No Perfect Victim

imageBy Sarah Smith, JD, and Carlene Gonzalez, Ph.D., in conjunction with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Most people would agree that the victim of a crime is the last person who deserves to be judged. Yet judgment – from the public, from law enforcement, even from their families – is exactly what many crime victims encounter when they seek justice. Rape victims are met with skepticism about the veracity of their claims if they delay reporting the crime to police, take a shower afterwards, show too much or too little emotion, etc. Survivors of domestic violence who seek help find that their decisions, not those of the person who brutalized them, become the focus of inquiry. If it was so bad… Why didn’t you just leave? Call the police? Seek medical attention for your injuries?

It is uncomfortable to be confronted with the reality of one person brutalizing another. Perhaps it is this discomfort that makes us want victims to act, to look, to feel a certain way in response to their trauma. The reality is – like the Twitter hashtag says – there’s no perfect victim.

Shock. Denial. Confusion. These are all normal reactions to trauma. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable why a rape victim might not report the crime immediately, especially if they have some kind of relationship with the perpetrator. It is also understandable that a person who has been subjected to coercion and control by another person might not seek help or flee at the first opportunity. This dynamic is frequently seen among victims of sex trafficking, especially young girls who have been psychologically groomed to be emotionally dependent on their pimps. It is easy to see these young women as prostitutes. They, just like a woman who uses violence against her batterer, may have broken the law, but they are victims.

Trauma impacts individuals in different ways. But how they react is no measure of the gravity of what they have experienced. A mother who has been beaten by her husband throughout their marriage does not stay in the relationship because she thinks that the violence does not impact her children. She does not stay because she is indifferent to the terror and confusion her children feel when they see her crying and bruised after an argument with their father. She stays because leaving is dangerous. It often triggers an abuser’s violence. One study has found that women who leave abusive partners are at increased risk of being a victim of homicide. But too often, the police officer responding to that mother’s 911 call or the judge presiding over her custody doubts this victim because her response to the violence does not make sense to them.

Sadly, at a societal level, we do not display as much sympathy toward victims of crimes as we should. Instead, we often attach partial or much of the responsibility for the crime to the victim. We do so by questioning their respectability, provocativeness, past risky behaviors, degree of intoxication, etc. at the time of the crime. For fear of being blamed or disbelieved about the crime, many victims fail to report their assaults to authorities. From a socio-psychological perspective, various theories lend a hand at understanding our judgments and biases as observers of crimes. The Attribution Theory, for instance, suggests that individuals explain an event by external (i.e., situational factors outside of one’s control) or internal (i.e., dispositional characteristics, like personality) causes. Based on the tenets of the Attribution Theory and in line with victim blaming, the Defensive Attribution Theory suggests that an individual’s perceived similarity with a victim and the likelihood that this individual will experience such an event themselves decreases whether they will ascribe blame to the crime victim. The latter theory highlights how multiple factors impact how we assign blame to others, including the role of in-group preference. For this reason, it is crucial that we recognize the impact of our judgments and biases, and therefore, how our judgments impact our decisions about crime victims. Rather than critiquing a victim’s behaviors, we must make an active effort to understand victim behavior and how they are likely to present, as well as subtle warning signs of abusers. For more information about the victim-abuser relationship, please visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence website. For more information on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)’s please visit http://www.ncjfcj.org. Additionally, information on trauma-informed systems of care can be found at http://www.ncjfcj.org/our-work/trauma-informed-system-care

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About Tamar Birckhead

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2 Responses to No Perfect Victim

  1. Cynthia Godsoe says:

    Thanks for the great post. It’s interesting that we don’t judge and/or demean all victims, just certain ones–generally those who seem to go against societal norms (e.g. that girls and women should be chaste, even when they sexual activity is coerced). What is particularly egregious to me is that minors in the commercial sex industry are not seen as trafficking victims despite their legal and actual status as such, but instead continue to be prosecuted and often incarcerated for prostitution. Truly punishing the victim!

  2. A great article, thank you for writing it so eloquently. I’ve included your article in my project if you don’t mind (please get in touch if you do, of course!)

    My project “My Imperfect Rape” aims to discredit myths about a “perfect” victim or “normal” act of sexual violence. Although there may be similar traits between abusers, or similar characteristics between victims, sexual violence is messy just like everything else in life. Depending on stereotypes and narrow perceptions results in survivors invalidating their own experiences and not stepping forward to get the help, and justice, they deserve.

    If you would like to get in touch feel free to contact at http://www.myimperfectrape.tumblr.com
    And get in contact if you are a survivor and need extra support.

    Thanks again for the article!