Discussion: Issues in young adult fiction: the fine art of victim blaming

                       victim blaming

Welcome to Mental Health Awareness Month, co-sponsored by Blog of Erised and Uncorked Thoughts!  If you're new to the name, check out the flagship post and enter a giveaway for some awesome prizes.  

I was reading a review of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why when the idea for this post came to me.  It's a devastating account of one teenager's suicide through her own voice, recorded on a set of cassette tapes.  On each tape, she names a guilty party and explains what they have done to drive her this far.  In some ways, it's a polarizing book.  Some, like me, find it beautiful and tragic and poignant.  Others think it's cruel that the girl blames these people and "guilt-trips" them.  The post I read was kind to the book, but called out the main character for not trying hard enough to fight back and get help.  It's a sentiment that immediately rattled me because it's something I've been hearing over and over lately.  

She asked for it.  

She was dressed like a slut.  

She should have known he was bad news. 

She ruined their lives.  

Sound familiar?  These and similar accusations have been thrown out callously towards the rape victims in Stubenville and Maryville.  Of the women in India, in the Sudan.  Every time a rape case hits the news, someone is saying that the girl did something wrong and that's why she was raped.  Even the well-intentioned fall prey to this issue. In fact, many perfectly sweet, helpful people fall into this trap, completely unaware of the implications.  

Check your drink before you sip it.  

Don't accept rides from anyone you don't know. 

Hold your keys between your knuckles in case you're attacked. 

Avoid alcohol and dimly lit areas. 

All basically saying the same thing: if you do these things properly, you'll be safe.  If you get raped, then obviously you failed to do something.  You didn't fight hard enough.  You didn't say no clearly enough.  And, although less discussed, the same accusations fly at victims of suicide.  They should have asked for help.  They should have held on.  They shouldn't have overreacted.  It'll pass.  It gets better.  Just ignore them.  

It seems logical until you dissect it. Since when did it become the victim's job to avoid being a victim?  There's common sense and then there's common human decency.  It's common sense that alcohol makes you vulnerable to poor decision-making.  That doesn't make it your fault if someone else takes advantage.  Most people wouldn't tell the murder victim's family that "she should have watched out for herself better."  So why do we talk about rape victims this way?  Why do we blame suicide victims for not standing up for themselves?  

what is victim blaming?

Victim blaming occurs when someone places full or partial blame on the victim of abuse/rape/violence/etc. for their abuse.  When the victim is held responsible (in full or part) for being victimized. 

It's a natural defense mechanism.  It allows us vulnerable non-victims to feel safer in a dangerous world.  We can say, "She was asking for it.  She wore that slutty outfit.  I would never do that, so I'll never be attacked like she was."  It allows us to feel less helpless.  "I didn't know he was depressed.  If he'd have told me, I would have helped him and he wouldn't have killed himself."  

It can also happen in the most subtle, insidious ways.  It's victim blaming when you say that someone is poor because they didn't work hard enough.  It's victim blaming when you say that someone is homeless because they didn't try hard enough to get a job.  It's victim blaming when someone is hazed and you say that they should have stopped it if they were that upset.  It's victim blaming when you express sympathy for the assailants because if only the victim had just been more understanding, she/he wouldn't have ruined their lives.  

why is it a problem?

Victim blaming is toxic in multiple ways.  First, it takes responsibility away from the person who committed the bad act.  It suggests that in one way or another, the attacker was forced or provoked or coerced into hurting someone.  

By assuming that the victim provoked the attack, you're implying that the victim elicited (and even deserved) to be victimized.  This causes victims (who often already feel shame) to feel guilty for being attacked.  To feel like they deserved what they got.  To feel like they don't deserve to say, "What happened to me was wrong."  

It minimizes the victim's pain.  When you use victim blaming statements, you're telling the victim that they don't deserve to feel sad and violated, because they brought this agony upon themselves.  If only they had done this.  If only they hadn't done that.  

It increases the victim's pain.  Victim blaming increases the victim's own feelings of shame, worthlessness, and sadness.  It makes them feel misunderstood and alone.  It intensifies depression and helplessness.  

what can you do?

Inform yourself.  Listen.  Question what you say before you say it.  Question why you wanted to say it in the first place.  What does it say about your beliefs?  What does it say about social morays?  Educate yourself.  Don't let others get away with it, either. Don't attack them--after all, you've probably made this mistake before too--but be kind and explain the problem. Educate.  

useful websites

victim blaming in books

Click the covers for Goodreads pages.   

 Review                                   Review                                 Review                             

discussion points 

Have you noticed or experienced victim blaming? 

How have you dealt with victim blaming, as a recipient or onlooker?  

Did anything in this post surprise you?  

Are there other good examples of books or other media that deals with victim blaming?  

Other comments? 


  1. I actually just watched a great TED Talk about victim blaming, and how it happens in our language as well as in our culture: http://www.upworthy.com/a-ted-talk-that-might-turn-every-man-who-watches-it-into-a-feminist-its-pretty-fantastic-7?g=2&c=reccon1

    It IS a huge issue, and I'm glad books are tackling it. I didn't like 13 Reasons Why, because I don't feel like a blaming guilt-trip actually incites change, only reinforced defensiveness. But hey, friends of mine killed themselves when we were on the cusp of teenagehood, so I may be sensitive about it. I also think there's a difference between victim blaming and lack of a support structure- I loved Speak for that nuance.

    1. Thanks for the link! That's pretty awesome.

      I think a lot of people had that reaction to it. I can definitely understand why; but I can also understand the revenge impulse. Whether you agree with the MC's methods or not, it makes a powerful point. Great point about Speak! I think I saw that in 13 Reasons too. Both of the MCs felt isolated, like there was no one they could turn to. Though I'm not sure if I'm understanding your point fully about the "difference"?