Victim blaming arises from the belief that a victim of rape ‘wanted, asked for, enjoyed, or deserved to be raped due to her behaviour or appearance’. [i][ii] Research provides clear evidence that intoxicated female victims of rape are more likely to be blamed or assigned responsibility for the rape than sober victims, while intoxicated male perpetrators tend to be assigned less responsibility than sober perpetrators.[iii]
Attitudes towards alcohol consumption, gender and sexual availability increase the likelihood of a victim of rape, who had been drinking, being blamed for a rape. Understanding why someone would want to blame a victim of rape is important to address inequalities in the justice system and to improve care and recovery for victims of rape.
Why would someone blame a victim of rape?
It seems incredible that blame would be attached to the victim of a crime; yet, victims of rape often face accusations of having facilitated the rape by not taking adequate precautions, leading the man on, or because of their behaviour preceding the rape, such as being intoxicated. It should be noted that victim blaming is not gendered: both men and women are likely to assign blame to victims of rape who have consumed alcohol.
‘Bad things only happen to bad people’: the Just-World Model
This view proposes that people generally want to believe that ‘good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people’. Thus when a bad thing, such as rape, happens to someonepeople who hold this view will seek to explain this by looking for ways that the person had caused, left themselves open to, or was somehow deserving of rape.[iv] Thus the victim is blamed.
Victim blaming may also help people to distance themselves from the threat of rape.[v] Victim-blaming permits someone who has not been raped to assume that ‘it will not happen to me/my daughter/wife/sister etc’ if they do not, or because they would not, behave, dress or expose themselves to danger in the way that the victim did.
Rape Myths and Alcohol Expectancies
There is a sexual double standard in relation to rape and alcohol consumption, that is backed up by cultural attitudes to alcohol, gender and sexual availability, that leads to intoxicated female victims being blamed for being raped and excusing or mitigating intoxicated male perpetrators of committing rape.[vi]
There are stereotypical beliefs about the causes, victims and perpetrators of rape, that tend to disadvantage women.[vii] For instance, belief that ‘real’ rape generally involves a perpetrator who is a stranger, high levels of violence and/or a weapon, and a ‘blameless’ female victim – e.g. who was not consuming alcohol, who was not in a club, pub or other social setting, who did not engage in previous consensual sexual activity with the perpetrator and so forth. When a victim of rape does not meet the narrow criteria of the ‘real rape victim’ then she is more likely to be blamed or disbelieved.[viii]
Combining such narrow beliefs about rape with cultural expectations around alcohol, intoxicated behaviour and sexual activity means that the victim of the most common form of rape, acquaintance rape, is most likely to experience victim-blaming. A common gendered attitude towards sexual behaviour is that men desire sex, and women control its supply.[ix] Women are charged with the duty of controlling the type and extent of sexual activity within sexual encounters. By consuming alcohol, women may be blamed for not maintaining this control and thus ‘allowing’ the rape to happen.
However, the assumption that alcohol consumption will increase a woman’s sexual interest may also be made, leading to a man using a woman’s alcohol consumption as an excuse to engage in non-consensual sexual activities. A woman’s alcohol consumption may be put forward as a cause of rape.
Therefore, women who are raped while intoxicated may be blamed as they are seen to have, a) caused their rape by suggesting their consent through their alcohol consumption, or b) facilitating their rape by not taking the precaution of staying sober and in control.
What is the effect of victim blaming?
Rape and Justice in Ireland (RAJI) found that victims of rape who consumed alcohol at the time of the rape were likely to self-blame. They were also likely to decline reporting their rape or withdraw their complaint, due to expected negative reactions from services. One victim explains, ‘I was drunk at the time when it happened and wasn’t sure how they [Gardaí] would respond…’, while another stated, ‘no point. His word against mine and I had been drinking’.[x] A third victim describes how she ‘felt very ashamed as [she] was drinking and left the disco with him’.[xi]
Although RAJI identified a largely positive view of the Gardaí in dealing with rape complaints, evidence suggests that some Guards may be influenced by negative attitudes towards victims who had been drinking. One participant in the study described how she ‘was made to feel ashamed and dirty’ by the Gardaí who took her report and was ‘tarnished with the “she was drinking” label’.[xii]
RAJI did not find evidence that the Director of Public Prosecutions was less likely to prosecute cases because the complainant had been drinking. [xiii]
Studies outside of Ireland have found that juries are more likely to assign blame to intoxicated victims of rape. Although such evidence is inconclusive in Ireland, due to the absence of jury deliberation studies in rape cases, it is possible that victim alcohol consumption is a contributing factor in the low rate of rape conviction.[xiv] That is, as elsewhere, Irish juries may be disinclined to convict for rape where rape complainants have been drinking due to a perception that their behaviour caused or facilitated the rape.
Actions addressing the Impact of Victim Blaming:
Underlying attitudes towards women, alcohol consumption, sex and rape need to be addressed in order to reduce or eliminate victim-blaming attitudes. Alcohol marketing, including sponsorship, in so far as it propagates potentially harmful associations between sex and alcohol, must be curtailed and limited. The incorporation of mandatory and proven programmes on sexual violence and alcohol in the school curriculum is essential to target individuals at this influential stage.
Further, there is a need for mock-jury studies in Ireland to establish the extent to which victim-blaming attitudes influence jury decision making. Where such attitudes are prevalent, Maurer and Robinson suggest that shield laws, such as are used in reference to sexual history, could be effectively extended to include alcohol consumption, as this variable has been shown to lead to juries inferring a woman’s sexual intent.[xv]
The bottom line:
It is essential that victims, perpetrators and wider society recognise that a victim of rape, whether or not intoxicated, is not responsible for their victimisation. The onus or even the capacity to reduce rape is not on the potential victim, but on the potential perpetrator: victims’ alcohol consumption does not mitigate, excuse or justify rape.
 World Health Organization/London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women: taking action and generating evidence. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2010 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2010/9789241564007_eng.pdf ‘At present, only one strategy has evidence supporting its effectiveness – and this only relates to intimate partner violence. The strategy in question is the use of school-based programmes to prevent violence within dating relationships.’
[i] Maurer, T.W. & Robinson, D.W. 2008. Effects of Attire, Alcohol, and Gender on Perceptions of date rape. Sex Roles, 58:423-434: 423.
[ii] Koss, M. P., Goodman, L. A., Browne, A., Fitzgerald, L. F., Keita, G. P.,& Russo, N. F. 1994. No safe haven: Male violence against women at home, at work, and in the community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[iii] Cameron, C. and Stritzky, W.G.K. 2003. Alcohol and Acquaintance Rape in Australia: testing the presupposition model of Attributions of Responsibility and Blame. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(5):983-1008; 983.
[iv] Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85: 1030–1051.
[v] Adams, D., Tendayi, Viki, J., Masser, B., and Bohner, G. 2003. Perceptions of Stranger and Acquaintance Rape: The Role of Benevolent and Hostile Sexism in Victim Blame and Rape Proclivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1):111-125.
[vi] Girard, A.L. and Senn, C.Y.2008. The Role of the ‘New Date Rape Drugs’ in Attributions of Date Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(1): 3-10: 16.
[vii] Bohner, G., Reinhard, M.-A., Rutz, S., Sturm, S., Kerschbaum, B., & Effler, D. (1998). Rape myths as neutralizing cognitions: Evidence for a causal impact of anti-victim attitudes on men’s self-reported likelihood of raping. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 257-268.
[viii] Eyssel, F. and Bohner, G. 2010. Schema Effects of Rape Myth Acceptance on Judgments of Guilt and Blame in Rape Cases: The Role of Perceived Entitlement to Judge. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(8): 1579-1605:1580.
[ix] Baumeister, R.F. and Vohs, K.D. 2004. Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Encounters. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4): 339–363
[x] Hanly, C., Healy, D., and Scriver, S. 2009. Rape and Justice in Ireland: A National Study of Survivor, Prosecutor and Court Responses to Rape. Dublin: Liffey:146
[xi] Ibid. 147.
[xii] Ibid. 160
[xiii] Ibid. 235
[xiv] Ibid. 294-295
[xv] Maurer and Robinson, 2008: 432