What Is Victim Blaming: The 3 Stages of Shutting Down Victims

What is victim blaming? What are the three stages of silencing victims?

Victim blaming is the act of holding a victim accountable for a crime or traumatic event done to them. Silencing the victim is one of the top methods of victim blaming, which means the perpetrator isn’t punished for their actions.

Here are the three stages of blaming and silencing victims.

Silencing Victims: Three Stages

To better understand what victim blaming is, you need to understand why women are often blamed for their own trauma in the first place. Rebecca Solnit explains that women are often expected to remain silent after experiencing violence—both so the perpetrator can avoid accountability for their actions, and to reinforce the status quo of gender inequality. There are many people involved in this silencing, including the media, the perpetrators, and society in general. Solnit describes three stages of silencing that victims have to overcome in order to make their voices heard.

Stage 1) Psychological and Social Barriers

According to Solnit, the first of these stages relates to existing barriers to women speaking out, and it’s largely internalized. Experiencing violence—particularly sexual violence—often results in strong feelings of shame, as well as confusing feelings like doubting oneself and repressing one’s experiences. There are also negative social consequences for speaking out, so women often fear being socially excluded for sharing what happened to them.

(Shortform note: Because sexual assault is about power, the victim of a sexual assault tends to feel powerless, which can snowball into intense feelings of hopelessness and shame. Additionally, victims may avoid speaking out because they’ve done so in the past and been punished or disbelieved (two reactions we’ll cover in the rest of this section).)

Stage 2) Punishment

The second stage, punishment, is external. Solnit explains that people often deliberately punish women who speak about their sexual assaults—shaming them, harassing them, and sometimes even assaulting or murdering them. Solnit notes that rape victims in high schools and colleges are particularly likely to be subjected to this type of silencing and that many rapists are allowed to graduate without ever being punished for their actions. 

Punishment Through Negative Reactions and Lawsuits

Punishments can also reinforce the first stage of silencing: Victims of sexual assault often find that they face negative reactions from professionals, family, or other people they confide in. These reactions can be retraumatizing and result in self-blame that contributes to psychological barriers. Punishment can also become public via defamation lawsuits—lawsuits in which one party accuses the other of damaging their reputation by spreading false information about them.

In 2022, Amber Heard ended up in the public eye because of a suit brought against her by her ex-husband Johnny Depp, accusing her of defaming him in an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post in which she described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse. Even though she didn’t name Depp as an abuser, the court found her guilty of defaming him.

Stage 3) Discrediting

According to Solnit, the third stage of silencing—discrediting the woman and her story—occurs when stages 1 and 2 have failed to prevent a woman from speaking up. People who try to silence a woman in this way suggest that her story is a lie and portray her as unreliable and deceptive. They also victim-blame by suggesting that she deserved the violence because of her behavior. Additionally, they argue that, even if her story were true, it’s in the past and there’s no need to dredge it back up now.

Gendered Disinformation as a Discrediting Tool

Even outside the context of sexual assaults, women often face attacks on their credibility, particularly women in the public eye. There’s a form of discrediting that’s frequently wielded against public figures called gendered disinformation. This refers to the deliberate spreading of false information against cis women, trans people, or nonbinary people who are public figures—such as politicians, journalists, and activists—in order to portray them as unreliable, emotional, or overly sexual.

This often-effective silencing tool is considered a type of gender-based violence. It can cause women to leave or avoid entering politics or other public fields, preventing them from participating in democracy and activism. Research also shows that labeling women as emotional causes others to view them as less credible. Labeling men as emotional, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to affect their perceived credibility: Participants in the research tended to disbelieve the “emotional” label when it was applied to men.
What Is Victim Blaming: The 3 Stages of Shutting Down Victims

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Rebecca Solnit's "Men Explain Things to Me" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Men Explain Things to Me summary:

  • How "mansplaining" comes from a cultural tendency to devalue women
  • The attitude of control that motivates the mistreatment of women
  • The role that language plays in the advancement of women’s rights

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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