In a "just world" why do we victim blame?

In recent weeks, there have been a number of high-profile claims of sexual misconduct, both domestically and abroad. Whilst it is positive that such behaviour has been exposed and publically condemned, there is still a notable tendency for many to question the behaviour of the person who was assaulted, rather than the person who committed the crime.

In discussion surrounding such allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, it is not uncommon for some culpability of the person who experienced the assault; or diminish the culpability of the person who harmed them.

“They were drunk”

“Why didn’t they say something earlier?”

“Others were harmed because they kept silent”

“They should’ve said ‘no’”

“They’re only coming forward now for attention”

“People have been doing this for ages- they should’ve known better”

“They were complicit”

“It’s not like they raped anyone”

Different scenarios; similar reactions. Given that sexual assault is seen as one of the most serious crimes, why are we so quick to judge the person who has been assaulted? Perhaps the reason lies in the horrific nature of sexually-based crimes. Just World Theory posits that the idea of negative events being random – they could happen to anyone. This is unsettling, and results in people feeling fearful and out of control within the world. In order to explain tragic, horrific, or negative events, people may focus on  the person who has experienced such events, to ‘justify’ why it happened to that person; therefore diminishing the likelihood, in their own mind, of such an event happening to them.

In the context of sexual assault, perhaps this theory could explain why ‘victim-blaming’ is so prevalent within public discourse. The uncomfortable truth is that sexual abuse and assault is often perpetrated by somebody known to the person: a family member, friend, colleague, or partner. Sexual assault can impact people irrespective of their gender, age, sexual identity, or socioeconomic status. Sexual assault is never ‘just’; it is never the fault of the person who is assaulted. Despite this, preliminary data from Gippsland CASA’s own community attitudes research has revealed that almost 20% of respondents agree that “people should take steps to prevent themselves being sexually assaulted, for example: not dressing provocatively; not drinking to excess; not walking alone/late at night”. While agreeing with this idea may not necessarily equate to ‘victim-blaming’, it highlights the grey area held within the public around who is responsible, or partly responsible, when a person is sexually assaulted.

Sadly, the tendency towards ‘victim-blaming’ perpetuates the shame and stigma surrounding experiencing sexual assault and abuse. For many, the costs of speaking out against the person who has harmed them is more substantial than remaining silent. Despite the ongoing impact and trauma that often arises as a result of sexual harm, reporting rates for sexual offences remain extremely low; as are conviction rates for those that are reported and progress through the justice system- only around 60%. Compare this to burglary, where a conviction is achieved in approximately 94% of cases.

As stated by Victoria Police, sexual assault is a crime of relationships; it is a crime that results from a power imbalance – either extrinsic or intrinsic. It is a breach of trust, and a violation of personal boundaries and autonomy. This power imbalance is perpetuated, in part, by those who experience sexual violence being coerced – directly or indirectly – into maintaining silence. However, this is never their fault.

Collectively, as a society, we need to cast our minds to a more considered approach to responsibility and accountability for sexual crimes; one that isn’t focused on an individual level, but rather on the systems and environment that supports it.

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