Victim Blaming: When We Do It and When We Don’t
Consider the following stories that were in the news recently:
Story 1: A female college student at Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was studying abroad in Puerto Rico. After a night out at a bar, she went to the roof of her apartment building with a security guard who was employed by the apartment complex to protect its residents. The guard then raped her. The security guard (a former police officer who was suspended for selling bullets to an undercover agent) was found guilty by a Puerto Rican court and is serving up to twenty years in prison. The young woman is suing WPI because the university leased the apartment building and students were required to live there. Her lawsuit asks the court to consider if WPI adequately screened the security guards to ensure that they were safe and trustworthy.
In court, lawyers from the university’s insurance firm questioned the students’ actions and decisions, and insinuated that she was partly to blame for the rape. They claim she engaged in excessive drinking, risky activities, and bad judgment. In effect, the university is arguing they are not responsible for what happened to her; it was her behaviors that resulted in her being raped. WPI may recognize this woman as a victim of sexual violence, but they are suggesting that she should be blamed for her own victimization.
Despite the fact that these cyclists were riding safely, wearing helmets, and being led by an experienced (and forgiving) cyclist who had previously ridden across country, the journalists chose to lecture cyclists instead of reminding drivers of two-ton vehicles not to run over people on twenty-pound bicycles. One might think that after such a horrible tragedy we would hear calls for motorists to be safe, not drive distracted, and respect bicyclists on the road. Instead, some in the media felt the need to place the burden of blame on cyclists and point out the ways that they may be responsible for the injuries they suffer at the hands of drivers.
Both of these stories are examples of victim blaming. A tragedy occurred, people were victimized (through injury, assault, and even death), and then some people question if the victims did enough to ensure their own safety. Instead of arguing that everyone has the right to not be raped and not be blamed for being the victim of rape, WPI and their insurance lawyers are blaming this woman for the violence done to her. In the case of the cyclists’ deaths in Michigan, instead of arguing that everyone has the right to ride their bicycles on roads without being run over by motorists, the journalists are saying that cyclists need to make smart choices to ensure their safety.
Some may think that the responses of the lawyers and journalists in these two stories are somewhat atypical. Sadly, they are not. Victims of sexual assault are routinely blamed for the violence that is done to them: Was she drinking excessively? Was she dressed provocatively? Did she have a history of sexual promiscuity? These common questions are all victim blaming, plain and simple.
Similarly, blaming cyclists for being killed by motorists is also a widespread practice: Were they wearing helmets? Did they have on reflective clothing? Were they riding single file? Were they traveling at excessive speeds? These are the common victim-blaming questions that are asked of cyclists even though none of these behaviors justify being hit and injured by a motor vehicle.
We should bear in mind that victim blaming is not only articulated in courts and the media. It is widespread in our everyday lives—on Facebook, Twitter, and in conversations with family friends, and co-workers. Many of us invoke victim blaming narratives and we may not even be aware of it. When some friends of mine heard of the Kalamazoo tragedy, their first response was to exclaim: “Cyclists sometimes do such crazy things on the road.” And another acquaintance, upon hearing the details of the rape case at WPI, wondered how many drinks the victim had that night.
Here is Story 3 to consider. This one has reverberated around the world: A gunman enters the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. He is heavily armed with an array of guns and ammunition. Over the course of several terrifying hours, he kills 49 people and injures 53 others. Eventually, the police use an armored vehicle to enter the nightclub and kill the suspect in an exchange of gunfire.
Can you imagine if after this horrible massacre someone blamed the victims for their deaths and injuries? What if a reporter or a lawyer raised the following questions: Why didn’t the club patrons abstain from drinking that night so that they would be fully alert and attentive just in case a shooter with an assault rifle came in? Why did these patrons make the dangerous and risky decision to enter a dark building with loud music knowing that this might compromise their ability to hear or see potential threats and danger? And why did they dance so energetically all night? Didn’t they know this would make them too tired to run away from or resist a shooter?
Fortunately, we seldom hear these sorts of questions being asked after mass shootings because they are absolutely ludicrous. Anyone who would utter them would most likely be fired from their job and immediately, and ruthlessly, condemned on social media. Victims of mass shootings are in no way responsible for their deaths. Most everyone agrees with that.
So why, then, are victims of other crimes blamed for the atrocious acts that happen to them? Why do we condemn victim blaming in the case of mass shootings but condone it in the case of sexual violence or vehicular homicide of cyclists? What do you think? Is there something that justifies these two different explanations? Or is it our different use of victim blaming that needs explaining and justifying?