The Science of Victim-Blaming

“You shouldn’t have taken those pictures”

aka how to invalidate trauma with one sentence.

“Well, there wouldn’t be revenge porn if women didn’t make the porn to begin with”

“What kind of person sends their partners nudes and expects them to stay private?!”

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. If you take the pictures, you deserve to have them posted.”

These comments aren’t from a revenge porn site, or even 4chan. They’re from Facebook, on a local news story we did regarding the proposed SHIELD act- the federal criminalization of non- consensual pornography.

It’s not like these comments are one-offs either. We hear things like this EVERY DAY. Sometimes it’s from trolls, who can often be found lurking in the comments sections of local news stories, but often- it’s from people who mean well. When we first started BADASS, I thought maybe it was a generational thing- because humans haven’t always had the capability of sending photos instantly, that the older folks wouldn’t understand why millenials and the generations afterwards would even send nude pictures. I figured we would hear some victim blaming, but what I found-how frequently and viciously it happens- both horrified and fascinated me.

Needless to say, it wasn’t generational. It wasn’t just guys trying to demonize women for their sexuality (which DOES happen, often). Instead, a majority of the victim blaming we hear is from people who are overall- surprisingly decent. They aren’t sexist, or hateful, or blaming the victim to distract from their own guilty conscience. They often aren’t keyboard warriors, saying things they wouldn’t say in person- these people have zero issue saying it to my face, and not seeing any problem with what they are saying. This was a phenomenon I hadn’t expected- otherwise good people behaving in a very harmful way. That made me want to know more about why it’s acceptable in the eyes of so many, in the event of NCP, to blame the victim.

So I started close to home- I have several relatives, who- while they support my work and the BADASS movement- also feel that the victim is partially to blame for their trauma. I started asking them what made them think that way- and after some conversations that started REALLY AWKWARDLY, I think I found some answers. I’ve narrowed my theories behind victim blaming down to three, but I’m sure there are many more reasons.

    Sometimes, they just DON’T get it. Either they weren’t aware that this is a very valid form of sexual trauma, or they are of the generations that never took nude images. Pre-1980s Polaroid era, in order to take a picture- you not only needed to plan it but buying film and camera batteries, but you needed to get it developed. Photo developers would either not develop sexual images, or would print extra copies for themselves (old school nude theft), and so no one took those pictures. The concept of having a camera on you at all times, with the ability to send pictures instantly is relatively new, and people of certain generations just aren’t used to intimacy being formed over a digital connection. But when I put the same situation as NCP in a different way, they were less likely to say it was the victims fault. I told them this scenario- “a woman decides to fool around, consensually, with a man, and allows him to see her naked. Is it then acceptable for him to remove her clothing whenever he wants to, publicly or privately? Does her consenting to HIM then equate to consent for ALL?” When put in those terms, the issue became clearer, and the blame was put solely on the one acting without consent. And I asked how that fictional scenario differs from image based sexual abuse, and for many, that’s when it clicked- that the victim wasn’t to blame for the trauma.
    Even good people are vulnerable to having some of societies more problematic views rub off on them. The fact is, women’s sexuality has been demonized for a very long time. From eve committing the original sin to the Salem witch trials, to modern horror movies always killing the “slutty one” first- society has made sure that any woman deemed “too sexual” is punished for it. And that demonization is so pervasive, that even the wokest among us can find ourselves judging women’s sexuality as immoral. So, to them, I posed this question- if the genders are reversed, how did they feel? Was the victim still to blame if they are a male, and it is a female releasing the images? (We, at BADASS, have helped many men going through that very situation, so it’s not unheard of- NCP victims, in about 5% of the cases we see, are male.) and after asking how they feel with the roles reversed, many had different views than what they thought before. Perhaps they don’t realize that they’ve allowed sexism to infect them, but sometimes admitting our own prejudices is the best way to start erasing them.
    Bad things happen to good people. It sucks, but it’s true- the world isn’t a fair place, and the thought that any of us can be victimized horrifically at any point- for absolutely no reason- is a terrifying truth that many people will go to great lengths to avoid. By saying “if you hadn’t taken the pictures, this wouldn’t be a problem”, the speaker is actually convincing themselves that they will never have to face this trauma because they don’t make those same decisions. Or they may have made them, but their partners were more trustworthy. Or they kept the images more secure. Whatever lengths they have to go to convince themselves that they will never have to experience this, that somehow they are different. It’s a very human response, and the toughest to respond to- NO ONE wants to really face how absolutely unfair life can be, so they find ways of forcing it to make sense. But when you break it down- that they’re essentially saying that abuse and exploitation is a natural response to displaying vulnerability- even they can see the flaw in the logic. Its never fun to look starkly at the fact that life isn’t fair, and that horrible things happen to people who did nothing to deserve it- but it’s the truth. It’s unpleasant- and with the rise in forms of NCP that require no action by the victim, such as deepfakes, hidden cams, photoshopped images- it’s a truth we all have to face.

After navigating the psychological maze that is victim blaming, those were the best answers I could find as to why people blame the victim. There are others, but most came down to those three. No matter the reason, though, blaming the victim is an extremely problematic behavior. Not only does it add guilt to the trauma a victim is already experiencing, but it spares abusers the responsibility of harming another person. It allows the people whose actions harm others to continue those actions, consequence free. And it further traumatizes victims, pushing them towards being shamed into silence rather than reaching out to get the help they need and deserve.

So if you are one of those people who deems it necessary to comment on a local news story about revenge porn, saying it’s the victims fault- stop for a moment. Analyze your intentions, and your justifications for feeling that way. And think of the people you know, that have experienced this, and how they would feel knowing you think they deserve their pain and trauma. Put more care into your words, and think of the example you’re setting for all who read the comments. And hopefully, after taking those steps, you’ll put the blame where it belongs- squarely on the shoulders of those who share the images without consent.