The Psychology of Victim Blaming and Why I’m Taking Part In My First SlutWalk

Today’s post comes from Nicole Wander, who has taught Psych. at Columbus State Community College and is a self-proclaimed eclectic geek, feminist, animal lover.

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The human mind is infinitely complex and capable of amazing feats of cognition. We can create intricate masterpieces of literature and music, engineer scientific marvels and produce seemingly endless invention. We can engage in lengthy discourse and inductive and deductive reasoning. However, as Mr. Spock would tell us, we humans are not always logical beings. In fact, we frequently make predictable errors in logic. Why is that so? One reason is that instead of always thinking rationally and logically, we rely on heuristics in our every day lives.

What is a heuristic you ask? Well, psychologically speaking, a heuristic like is a rule of thumb; a guide which one generally goes by. For example, I was always taught, that here in Ohio, in order to avoid the last of the overnight frost, I should wait until Mother’s Day to plant tomatoes in my garden. For the most part, that rule of thumb has served me pretty well. Maybe some years I could have gotten lucky and put the plants in the ground a couple of weeks earlier, but let’s be real…here in Ohio we could still get a foot of snow in mid-April. So, to be safe, I’ve always chosen to stick with Mother’s Day to put my plants into my garden – it’s a rule of thumb that works for me.

Psychologically, the cognitive use of heuristics is sometimes more serious than some frost-killed tomatoes. As I said, the use of heuristics leads to predictable errors in logic. Cognitive heuristics come in many shapes, flavors and forms. They range from casual to life-shaping. Everyone can fall prey to them; we all do it at one time or another.

The world is chaotic place and, in many instances, we have no control over what happens. Tornadoes rip through towns, leaving some homes destroyed while leaving others untouched. Car accidents happen on highways everyday due to often seemingly random chance killing and injuring innocent people. Disease strikes without warning. Random, horrible, nasty stuff happens all the time and a lot of the time, there’s nothing we can do to stop it, or even see the nasty stuff coming. The problem with that (apart from the getting injured, sick and killed) is that if people think too much about the essentially uncontrollable, unpredictable, dangerous nature of the world around them, things can become overwhelming really quickly. So how do we cope? In pops a handy old heuristic – in this case, one known as The Just World Hypothesis (TJWH). TJWH is pretty simple. It’s simply the belief, however subtle or unconscious, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And, since at some level, most people feel they are good people, they believe bad things won’t happen to them and they are therefore safe from the chaos of the world around them – however untrue that may be in reality. Now, if that’s all TJWH were, what would be the problem? What’s the matter with some small, self-protective comfort in this big, bad world? But, unfortunately, TJWH has a flip-side and that flip-side is Victim Blaming.

If people believe that good things happen to good people, what does it mean when something bad happens to a person? That’s right, according to TJWH, that person must in some way be a bad person and must have done something the cause his or her misfortune. If a person caused his or her misfortune, then he or she is to blame for it.

This Victim Blaming is especially insidious in cases of sexual assault. When a woman is raped, people begin to wonder, and even ask aloud, what she may have done to bring the assault upon herself. “Did you see the way she was dressed? She must have led him on. What was she doing out so late anyway? I heard she sleeps around a lot. I bet she said yes and then just felt guilty the next morning and changed her tune. She shouldn’t have been drinking so much.” In American society, where women’s sexuality is so often demonized, rape-related Victim Blaming is alarmingly prevalent and the shame involved can be both external and internal. This shame is often used to further victimize women and leads to, among other things, self-blame, secrecy and the under-reporting of sexual crimes.

To me, the SlutWalk movement is a visible, concrete reminder that Victim Blaming is not only wrong, but dangerous. As long as we, as a society, continue to blame victims for crimes committed against them, the cycle of shame and violence will not end. Heuristics, including The Just World Hypothesis and its associated Victim Blaming, can be overcome as long as we’re aware of them. The SlutWalk movement attempts to bring to light and to challenge the underlying assumptions that so many people hold and often hold without realizing. No one deserves sexual assault, no matter what she or he is wearing, no matter what she or he is doing…period, end of story. Our culture needs to change the Victim Blaming, shame-based narrative from “don’t get raped” to “don’t rape.” So, I’ll be there on September 15th, proudly joining The Cleveland SlutWalk for the first time, hoping to do just that…to help change the way people view sexual assault and those affected by it. Come join me, I know we can make a difference!

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