Why Do Women Point Fingers? The Rise of Victim-Blaming in a Country Under Assault

By Caroline Orr

The sexual misconduct scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein has followed a devastatingly familiar script: After the New York Times broke the silence with its initial report, the floodgates opened and the accusations started piling up.With each woman who spoke out, the stories seemed to escalate in horror as the magnitude of the decades-long scandal started to sink in.

But instead of recognizing the courage it took to speak out, some have responded by scrutinizing and criticizing Weinstein’s accusers. On October 13, in an op-ed for theNew York Times, actress Mayim Bialik of Blossom and The Big Bang Theory fame argued that women could avoid sexual assault if they dressed more conservatively and didn’t act so flirtatiously. “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise,” she wrote. “I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy….In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.” Following reasonable backlash, Bialik has since apologized for her op-ed on Instagram, saying, “What you wear and how you behave does not provide any protection from assault, nor does the way you dress or act in any way make you responsible for being assaulted.”

On social media, some have lashed out at the actresses who came forward with allegations against Weinstein, wondering why they didn’t speak out sooner and accusing them of “caring more about getting a role than stopping a sexual predator.” At an event held by Elle on October 17, Jennifer Lawrence touched on this type of criticism. “If at any point you are wondering why I didn’t stick up for myself, I tried,” she said. “I asked to speak to a producer, and he responded by telling me…he thought I was perfectly fuckable. I was trapped.”

Even more have said that Weinstein’s accusers “let him get away with it” because they were “fame-hungry.” Some even went as far as to suggest that Weinstein’s accusers were to blame for his predatory behavior because they didn’t speak up soon enough, saying they “allowed him to prey on other women by staying silent” and that “they could have prevented it from happening to other women if they came forward sooner.”

Some of the most vitriolic victim-blaming responses have come from those most likely to be victimized themselves: women.

The tendency to blame women for men’s transgressions is nothing new, nor is the inclination to shift blame from the perpetrators of sexual assault to the victims of it. Many of the responses to other recent sexual assault scandals, like those involving Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump, mirror what we’ve seen over the past weeks in response to the allegations against Weinstein. And like we saw with those scandals, the tendency to blame victims of sexual assault and excuse or justify the behavior of the perpetrator is not limited to men. In fact, some of the most intense and vitriolic victim-blaming responses came from those most likely to be victimized themselves: women.

At first glance, this seems entirely counterintuitive. Why would women attack other women who are victims of sexual violence, a crime that overwhelmingly affects women? Conventional wisdom tells us that women, more than anyone, should understand the consequences of victim-blaming behavior and categorically reject it.

But the reality is far more nuanced. In fact, women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is, in many instances, the very reason they engage in victim-blaming behavior.

Studies show that women who blame victims of sexual assault and other types of violence against women are often motivated by an unconscious desire to reduce feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability and threat. The thought that an innocent woman could be victimized at any time presents a serious psychological threat. One of the ways to reduce that mental discomfort is by convincing ourselves that victims of sexual violence must have done something to put themselves at risk.

Believing that sexual assault happens (at least in part) because of women’s choices provides a sense of security, albeit a false one, by conveying the notion that we’ll be safe as long as we don’t make those same “mistakes.” It tells us that sexual assault can be avoided by simply making better choices, as Bialik seemed to suggest in her NYT op-ed. It also lets us believe that the world is generally a safe place where bad things don’t happen to good people.

In social psychology, these beliefs are known as “just world beliefs”, a concept that explains how people view the world and why some blame others’ behavior when bad things happen to them. According to the this theory, humans are driven to believe that the world is a fair, predictable and just place where our actions determine our fate; where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This set of beliefs is thought to play an important role in making people feel safe and providing a sense of control by reducing perceptions of risk and vulnerability.

These beliefs are challenged, however, when a person is confronted with a crime like sexual assault, when a bad thing happens to an undeserving person. To resolve the dissonance, people will blame the victim by attributing their victimization to poor choices, character flaws or behavior. After all, if sexual assault only happens to “bad” women or because of bad choices, then it can be avoided by being a “good” woman and by making good choices. Since women are most at risk of being sexually assaulted, it’s thought that just world beliefs play an important role in reducing women’s perceptions of risk and vulnerability in situations involving victims of sexual violence. In other words, women may be especially motivated to engage in victim-blaming in order to maintain feelings of safety and control.

While the self-protective nature of just world beliefs has been demonstrated across cultures and a variety of threatening circumstances, the effect tends to be strongest among people who score higher on measures of authoritarianism—a personality trait associated with strict adherence to traditional societal values and norms—and hostility towards those who deviate from such values and norms.

More broadly, victim-blaming by women can be seen as a reflection of the pervasive nature of sexism, which is so ingrained in our society that even women buy into it. The election of Trump with the support of 53 percent of white women is proof of that. While sexism is often considered a one-dimensional (and unidirectional) phenomenon involving men degrading women, the reality is far more complex. To understand the dynamics of sexism—and how this impacts how some women respond to sexual assault and harassment—it’s necessary to understand the framework of ambivalent sexism,which conceptualizes sexism as an ideology comprised of two distinct forms that work together symbiotically.

Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they hear the word sexism. This form is characterized by misogyny—hatred of women by men—and is expressed through explicitly negative attitudes and evaluations of women. People who endorse hostile sexist attitudes tend to view gender relations as an adversarial, zero-sum game in which women’s rights can only be achieved at the expense of men. Common examples of hostile sexism include beliefs that women are inferior, overly emotional and sexually manipulative, as well as attitudes that portray feminism as an aggressive attempt to control men. As its name suggests, hostile sexism involves overt hostility toward women and often manifests as anger, resentment and even threats of violence. It’s the type of sexism that thrives on 4chan, Reddit and men’s rights forums.

Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is characterized by seemingly positive attitudes that idealize women as pure, warm and deserving of adoration but also weak, fragile and in need of protection. Common examples of benevolent sexist attitudes include the reverence of women in the roles of wife, mother and caretaker and the belief that it is a man’s duty to protect and provide for women. When men invoke their role as father/husband/brother to condemn sexual assault (i.e., the swarm of male celebrities, from Matt Damon to Josh Gad, who have used the line, “As a father, this horrifies me”), this is benevolent sexism in action. The implication here is that women are only deserving of basic respect in relation to their roles as daughters, wives and sisters—not as human beings.

In order to benefit from protection, women must abide by the rules, which means adhering to sexist stereotypes that serve men’s needs.

Benevolent and hostile sexism may seem incompatible, but they’re two sides of the same coin. More often than not, benevolent sexist attitudes go hand-in-hand with hostile sexist attitudes, and people typically hold these views at the same time. Together, these ideologies function as the carrot and the stick that motivate women to “stay in their place.” Benevolent sexism rewards women for conforming to traditional gender roles while hostile sexism punishes women who deviate from these norms. While benevolent sexists’ affection for women is often genuine, it’s also contingent on certain conditions and is quickly replaced with hostile sexism when women challenge men’s power, status or ego. In other words, sexism is far more complex than hating women just for being women. Rather, sexism divides women into categories of “good girls” and “bad girls” and reserves the hostility for women who are deemed as “bad” and therefore unworthy of protection, respect or basic decency.

In this way, the two types of sexism form a sort of protection racket: Benevolent sexism offers women protection from the anger and violence that characterize hostile sexism, and the threat of hostile sexism keeps women in line with the roles prescribed by benevolent sexism. But in order to benefit from that protection, women must abide by the rules, which means adhering to sexist stereotypes and traditional gender roles that serve men’s needs and reinforce gender inequality. Women enter into this patriarchal bargain for a variety of reasons.

For example, research suggests that some women develop benevolent sexist attitudes in response to their own experiences with sexism, and women’s endorsement of benevolent sexism tends to be highest in societies and cultures characterized by extreme hostile sexism. Even showing women data about men’s hostile sexist attitudes is enough to increase their endorsement of benevolent sexism, in what is considered a form of psychological self-defense. Findings like these have led to the conclusion that benevolent sexism may serve a protective function for women confronted by the threat of hostile sexism.

The promise of protection gives women a strong incentive to uphold this system. In order to maintain the protection racket, women must participate by enforcing traditional gender roles and punishing women who deviate from them. This also helps separate the “good” women who abide by the rules from the “bad” women who violate the patriarchal bargain and are thus deemed undeserving of the protection and adoration it offers.

This protection, of course, comes at a price, especially in situations involving sexual assault, harassment and other forms of violence against women. Maintaining the protection racket of hostile and benevolent sexism demands acceptance of stereotyped gender roles for women and men. The role of men as providers and protectors often goes hand-in-hand with hyper-masculine ideals that portray men as inherently aggressive and uncaring. As a result, men’s bad behavior, including sexual misconduct, is often excused or written off as something that comes with the territory of being a man: “locker room talk.” At the same time, women who openly express their sexuality or don’t cover enough of their body in clothing are castigated as “sluts,” “damaged” or women who are “asking for it”

The Good Girl, Bad Girl Binary
Sexual assault is an extreme form of hostile sexism, so it’s not surprising that some women have responded to the Weinstein scandal by clinging to the protection offered by benevolent sexism, even at the expense of other women. In many cases—as we’ve seen with the scandals surrounding Weinstein, Cosby, Trump and others—this means blaming the victims of sexual assault and minimizing the behavior of the perpetrator. Research shows that the more a person endorses benevolent sexism, the more likely they are to blame victims of sexual assault, usually by (1) saying they did something to bring it upon themselves or (2) failing to do enough to stop it.

When women’s wear designer Donna Karan suggested that women may be “asking for it” by wearing the wrong clothes or by “presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality,” she was drawing a line between the good girls who fall in line with traditional gender roles and the bad girls who deviate. Her comments, which she has since apologized for, imply that women who violate gender norms are not deserving of the same protection and respect as women who conform to traditional gender roles, and that women’s behavior invites men to sexually assault them.

Ambitious women who challenge the dominance of men threaten to break the protection racket of sexism and are therefore seen as a threat.

The implication here is that women who express their sexuality or don’t dress modestly enough in public—the bad girls—are part of the problem. This line of thinking also justifies men’s predatory behavior and puts the responsibility for stopping sexual harassment and assault squarely on the shoulders of women, rather than questioning why men think it’s okay to make unwanted sexual advances based on what a woman is wearing. It also perpetuates the misconception that sexual assault is driven by sexual desire, when it’s more commonly an expression of power, ego and control.

The same phenomenon explains why some women zeroed in on the career ambitions of Weinstein’s accusers, saying they were so hungry for fame that they “let him get away with it.” Ambitious women who deviate from stereotyped gender roles and challenge the dominance of men in society threaten to break the protection racket of sexism and are therefore seen as a threat by women who have entered into the patriarchal bargain. On a similar vein, this helps explain why so many men in powerful positions are able to get away with sexual assault and harassment. Women may not think that behavior is acceptable, but challenging it threatens to break the system that promises protection from the same behaviors it reinforces.

Even those responses that don’t involve victim-blaming still reflect women’s participation in the protection racket of sexism. On Sunday, Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren implied that Hillary Clinton had enabled men like Weinstein by staying married to Bill Clinton and demanded that Democrats be “held accountable” for Weinstein’s behavior. Lahren is far from the only woman who has suggested that Clinton is somehow to blame for Weinstein’s actions.

These comments take the blame off Weinstein and imply that men’s predatory behavior is not entirely their fault; instead, women are responsible for stopping men from forcing themselves on women. Again, this plays into the notion that men inherently can’t control their behavior and thus offers an excuse for their sexual misdeeds. It’s also not surprising that Clinton, who has long pushed the boundaries and challenged traditional notions of femininity, was singled out. As a powerful woman who has occupied traditionally male roles, Clinton threatens to disrupt the system that offers protection in exchange for women’s submission.

Of course, plenty of men have also responded to the Weinstein scandal with their own unhelpful comments, many of which involved blaming and degrading the women who came forward. But there’s something especially tragic about the notion that sexism is so deeply ingrained in our society that women—nearly half of whom will be sexually victimized in their lifetime—feel obligated to make a deal with the devil in exchange for a sense of security.