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Are You Sure This Happened? The subtle messages of victim blaming

Health, Safety, and Well-being Campus Safety and Violence Prevention
February 2, 2015 Lynell Hodge University of Central Florida

Are You Sure This Happened? The subtle messages of victim blaming.

“What were you wearing?  Why didn't you tell someone where you were going?  Were you drinking?  Why didn't you say "no"?  Students can face these types of questions when they share traumatic experiences with violence and harm. These questions are examples of victim blaming.  Victim blaming occurs when a third person i.e. an observer, assigns blame to the victim (Jones & Aronson, 1973).  Assigning responsibility in this way vilifies the individual.  Some would suggest this also excuses the perpetrator of responsibility for his or her role in the incident.   Sexual assault cases often lead to victim blaming as seen during some of the recent college athletic sexual assault cases.  The U.S. Department of Justice found that approximately 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are survivors of sexual assaults (completed or attempted).

Student affairs administrators should remain neutral when reviewing incident reports and in determining appropriate next steps.  Training and exposure to the Path Model of Blame can help administrators leverage best practices. This model provides a framework to the scope of blame and the observer's moral judgment of responsibility of the accuser (Cushman, 2014; Sheikh & McNamara, 2014).  This model evaluates the emotional process of blame; which includes self-blame.  This framework can help student affairs administrators support students effectively.  

Helping students describe a traumatizing experience will require patience. Conveying a level of care and concern for the student is required in these cases.  Administrators should have the opportunity to debrief with a counselor when exposed to traumatizing events.  A student's story may trigger subconscious emotions to the receiver, which could unintentionally cause a negative impact to his/her work if not managed with the support from a colleague.

Students need to have a safe space to share their stories. So, in addition to the aforementioned training,  I would also recommend key stakeholders from Residence Life Staff, Student Conduct Staff, Victim Advocates, Police/Campus Safety, Legal Counsel and the Counseling Center review incident reports and policies annually.  Each functional area will likely respond to and address these reports differently.   Nonetheless, the student's safety and mental health should be the primary concern; as such, an annual evaluation should provide transparency on the university policy and procedure, and a forum to develop fair and balanced policies. 

Student affairs administrators are often in the best position to be advocates for students. To do so, they must leverage the best strategies to support students effectively and avoid victim blaming.


Cushman, F. (2014).  The scope of blame.  Psychological Inquiry, 25, 201-205.

Jones, C., & Aronson, E. (1973).  Attribution of fault to a rape victim as a function of respectability of the victim.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(3), 415-419.

Sheikh, S., & McNamara, M. (2014).  Insights from self-blame and victim blaming.  Psychological Inquiry, 25 241-244.