Rape – Why Do We Blame the Victim?

For years there has been global outrage over why we continually handle sex abuse allegations badly, with quite shocking statistics and stories of rapists and abusers escaping punishment and repeating their crimes, which undoubtedly instils even less incentive to report abuse for the overwhelming majority of victims that do not come forward.

For example, in a recent analysis of the American Justice Department’s data by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), only three out of every 100 rapists will ever spend even a single day in prison. Although these statistics come from the US, the problem is global.

While there are multiple factors that contribute to this heinous permittance of horrible crimes, new research published in the journal Emotion, hints at ways to prevent jurors’ judgement from being clouded by victim blaming and may also help professionals improve rape counselling.

The Experiments

Researchers from Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, led by professor of psychology Dr. Kent Harber, conducted two main studies that involved showing participants two video clips: Either the violent sexual assault of a woman depicted in scenes of the 1998 film, The Accused, or the heated economic debates and verbal attack of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who although embattled, was not a victim. The viewers were mock witnesses or jurors being presented with evidence if you will.

The viewers were divided into two main groups, either “Suppressors” or “Disclosers”, and were asked to write about what they saw:

“Participants in the disclosure condition received written instructions to freely express their deepest thoughts and feelings about their assigned movie. Participants in the “suppression” condition were instructed to write only about superficial details of their assigned movie, such as how many people were in the movie and what these people were wearing and were explicitly forbidden from disclosing any personal feelings or opinions.”

Whether expressing emotions in writing, or not, this did not influence viewers’ attitudes toward Thatcher, the non-victim, but for the rape victim there was a clear cut difference. Suppressors were more likely to blame the victim for being raped. In marked contrast, disclosers succumbed to victim blaming much less. What’s more is that the more words the disclosers wrote, and the more distress they conveyed, the less they blamed the victim.

As Prof Harber notes:

“This first study confirmed that disclosure reduces victim blaming, but it left a somewhat troubling possibility unanswered… What if disclosure, by alleviating the emotions that trigger blaming, tempers blaming of assailants as well as assault victims? If so, disclosure would absolve victimizers as well as victims.”

This would be a dangerous situation in the courtroom, where disclosing ones emotions about the crime, in writing, may reduce blaming of both the victim and the attacker, wrongfully swaying opinions so that the abuser may still get away with their crime, scot-free. Or on the flip-side, one might overtly blame the accused, which could result in wrongful incarceration.

The second study addressed this issue by having the viewers also evaluate the adversarial men in the clips they viewed:

“Disclosure moderated blaming of Sarah, the victim in The Accused, but did not [reduce or increase] blaming of Sarah’s assailants… Victim/disclose participants blamed Sarah less than they blamed her assailants… Victim/suppress participants did not blame Sarah less than her assailants.”

The researchers surmised that, coupled with related research, these results imply that victim blaming arises from the just-world threats that the victims themselves represent. In other words, blaming the victim helps to counteract threats to the viewers’ core belief that we live in a just world and that when bad things happen to people, it is because these individuals are bad people or have done something to deserve their misfortune.

Expressions like “what goes around comes around”, “they got their just deserts” and “karma is a bitch” represent this ideology. It seems that emotion and viewpoint disclosure selectively addresses these just-world threats, thereby inhibiting unjust victim blaming.

Interestingly, to better understand the disclosure effect, four dimensions (reflecting shock, confusion, dismay and anger) were extracted from the subjects’ writing samples and further analyzed:

“It is noteworthy that disclosing general distress (reflecting shock, confusion, and dismay) had these [beneficial] effects, but that disclosing anger did not.”

And while this study did confirm previous reports of men more readily blaming victims (and victimizers) than women, disclosure equally reduced victim-blaming by both men and women.

As Prof. Harber states, the implications of these studies’ findings are profound:

“…people can best help victims by first addressing their own emotional needs. [The research] has already raised interest among law scholars, because of its implications for juries. Jurors are often prohibited from discussing cases until final deliberation. Our research suggests that this forced suppression might affect jurors’ attitudes toward the victim/plaintiffs.”

Moreover, he suggests that survivors might be spared inadvertent blaming from those closest to them by encouraging survivors’ families and friends to disclose rather than suppress their emotions, perhaps to trained therapists.


Hafer CL, & Bègue L (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological bulletin, 131 (1), 128-67 PMID: 15631556

Harber KD, Podolski P, & Williams CH (2015). Emotional Disclosure and Victim Blaming. Emotion (Washington, D.C.) PMID: 25799160

Vonderhaar RL, & Carmody DC (2014). There Are No “Innocent Victims”: The Influence of Just World Beliefs and Prior Victimization on Rape Myth Acceptance. Journal of interpersonal violence PMID: 25236676

Image via otnaydur / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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