Center for Injury Research and Prevention

The Consequences of Victim Blaming: Sexual Assault and Higher Education

May 18, 2016

In a recent article, I learned about a disturbing policy at Brigham Young University (BYU) that promotes victim blaming. Briefly, several young women reported being raped while enrolled at BYU. When the school was notified of the rapes, investigations were launched into whether the victims violated the school’s Honor Code by engaging in premarital sex or consuming alcohol. One of the victims has been denied from registering for classes until the school completes its investigation into whether she violated BYU honor code. Another victim shared that BYU’s Title IX coordinator voiced her perception that “in her opinion, almost all of the reported rapes and assaults at BYU are false reports made by women that feel…morally bad after they’re having consensual activities.”

Why Do We Blame Victims?

There are numerous theories about why victim blaming occurs. It primarily serves as a way for us to preserve our feeling of invulnerability – that feeling that “it won’t happen to me.”  If we think that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, or that somehow the victim did something to create the situation, we can justify the crime and maintain the illusion that we are in control over our environment. We create a false sense of safety by thinking, “If I don’t act like the victim, I will be safe.” This is problematic because it is not the victim’s actions, but the perpetrator’s choices, that result in the crime occurring. This is true for any crime, not just for sexual assault. 

Consider questions that are commonly asked of victims of sexual assault:

  • What were you wearing? [implying you were asking for trouble]
  • Why were you walking alone at 11pm? [implying you put yourself at risk]
  • Why didn’t you scream or fight off your attacker? [implying consent]
  • Have you ever had sexual intercourse with anyone? [implying that it is no big deal]

We would never dream of asking those questions or placing those judgments on a victim of any other type of crime, such as a robbery victim – and we shouldn’t be making them of sexual assault victims. This brief example—titled “The Rape of Mr. Smith”—from the American Bar Association Journal illustrates this double-standard, and I encourage you to read it.

Consequences

The BYU story is a perfect real-life example of how victim blaming will discourage reports of sexual violence out of victims’ fear of being punished by the school. In addition to increasing the chances that victims will not come forward, the school runs the risk of encouraging social acceptance of victim blaming and thereby allowing the perpetrator to avoid accountability for his/her behavior. It also legitimizes scare tactics used by perpetrators to keep victims from reporting – “nobody will believe you” or “you asked for it.”  It may even help perpetrators identify victims who are less likely to report.  Within the legal process, victim blaming can impact witnesses’ likelihood of supporting the victim and/or testifying, authorities’ willingness to prosecute, prosecutors’ motivation to recommend incarceration, and judges’ disposition to incarcerate. 

The good news is that several legislative acts were created with the intent to promote transparency around campus safety and procedures. For example, the Jeanne Clery Act and the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act require disclosure of crimes on campus, guarantee victims enhanced rights, and provide standards for institutional conduct hearings. Laws such as these could make it harder for the school to defend its stance, and one victim has filed a Title IX suit against BYU for including content in the Honor Code that violates students’ civil rights. Petitions by students and requests by local law enforcement are pressuring BYU to review and consider options for changing its policy. 

One proposal is to offer immunity for honor code violations when a more serious crime has been committed.  This strategy has been utilized by other universities with honor codes similar to that at BYU.  If implemented fairly, this could promote the reporting of crimes because lesser offenses would be forgiven, while greater offenses are punished (i.e., sexual assault over alcohol use). 

What Else Can We Do?

As we strive to shift away from societal attitudes and policies that blame the victim, I encourage you to:

  • Challenge yourself and others to avoid language and thoughts associated with victim blaming
  • Critically evaluate media content that promotes typical male and female stereotypes and encourages victim shaming
  • Support victims by verbalizing and acting in a way that lets them know this is not their fault
  • Hold perpetrators accountable for their actions

By making these changes at the individual, community, and university level, we can all play a part in providing sexual assault victims with the support that they deserve.

Recommended Reading

Read more about teen dating violence prevention.

Read more about intimate partner violence.

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