Why do Victims not Come Forward? Culture of Victim Blaming

Written by Nelli Naukkarinen

The United States Justice department in their 2016 analysis of criminal victimisation estimates found that as much as 80% of sexual offenses such as rape and sexual assault go unreported. For years the on-going dialogue has been centred on the topic of “why do victims not come forward? Are they scared? Don’t they want justice? Aren’t they scared if they don’t say anything then someone else might be victimised?” There are multiple reasons why victims do not come forward, but an underlying theme can be detected when it comes to the discourse on sexual assault and harassment. It is evident even in the way I phrased the questions in the article – questioning. 

Victim blaming refers to the phenomenon of questioning the harmful experiences of victims. It is the question of the “well, was it that bad?” It is the implications of your fault in the matter (“why did you walk home alone? You know how dangerous that is!”). It is the phenomenon of diverting responsibility from the offender to the victim, changing the conversation and placing the victim on the offensive.

Sexual assault or harassment is never the victim’s fault. It does not matter what you wore, what you said or what you did, if explicit consent to a sexual or sexually-toned act is not given, it is sexual assault. The culture of language around sexual harassment and assault is set in a way that removes the responsibility of the offender and moves it to the victim. But why do people victim blame? There are multiple reasons, but a common one put forward by researchers is the theory of “the just world.” This theory stipulates that bad things happen to bad people by bad people. Therefore, if something bad happens to you, you’re probably a bad person who deserved it. Obviously, people do not always think as simplistically as “crime equals bad,” however the just world theory can still be used to understand why people victim blame, as it is deeply intrinsic in society’s traditional narratives.

When a crime happens, it is traumatic to all people involved – not only to the victim, but also to their friends, family and community. Crime can have a grave impact on the people around the victim, and shape how they view life and society. Most of us could not imagine something bad happening to someone we know; crime to us is something we want to stay away from, and so when it hits close to home it might turn our worldview upside down and make us act out. To try and rationalise what happened, people tend to analyse the events, and this often results in the questioning of the victim’s role in what happened to them. People start asking questions like “were you drinking?”, “why did you walk home alone?”, “are you sure you didn’t do something to set the person off?” While these words were not intentionally meant to cause harm, they do. They also reinforce the cycle of violence against victims of sexual assault/harassment. Victims of violence commonly voice that not being recognised in their victimisation makes coping with the event more difficult. Being heard and believed is a vital part of the recovery process.

According to research, 92% of women who go through sexual violence do not recognise it as such. In my last article, I mentioned the definition of sexual harassment, which corresponds to any unwanted sexual advances, requests, comments and gestures made towards a person or a group. Similarly, sexual assault can be defined as sexual contact without the explicit consent of the victim. Due to the way conversation around sexual assault is phrased, many people do not even know they have fallen victim to sexual violence. The normalisation of non-consensual touching (e.g. being groped at a club) or other forms of sexual harassment (e.g. being catcalled on the street) has made sexual misconduct so common that people struggle to recognise that any sexually-toned activity without consent is sexual harassment/assault.

When we look at the discourse about sexual assault and harassment, it is no wonder victims do not want to come forward. But even when they do, victims are often not treated in a respectful and supportive manner by the justice system, for example by getting re-victimized in their process of trying to achieve justice. When in court, the case is not necessarily about the victim. The court case is the offender vs. the state, a situation where many victims have reported that they have felt like a second player, even though the court case is about an offence committed against them. Many victims feel as if they are not heard by the justice system. They are often not given the right to speak in court about what happened to them, as experts fear this would take away the offender’s right to a fair trial and affect the decision made by the court. Currently, no evidence exists supporting such a phenomenon. Furthermore, victims don’t feel recognized or heard just by the court, but also feel unheard throughout the processes of investigation and prosecution

Many victims report that they are not kept up-to-date on the proceedings of the investigation and have to reach out themselves to get information. They might not know if an arrest has been made, or if charges will be pressed. They might not know if the person who committed the crime against them will be held accountable to their actions unless they themselves go out of their way and get the information, even if they are entitled to this information under European Union law.

Then there is the issue of juries. Research shows that juries are looking for a very specific type of victim. As mentioned before in the article, we have pre-set ideas and assumptions on victims. We believe victims ought to be passive, meek, sad, and clearly distraught by their victimisation. These ideas of how a victim should act and present themselves affect how the jurors perceive them. Studies show that especially male jurors expect to see a specific type of reaction from the victim to perceive them credible. Victims have to show emotion deemed appropriate for the seriousness of the offence, and if they show less or more emotion, the jurors see them as less credible. Victims have to look distraught, but being hysterical, crying or sobbing will decrease their credibility. If they are not showing emotion, seem too neutral, angry or are showing other emotions other than sadness or hurt, their credibility goes down. 

When considering all things above, it is no wonder victims are hesitant to come forward. If you are not questioned by people around you or victim blamed by them, you might face this at any point in the criminal justice proceedings.

If we are to consider how our surroundings, the criminal justice system and so many other facets of society treat victimised people, it is no surprise that people do not want to come forward.

Being a victim of a crime is traumatic. It is an event that will have potentially a life-long impact, so for victims to then have to go through the experience of having their story, emotions or actions questioned even though they don’t hold any responsibility, it is no wonder victims do not want to come forward. The prevalent culture of victim blaming we are fostering as a society makes it harder for people to come forward. We have to change the narratives and the way we look and treat victims to foster an environment where they would feel comfortable enough to come forward.

Edited by Karolina Hajna, artwork by Teresa Valle