Victim blaming has roots in the “Just World Hypothesis,” proposed by Melvin J. Lerner, which states that people are so scared by the idea that bad things could happen to good people that they forcibly believe that victims always get what they deserve. This phenomenon relies on the fact that people believing in a just and fair world, yet when in fact there is no evidence to prove this force is true.
This theory is best exemplified in cases of sexual assault that involve alcohol. In reaction to the case of Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexual assault on Stanford University’s campus in 2015, members of the public blamed the victim “Emily Doe” for drinking too much, saying that her intoxication was the reason for the assault. As human nature would allow, the general public took comfort in assuming that she deserved the assault instead of believing Doe simply fell victim to injustice.
This is typical of American culture due to the continued bleeding of religion into political spheres.
Starting as early as Eve’s apple in the Garden of Eden, ancient Christian values have shaped the way western society views female promiscuity. In today’s world, these same views are now manifested by conservative politicians like Vice President Mike Pence. In Christian fundamentalism, to be a “Godly” woman, she must be gentle and and modest. From a secular standpoint, women are pawns in the bigger patriarchal scheme, responsible only for giving their power over to men.
The Christian influence in American culture coupled with the American Dream, in which everyone across the gender spectrum is held responsible for their actions, creates a boiling pot which women are dangled above, constantly trying to find the right balance: quiet but not too quiet, gentle but not too gentle, modest but not too modest.
Both re-enforce victim blaming, since women are held accountable for their actions in a sexual assault case and consequently judged harshly for speaking out otherwise.
In an environment conducive to victim blaming, it’s important to determine if there are characteristic differences between people who tend to blame and those who empathize. The New York Times conducted several studies involving approximately 1,000 people in which they found that the more likely you are to having “binding values,” as opposed to “individualizing values,” the more likely you are to blame the victim in a crime. Binding values privilege loyalty, obedience and purity, and encourages group cohesion, while individualizing values prioritize caring for others and preventing unfair behaviors. The New York Times was clear that while these two sets of values are not mutually exclusive within individuals, psychologists have discovered that varying degrees of these values polarize society and tend to predict your political stance—individualizing values lean politically progressive while binding values sway conservative.
The studies also found those who held binding values viewed victims as “contaminated” and therefore had trouble viewing them as injured or abused, but those with individualizing values saw the victim as hurt and the perpetrator as the one who inflicted the pain. This paints a grim picture for the red states of America—places where, based on the findings above, that victims of sexual assault are belittled by Christian conservatism. Whether a victim is forced to exclude the police and only speak to members of the clergy in South Carolina or receives bible verses as a response to a report in Montana, it is clear that religion and conservatism are used as a tool to minimize sexual assault allegations.
By focusing on women, I do not ignore the high numbers of male sexual assault survivors and other individuals on the gender spectrum. Instead, I’m attempting to shed light on the cultural context behind the larger number of girls and women, who are more often blamed for the sexual acts committed against them.
Blaming the victim enforces their initial feelings of shame and embarrassment. The intrusive police questioning, perception of contamination and tribulations of sexual assault allegations lead women to stay silent about their issues. And then, if no one knows, nobody can judge.
As with any issue, staying silent and ignoring the problem does not eliminate it. Women are naturalized to stay quiet, gentle and modest in the face of injustice, which not only perpetuates the issue of sexual assault and victim blaming, locking the cycle of sexual abuse in place.
This is a crooked picture that needs to be addressed. The normalization of victim-blaming and rape culture begin at the individual level. First, one must recognize their part in the larger problem before they can combat it. Then, we can begin to attack the problem at an institutional level.
We need to be cognizant of the relationship between politics and moral values and be wary of the role religious fundamentalism plays in public policy. The first step to prioritizing women’s safety is to alert those in office, or elect new officials, focus on those who is silenced and make conscious changes to the language surrounding sexual assault.