Wikipedia defines victim blaming as “when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them.”
I’ve certainly seen this happen. I know of court cases where rape was excused because of how the victim was dressed or because of past behaviors. It also regularly happens in much more subtle ways. It is a serious problem in our culture.
At the same time, I see situations people have become so hypervigilant watching for it that they make assumptions and judge things to be victim blaming when they aren’t. In fact, by doing so they miss opportunities to learn and understand situations. That is an important issue because information and understanding are keys to empowerment.
Let me use an example. I was recently at a conference where they were discussing rape culture. As an example of victim blaming they used a slide that said 1 in 5 women are intoxicated when they are raped. I’m not here to debate the validity of that claim. I don’t know if it is accurate or not. For sake of this illustration, let’s assume it is.
From my perspective, this isn’t victim blaming…not yet. It becomes victim blaming when that statistic is used to say it is a woman’s fault that she got raped because she had been drinking. Until it is used that way, this is just a statistic. If we prematurely judge it as victim blaming and then shut down discussion about it, we miss an opportunity to understand and empower.
I see this statistic and my first question is why? Does being intoxicated somehow lower the victims ability to avoid the rape (note that this is NOT the same as excusing the rapist). Does it mean that rapists in that situation are also more likely to be intoxicated? Does it say something about the settings where rapes occur? Does it mean bars or frat parties are more likely locations of rape?
Or maybe it is a true but unrelated fact. Maybe intoxication had absolutely nothing directly or indirectly to do with rape. There are hundreds of statistics that are true but meaningless. For example, 100% of the victims of rape born in 1980 or later are under the age of 36. A true (and yes ridiculous) statistic. It isn’t victim blaming.
So why is knowing this information important? Because it is what allows us to make informed decisions. It informs us where we should focus our efforts to educate and change our culture. It isn’t to tell anyone what to do but rather it is to allow people to understand the risk involved in their choices and to make those choices in a way that are consistent with their risk tolerance. That is empowerment.
We do it everyday. We know that flying in airplanes has risk. Some people choose to not accept that risk and never fly. Most of us do. If one airline has a significantly worse safety record, I want to know that. I may or may not choose to fly with them but either way I am empowered to make my own informed choice. If the plane crashes, it doesn’t mean I’m to blame.
What if I could know more about that safety record. What if I found out that the problem was only with a certain type of airplane that isn’t used on the routes I fly. That information empowers me even more. Not knowing more detailed information doesn’t magically protect me from being inappropriately blamed for the crash. All it does is disempower me from making the most informed decision I can.
We do this at a personal level, too. Someone makes a statement and we leap to the conclusion that they can only be saying it because they want to use it against us. That leap shuts us down from understanding, growth, and connection. One of the most common places I see it is when one person expresses their feelings and the other person thinks that they are being blamed for them. Expressing them isn’t the same as blaming.
Let’s not miss opportunities to learn, inform, grow and change. One of the things I constantly remind clients is that if you are asking for change in someone you have to give them space to change. If you immediately jump to the conclusion that they haven’t, you’ll never know if they have. Assuming that information is only going to be used to blame the victim does the same thing. It takes away the opportunity to do something different.