Academia’s Contribution to Victim Blaming Culture

Author: Maisie Wilson

We have a lot of power as academics, or I’m sure that’s what we’d like to believe (as we explain to our parents why the Fine Art degree was worth it).

The areas we research and the things we learn will go on to inform society and shape our future.

This can be a fantastic opportunity. After all, the knowledge we gain through empirical methods and intense scrutiny can only go on to better the Anthropocene, right?

Unfortunately, no.

I had the dubious honour of learning how victim blaming was embedded in our culture through a series of harrowing studies. These fall under the umbrella term "victim precipitation."

The key ones include Von Hentig (1948): "The Criminal and His Victim", Wolfgang (1958): "Patterns in Criminal Homicide", and the classic summer reading Schafer (1968): "Victim and His Criminal - A Study in Functional Responsibility".

Now if you read these studies, you’ll see that they escalate slowly. At first, Von Hentig is only looking into the relationship between the offender and the victim. And from there, it’s not a huge leap for Wolfgang to explore how victims “instigate aggression.”

Then after a decade, is it really so wrong for Schafer to look at how the victim “antagonizes” the offender? And, therefore, becomes partly responsible for being thumped at the kebab shop on a Saturday night.

Academia did what academia is meant to do; it built slowly on the work of predecessors. As I’m sure you’ll remember from your graduation speeches: We stand on the shoulders of giants. This progression of victim precipitation theory is a perfect example of that.

These studies represent a developing ideology of putting responsibility on the victim - or as we know it today: victim-blaming culture.

Up until the sixties, studies had largely focused on assault, GBH, theft and robbery.

It’s in 1967 that we see these studies reach a gruesome crescendo - applying victim precipitation theory to sexual assault and rape cases: Amir (1967): "Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape"

Amir argued that women brought rape upon themselves through "outward projection and activities."

This is the ground-breaking study that pioneered the idea of women ‘asking for it’, the repercussions of which we still endure today.

However, victim precipitation (as a criminological theory) has been refuted and abandoned since the mid-20th Century. Various articles have been written explaining why – this one and this one championing the takedown of victim precipitation.

After these two cutting takedowns, criminology meekly apologised and tried it’s best to forget about the debunked theory.

As the theory has now been disregarded, it would be ace if we could look back at this the same way we look back at cavemen who drilled holes into their heads to alleviate a headache - with a jovial shake of the head and a "what were they thinking, eh?"

Unfortunately, we can’t. Rape myths are still alive and well today - and are influencing judiciaries around the world. In this case from Ireland in 2017, a 17-year-old rape victim’s ‘black, lacy’ underwear was used as evidence against her.

The argument was made that she could not have been raped, because her underwear proved that she had wanted to have sex that night.

Senior Counsel, Elizabeth O'Connell stated: “Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

Here we can see the exact same ideas Amir proposed 54 years ago. As is the intention of academic research, Amir conducted a study that then went on to inform public policy. Trickling through government, courts and eventually defence law procedure.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that we do have power as academics. And as Uncle Ben so wisely told us: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While we journey on through our academic careers, we need to be constantly assessing ourselves. Assessing our biases, our prejudices, and how this can affect our research.

To borrow a phrase from my trusty Academic Phrasebank: The aforementioned studies demonstrate the pitfalls in research conducted so far.

What the historic academic contribution to victim blaming culture shows us is that academics do make mistakes – we are not protected by the empirical methods we employ, nor the supposed “objectivity” we claim to have.

We do make mistakes, and the echoes from these mistakes can cause a huge amount of damage, many decades later.

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