Victim Blaming and Negative Stereotypes

Social psychology research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that individuals in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. Thus, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences. It is clear that negative reactions from family, friends, loved ones, and society have a harmful effect on victims.

Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. One rationale is that this provides nonvictims with a false sense of security if they can place blame on victims rather than on perpetrators. Research findings suggest that blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment.

Negative reactions to sexual assault victims, such as attributing blame or responsibility to the victim, generally have been found to be greater for assaults by acquaintances and especially dates, sexually active victims, less “respectable” victims, nonresisting victims; assaults in which victims used alcohol prior to the assault; and assaults in which victims engaged in nonstereotypical gender-role behavior prior to attack.

Research has proven that “the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims were being believed and
being listened to by others” (Sarah E. Ullman, “Social Reactions, Coping Strategies, and Self-Blame Attributions in Adjustment to Sexual Assault,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 20, 1996: 505–26).

This post is an excerpt from Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.