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Are Survivors of Sexual Assault Blamed More Than Victims of Other Crimes?

Reich, C.M., Grace A. Pegel, G.A., & Johnson, A.B. (2021).

. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1 – 23.

Expanded Abstract:

Although victim blaming in the context of sexual assault is often emphasized, little research has compared rates of victim blaming following sexual assault relative to other forms of criminal victimization. There are a variety of risk factors for the development of psychopathology following trauma exposure (Brewin et al., 2000). One risk factor is negative social reactions from professional or personal others when the survivor discloses their experience (Dworkin et al., 2019). These negative social reactions include stigmatization, egocentricity, distraction/discouragement from talking (which we term “silencing”), turning against, or controlling, as well as victim blaming (Ullman, 2000). Victim blaming is the communication of perceived fault or responsibility for the experience of victimization to the survivor - - either for the occurrence of traumatic event itself or for failing to prevent it from happening. Victim blaming may be especially harmful for its potential to be internalized as self-blame by the survivor (Bonnan-White et al., 2015; Dworkin et al., 2019).

Another risk factor is the type of traumatic event itself. Specifically, compared to non-interpersonal traumas such as motor vehicle accidents or natural disasters, negative psychopathology outcomes are more common following interpersonal traumas, which are those that involve an aggressor (e.g., physical assault; Breslau et al., 1998; Resnick et al., 1993), particularly when the trauma is sexual (Kessler et al., 1995). Furthermore, self-blame is a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and both victim-blame and self-blame are cited by sexual violence survivors as key reasons they do not report the crime to the police (Reich et al., 2021).

This research study investigated whether there is a crime-specific bias toward blaming victims of sexual assault. Victim blaming was assessed via different methods, including assessing observer perspectives in vignette-based studies, as well as surveying survivors’ accounts of social reactions they received.

In Study 1, participants were asked to rate how much the survivor was to blame in three vignettes, each with a different randomized crime outcome: rape, physical assault, or theft. Study 2 assessed blame for a vignette that either ended in rape or theft, via a causal attribution statement. Study 3 asked interpersonal trauma survivors who had experienced at least two forms of victimization (i.e., sexual assault, physical assault, or theft) to report the social reactions they received following disclosure of each of these crimes.

Across all three studies, victim blaming occurred following multiple forms of victimization and there was no evidence of a particular bias toward blaming survivors of sexual assault more so than other crimes. However, results of Study 3 highlight that, following sexual assault, survivors receive more silencing and stigmatizing reactions than they experienced after other crimes. Interpersonal traumas (i.e., sexual or physical assault) also resulted in more egocentric responses compared to theft. Altogether, there does not appear to be a crime-specific bias for victim blaming; however, crime-specific bias is apparent for some other, potentially understudied, social reactions.

Implications of these findings highlight the value of educating professionals about victim blaming and engaging in prevention efforts through trauma-informed services and outreach following victimization. Furthermore, service providers and advocates might especially seek to recognize and prevent silencing and stigmatizing reactions following sexual assault disclosures.

(The expanded abstract is excerpted and adapted from the article cited above)