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Victim Blaming

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Is victim-blaming ever justified?

The immediate answer is no, of course not. A girl doesn’t wear a provocative outfit with the aim of being sexually assaulted, and she doesn’t walk alone at night in the hope of being raped. To think so is not only ludicrous, but also hurtful and offensive. It is an attempt to invert victimization by saying the perpetrator couldn’t control his urges – urges that were brought on by a sexy decolletage or a few too many drinks. And who chose to wear that outfit or drink those drinks? The girl who was asking to be assaulted! When you slow it down and parse it out, you begin to realize how absurd it is to blame the victims of sexual assault.

But how often do we as a society blame victims in cases other than sexual assault? Leaving your laptop unattended in a public place seems like an uncommonly stupid thing to do – because it is. It’s taking a wholly unnecessary risk – but is it my fault for needing to use the bathroom and wanting to leave my laptop at my work station? What if I leave my dorm room unlocked? If someone were to steal from my dorm room I would anticipate a chorus of people saying, “You should’ve locked your doors!” Again, perhaps rightfully so, since I willingly took an unnecessary risk by leaving my door unlocked. Lastly, if I’m relieved of my Rolex on the streets of Spanish Harlem at midnight, who is at fault? Clearly the mugger, but it would be logical to ask, “Why would you walk around Spanish Harlem with a Rolex at midnight? Don’t you think that’s a little risky?” I would certainly be admonished not to do it again.

So is victim-blaming only wrong in cases of sexual assault, or is it universally bad? For those who say it’s only wrong in cases of sexual assault, I see your point. Sexual assault is a far more intimate and egregious violation than theft. Moreover, victim-blaming in sexual assault attempts to limit a person’s fundamental freedoms to do things like dress how they please.

At the same time, I should have the freedom to park my bike without a lock. After all, it’s not against the law to leave your bike unlocked, but it is against the law to walk off with someone else’s. It’s not my fault if someone steals it, yet I’d be inundated with comments about stupid it is to leave a bike unlocked.

I’m tempted to say that victim-blaming is universally wrong, not only because it is an attempt to limit the freedom of the victim but also because it’s an attempt to take blame away from the perpetrator. In reality, only the perpetrator can prevent a crime from happening; crime is the criminal’s decision. We try to use victims as extenuating circumstances to lessen, or at least explain, an offense.

However, that raises far more interesting questions about whether extenuating circumstances should ever be a factor when considering crime. Let’s say both a rich man and a poor man mug an old lady in Manhattan. Should we consider one of them more or less justified in their actions? If the poor man is more justified, should he receive a lighter sentence? Some would say yes on both counts. But again, we’re shifting blame away from the perpetrator of a crime by saying that external factors acted as an irresistible compelling factor. Could we then say that a college-aged assaulter was so overwhelmed by hormones and a hyper-sexualized culture that he’s not wholly to blame for rape? My answer to the latter is certainly no, but I’m unsure about the poverty-stricken mugger.

Suffice to say, how we think about crime should be re-examined.

Send Chris your thoughts on crime and victim-blaming at herriesc@stanford.edu.

Chris Herries is a sophomore majoring in Latin. His interests include rugby, crossfit, weiqi, and public service. Please shoot him an email if you have an issues with his articles.