these items resulted in much higher victim blaming than other items in the study. Some of these items caused between 40-60% of the participants to blame her for being raped or abused by a man.
This finding is backed up by much research and real life examples of trials and investigations in which the sexual history or the sexual activity of the woman or girl is used against her to either drop charges, to drop an investigation or to use against her in court to position her as promiscuous.
Isn’t it interesting that in 10 years I’ve never heard of a case in which a man who was raped was asked how many people he has slept with and whether his ‘promiscuity’ led to being raped?
This is because research definitively shows that we have an issue with female sexuality. We love objectifying and dementalising women into the topless pin-up or the woman being penetrated by three blokes in the porn scene – but we don’t like it when women and girls around us are sexually active. Or worse. In control of their own sexuality in the way they want to be. Oh hell no.
Blame her situation
‘Situational blame’ is an intriguing approach to victim blaming which again, completely erases the offender from the offence. In this case, we are encouraged to blame the situation the woman or girl was in when the offence was committed.
I find this type of blame most common in child sexual exploitation practice (CSE) in the UK.
Situational blame may sound like people blaming parties, clubs, hotels, taxis, tubes, train stations, parks, gigs, schools, council estates or blocks of flats for sexual violence committed against women and girls instead of blaming the offender.
It often sounds like this:
‘Well you know, if she’s going to keep going to hang around on that park, she’s putting herself in a situation where she might get raped’.
Or it sounds like this:
‘That estate is like that though. It’s dangerous. If you live on that estate then you know what will happen.’
Or it can sound like this:
‘She lives in poverty and hasn’t got much else going for her so it’s obvious this was going to happen to her.’
In this type of blame, we are encouraged to blame the situation, the inanimate environment, the park or the stairwell.
What this does of course, is it ignores the offender as the cause of the offence.
You cannot be sexually assaulted by a park. You cannot be raped by a hotel.
You cannot be exploited by train station.
You cannot be sexually abused by poverty.
These are human actions. There has to be an offender for these offences to take place.
For example, last week a social worker told me that it was a teenage girl’s fault for being sexually exploited because she keeps hanging around the MacDonalds drive thru at 10pm at night and men keep picking her up in their cars and asking her to get in to give them head or have sex with them.
She claimed that MacDonalds was the dangerous situation that she kept ‘putting herself at risk’.
I argued back.
I said to her, ‘If I drove past her at the drive thru, would I ask her to get in my car and give me head? No. If you drove past her at the drive thru to get a burger, would you wind the window down and tell her she’s sexy? No. That night, it’s likely hundreds of adults drove right past her and her friends and didn’t even notice they were there. Families. Single women. Single men. Couples. Parents. MacDonalds therefore is not actually the dangerous situation you’re making it out to be. The danger comes from the ONE sex offender who winds the window down and asks her to get in his car. If he never went to MacDonalds that night, nothing would have happened to her. He chose to attack that child. He could have just driven past and ate his food. But he didn’t. The situation isn’t to blame, the offender is. Every time you blame MacDonalds drive thru for this offence, you excuse the perpetrator.’
See how that works?
Blame her appearance
This one is how we know misogyny is still alive and kicking. No one cares what men and boys were wearing when they were raped or abused. Similarly, no one cares what the man was wearing when he raped someone. No one cares what the victims of literally any other crime were wearing.
Except women and girls who are subjected to sexual violence. Then, clothing becomes central for some reason.
Was she wearing a low cut top? Was she wearing a short skirt? A push up bra? Lace knickers? A bikini? A backless dress? High heeled shoes? Knee high boots?
Apparently this is all relevant in blaming women and girls for sexual violence committed against them.
This is most curious, because the majority of all sexual offences against women and girls are committed by partners, ex-partners and family members and are usually committed within a residence. Therefore, the chances are that most women and girls are wearing pyjamas, comfortable everyday clothing, school uniforms, work uniforms, jeans, leggings, hoodies, slippers, trainers, sports bras, trackies and tee shirts when they are raped, abused or assaulted.
However, this doesn’t stop professionals from using clothing against women and girls. Even children are being blamed for their clothing choices.
Last year I worked with a local authority where their social workers felt strongly that girls wearing cropped tee shirts and showing their midriff were bringing CSE upon themselves and that took some serious work to challenge those beliefs.
In 2014, I was given access to case records of children being sexually abused and one of them said of a 12 year old girl who was being raped, ‘She prances around the house wearing knee high boots trying to seduce her Dad’.
In 2016, I read a missing person notification about a 13 year old girl who was being trafficked around the country; written by a police officer.
It stated that she must want it, because she had packed a small bag containing a change of underwear, a clean bra and make up.
Further, in many CSE risk toolkits used in local authorities and police forces all over the UK, there are items that ask what the child is wearing which include:
- Sexualised dress
- Wearing make up
- Revealing clothing
This means that the common rape myth of ‘only girls and women who wear short skirts get raped’ has actually filtered right down into social work and police assessments, not only of women but of children who can’t even consent to sex.
Does it really matter if the 12 year old is wearing a crop top and shorts at the time she is raped? Really? Isn’t she a victim of serious crime anyway?
And to that end, even adult women should not be scrutinised on their clothing at the time of rape, abuse or assault. Why would her wearing a backless dress change the offence that was committed against her?
Unless of course we are claiming that the bodies and clothing of the woman are causing the offences. Which we are. Which is why this is still happening.
Interestingly, the appearance of the woman or girl can also influence a police investigation and a trial. In my PhD thesis, I wrote about research that has shown that body type and body shape of women and girls can change the outcome of sexual violence trials. For example, if the woman or girl is perceived to be overweight or unattractive, they are more likely for their case to be dropped or to be found not guilty in a court of law. Researchers argue that this is because there is still an assumption that ‘fat’ or ‘unattractive’ women and girls don’t get raped or abused because the offence is about sexual desire.
However, that doesn’t mean that other women and girls are going to get an easier time in court. Oh no.
Research has also found that if the woman or girl is slim and perceived to be very attractive, she also has a high chance of her case being dropped or found not guilty in court. This is because there is still a perception that the attractive woman or girl must have either wanted it, or led the offender on with their appearance, because he can’t help it.
Blaming the appearance of women and girls for sexual violence committed against them is related to sexual objectification.
Objectification and sexualisation of women and girls as constant walking sex objects for men and boys to use and abuse will encourage victim blaming. When we look at girls and women like this in our society, we will still see them as sex objects even when they are raped and abused. In fact, we are not likely to see certain sexual offences as ‘real rapes’ or ‘real assaults’ at all because we will be socialised to believe that women enjoy them or want them to happen. Therefore, our thinking about sexual violence becomes about the sexuality and sexual allure of the woman or girl – rather than thinking about sexual violence as a deliberate act of violence and oppression.
I’ve written about research that has shown that when we objectify women and girls, we also dementalise them. This means that we assume they have no thoughts and feelings of their own, as they are an object to crave and use, not an equal human being. Therefore, objectification will also result in an assumption that sexual violence against women isn’t that serious and women are exaggerating or lying about it.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways we blame women and girls
Far from it. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I have found in my research and work.
If I was to continue writing this blog, I would include the way we blame women and girls for their reactions to sexual violence, their culture, their upbringing, their age, their ethnicity, their social class, their assertiveness, their mental health, their relationship status, their knowledge of sexual violence and hundreds of other issues which will be covered in my new book, ‘Why Women Are Blamed For Everything’ by Dr Jessica Eaton.
This will be available on pre-order at the end of 2019 and will be published in 2020.
The fact is, we have cooked up thousands of reasons as to why women and girls are the ones to blame for sexual violence. The evidence is solid, and we have been finding these reasons and factors for over 50 years in the academic literature. However, even books such as ‘Rape in Antiquity’ can teach us much about the way women and girls were subjected to sexual violence and then blamed for it centuries and millennia ago.
Victim blaming is nothing new. But it does need to end.
We will never tackle male violence across the world whilst we use women and girls as the scapegoats and excuses for millions of rapists, child abusers, paedophiles and sex offenders.
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton
Founder of VictimFocus
Published: 23 June 2019