What psychology has to say about victim blaming

Victim blaming and slut-shaming are common practice when lay-people (and otherwise) attempt to account for situations of sexual violence. So much so that comments such as those made by a Toronto Police officer who suggested that women should avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ to avoid being victims of rape, have sparked the recent SlutWalk movement.

Some interesting findings from social cognition researchers suggest that victim blaming might be a particularly common error in judgment. It seems that people are much more likely to focus on behaviours that they view as controllable when thinking about a particular outcome. As an example, Khaneman and Tversky (1982) asked participants to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Jones was killed by a young driver under the influence of drugs. In one version, they were told that he took an unusual route home from work that day; in the other, he took the same route he always takes. Participants who thought he was killed taking the unusual route were both more upset and more likely to complete “If only…” statements such as “If only he had taken his usual route” (rather than remove the intoxicated individual from the scene). Presumably, it seems that the ‘route taken’ was the more controllable variable.

Findings such as this suggest that people often attempt to mentally undo actions by focusing on things that are deemed more controllable, such as the victims behaviour. Just like the drunk driver in the previous example, the same counterfactual thinking may apply to instances of rape. Since we can readily generate counterfactuals (what could, should, or might have been) on the part of the victim of rape (if only she had taken a different route home, if only she hadn’t drank so much, if only she was wearing something different…), we might be more likely to focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than the perpetrator.

However, this also reveals a bias toward conceptualizing rapist’s behaviour as uncontrollable and has implications for the way we think about male sexuality more generally. We often hear ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ which always suggests that the victims behaviour is the thing to be controlled. Male sexuality, on the other hand, is never questioned. It is assumed to run rampant and be dangerously out of control and therefore, not blameworthy. If I may extrapolate further from the drunk-driver example, these studies reveal more than just how we think about counterfactuals (what could, should, or might have been) but reveal deeply embedded cultural biases about what we view as controllable or not. And implicitly, what is to be controlled.

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