Blaming the victim: Reacting to the Steubenville verdict


Men Can Stop RapeBrittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion, and judgment and decision making.  She is also Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network coordinator.

As an Ohioan, feminist, and social psychology instructor, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Steubenville rape trial and the problematic responses to the verdict and the crime (for some additional information, see the reaction of current beneficiary Men Can Stop Rape on our blog). It seems like quite a lot of the reaction to the crime is that the victim deserved it and that her attackers did not do anything wrong. It’s upsetting and disappointing, but from a social psychological perspective, not very surprising.

One reason that people are blaming the victim in Steubenville is that people naturally focus on how they can prevent bad things from happening to them. One way we do this is by mentally simulating ways that victims of crimes could have avoided them (Roese, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1995). Sometimes these counterfactuals might be helpful by suggesting helpful behavioral change, such as “Next time, I’ll remember to close the garage door and we won’t get robbed” (e.g., Smallman & Roese, 2009), but the downside of counterfactuals is that the focus of the counterfactual is associated with attributions of blame. So thinking about how women can prevent rape can perhaps help women avoid certain types of rape but also unfortunately contributes to attributing responsibility of rape to women rather than men who commit rape (e.g., Branscombe, Coleman, Garstka, & Owen, 1996).

Another reason for victim blaming is the belief in a just world (or just-world fallacy), a naïve theory about the world that believes people get their just desserts: Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. The flip side of this belief is that victims of crimes must be somehow responsible for the crime committed against them and that acts of crime are more like acts of god or karma rather than the antisocial behavior of actual people (Lerner, 1980). 

When you combine these two cognitive phenomena with the uncomfortably large number of men who will apparently admit to rape if the illegal acts are described without using the word “rape” (e.g., Lisak & Miller, 2002; for more information, see this fact sheet from David Lisak), it becomes obvious why the work of current beneficiary Men Can Stop Rape is so important.

It’s only natural to engage in counterfactuals, but when the counterfactuals lead to absolving the perpetrators of their guilt, the counterfactuals and naïve theories have gone too far. Another problem with rape in particular is that it’s a crime that the criminals themselves don’t recognize as criminal activity. When we engage in counterfactuals about theft, we don’t decide that the thieves can’t help themselves or that theft isn’t actually a crime if we’ve ever given anything to the thief. But with public awareness and education about what constitutes rape and who’s to blame, perhaps some good can come out of the coverage and reactions to Steubenville.

Branscombe, N. R., Owen, S., Garstka, T. A., & Coleman, J. (1996). “Rape and accident counterfactuals: Who might have done otherwise and would it have changed the outcome?” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26 (12), 1042-1067.
Lerner, M. J. (1980). “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion.” Perspectives in Social Psychology. New York: Plenum Press.
Lisak, D. & Miller, P. M. (2002). “Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists.” Violence and Victims 17(1), 73-84.
Roese, N.J. (1997). “Counterfactual thinking.” Psychological Bulletin 121(1), 133–148.
Roese, N.J. & Olson, J.M. (1995). What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking. New Jersey: Erlbaum.
Smallman, R. & Roese, N.J. (2009). “Counterfactual thinking facilitates behavioral intentions.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, 845–852.