Stanford Rape Case: Why do we blame victims in cases of rape?

Sexual assault is one of very few crimes where a human being’s natural inclination to sympathise with another is reversed and victim-blaming occurs.

Victim-blaming happens when the victim of a crime has their experience invalidated by others and is held partially or wholly responsible for a crime committed against them, by the voluntary actions of another person.

Criminal defence lawyer Dara Robinson told the Irish Examiner that rape is one crime where it is “legitimate in law” to query the complainant’s actions.

“There are a small cohort of defences where it’s legitimate to in law [through legislation and case law] to cast doubt on the allegations, by reference to the behaviour of the accuser,” says Mr Robinson.

Stacy Scriver from the Centre for Global Women’s Studies at NUI Galway says that victims, and female victims in general, although it seems counterintuitive, often internalise blame as a means of future self-protection.

“They do it as a means of protecting themselves,” says Dr Scriver. “A female juror thinks, ‘this too could happen to me. What might the victim have done to be in this position? Well this won’t happen to me because I won’t do that.’

“It’s known as the ‘just world theory’. It’s not just about apportioning blame but internalising some of the message from society about how women should behave and the consequences when you don’t fall into line.”

In order to move away from victim-blaming, Dr Scriver advises that more focus needs to be placed on the perpetrator of a sexual crime, not the victim of one.

“There has to be more focus on the perpetrator and not the victim. The immediate focus is what women can do to avoid this situation, but the perpetrator has caused this, not the victim,” she says.

Dr Scriver, who co-wrote the 2009 book Rape and Justice in Ireland, believes the Stanford case will help deconstruct the preconceived image of a rapist.

“It’s a great opportunity to address issues around consent and alcohol,” she says. “People will look at the accused and see their own son, and think, ‘I don’t want to ruin his life’, lean on the side of forgiveness and lean towards his position rather than the impact of sexual violence on the victim.”

Dr Scriver also argues that light sentencing does not assist in a victim’s recovery process.

“Giving these light sentences, doesn’t make sense, they don’t support the victim,” says Dr Scriver.

“The trial process is difficult for survivors. In many cases, the survivors weren’t able to start to recover until after the trial was over and couple that with light sentencing.

“It adds to the pressure that’s already mounting. Making changes to the sentencing criteria and to the ways rape is investigated is crucial.”


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