Rethinking 'Don't Blame the Victim':
The Psychology of Victimhood

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

This paper has some minor revisions and updates of the original paper: Zur, O. (1994). Rethinking “Don’t Blame the Victim”: Psychology of Victimhood. Journal of Couple Therapy, 4 (3/4), 15-36. Copyright and permission to post by Haworth Press, Inc.



The psychology of victims and the dynamics of victimhood have been largely ignored by scholars and clinicians. While in past years the tendency has been to blame victims, more recently the tide has turned. It is now politically incorrect to explore the role of victims in violent systems, as exploring the psychology of victims has become synonymous with blaming the victim. While shying away from blame, this article will explore the familial and cultural origins of victimhood, victims’ characteristics, their relationships with the perpetrators, and offer a victim typology. As we move from blame to a more complex understanding of violent systems, the perpetuation of these systems in our culture, and the role victims play in these systems, we provide ourselves with better tools to predict and prevent further victimization.

The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.This paper inquires into the rarely explored, politically sensitive topic of the nature of victimhood. While the psychology of perpetrators and bystanders and the dynamics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been thoroughly examined (Ochberg & Willis, 1991; Viano, 1990; Walker, 1979), the psychology of victimhood as a personal and cultural phenomenon has not.

Hierarchy, inequality, and violence have always been part of human social structures. There were always rulers and ruled, leaders and followers, the fortunate and the needy, the powerful and the weak. Various cultures have treated disparities in status, power, fortune, and ability in different ways. Buddhists emphasize the aspect of karma and destiny, while in the modern West the focus has been on freedom and choice, and the individual’s control of destiny. In this Western worldview, inequalities and differences are often associated with injustice and victimization.

Traditionally, two main approaches have dominated the way we look at victimization in the modern West. In the first approach, the finger points the blame at the victim (Brownmiller, 1975; Ryan, 1971; Sundberg, Barbaree, & Marshall, 1991; Walker, 1979). This may be a battered wife, a woman who was raped, a person of color, or an economically disadvantaged person. The second approach views men as solely responsible for violence, whether as soldiers on the battlefields, politicians in government, or husbands in domestic violence (Hughes, 1993; Keen, 1991; Zur & Glendinnning, 1987). These two approaches of blame have not only failed to resolve the violence and suffering but in fact, as this paper explains, have tended to perpetuate and exacerbate them.

This investigation attempts to describe the complex relationship between the diverse and complementary roles that perpetrators and victims in general and men and women in particular assume in the dynamics of violence. It does not seek to blame, but rather to apply systems analysis to increase our understanding of the dynamics and origins of victimhood and the different types of victims. It concentrates on adult victims and on patterns of victimhood established early in life, rather than on the effects of a single trauma. It focuses on intimate violence and not on random incidents among parties who have no past relationship to each other.

A likely response to this paper might be to think that the intent is to blame the victims. I would like to state from the outset that the aim of this paper is to help victims and victimizers end their abusive relationships. Blame is counter-productive, but the politically correct attitude of non-blame, when it produces a climate that forbids exploration of the role of victims in systems of violence, is dangerous as well. Fear of blaming preserves and perpetuates the systems of abuse and victimization. It is my hope that this paper will be of benefit to victims and perpetrators, and to the professionals who help those in violent systems.

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The Blame Approach

The civil rights and feminist movements have shed light on the utmost injustice of holding the poor, rape or incest victims, minorities, or the handicapped responsible for their misfortunes (Ryan, 1971). The most obvious manifestations of this “blame the victim” approach are rape cases. Women victims are too often blamed for being provocative, seductive, suggestive, for proposing, teasing, or just plain “asking for it” (Brownmiller, 1975; Keen, 1991; Russel, 1984). Men in this myth are seen as helplessly lusty, sexually frustrated beings, responding to sexually provocative women. Similarly, in domestic violence cases women have been blamed for being masochistic, withholding, and, again, “asking for it” or “deserving it” (Sundberg, Barbaree, & Marshall, 1991; Walker 1979; Yollo & Bogard, 1988). African-Americans are viewed as lazy and incapable if they are unemployed (Ryan, 1971), girl victims of sexual abuse are accused of being seductive, and mothers of daughters who have been sexually abused are assumed to be sexually frigid, emotionally cold, and generally unsupportive of their husbands (Caplan & Hall-McCorquodale, 1985).

The second approach also concentrates on blame; however it lays all blame entirely on men. This approach has been promoted by a brand of feminism, which holds the male-dominated patriarchal system responsible for all the evils in the world. Whether the issue is wars and politics, domestic violence and sexual abuse, toxic dumps and the corporations, or nuclear weapons and the military industrial complex, the finger is pointed at men as the culprits. At the heart of this approach is the split between men’s aggressive and violent nature and women’s inherent goodness (for further discussion see Keen, 1991; Sykes, 1992; Zur, 1989, and Zur & Glendinning, 1987).

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Re-Thinking Blame

Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington D.C. who was caught red-handed smoking crack, blamed it on that “bitch” who “set me up” and later insisted his prosecutors were racially motivated. Mrs. Rose Cipollone blamed the tobacco industry for the deadly lung cancer she developed after smoking continuously for 40 years. A man who jumped in front of a moving train in New York, causing the amputation of his two legs, sued the engineer and the subway system for negligence.

Not only do people wish to claim the status of victim; the legal and political systems promote and legislate it as well. Marion Barry got only a slap on the wrist. The courts awarded Mrs. Cipollone $400,000 in damages to be paid by the cigarette manufacturer, and the man who deliberately and voluntarily jumped in front of a New York subway train collected $650,000 in damages.

Victimization is neither a recent nor especially North American phenomenon. The American culture has nevertheless provided a unique and increasingly fertile ground for the cultivation of victimization. The American emphasis on freedom and choice also implies that we are in charge of our destiny. Whether it is by working hard to get ahead, by pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, or by social and political activism, we believe that we not only can, but actually must take total control of our individual and social destiny.

The constitutional promise to all Americans that they have the right to the pursuit of happiness gives rise to the expectation that Americans are supposed to feel happy.Unlike the Buddhist acceptance of evil, inequality, and hierarchy, Western culture, and particularly North American culture, has evolved notions about the individual’s freedom to choose, the immoral nature of social inequality, and the inalienable right of each person to pursue happiness. Within this cultural psychology, and specifically in psychotherapy, lies a belief in people’s inherent ability to change themselves and their environment Violence and victimhood, like evil and inequality, must be fought and eradicated. Accordingly, when violence occurs and victims suffer, or when inequalities exist, it is interpreted not as an act of God or a manifestation of karma, but as a failure that must be corrected. This view of ‘failure’ readily leads to victimhood and blame.

Americans, unlike Far-Easterners, Middle-Easterners, or Russians, expect things to turn out well. The constitutional promise to all Americans that they have the right to the pursuit of happiness gives rise to the expectation that Americans are supposed to feel happy. Not feeling happy indicates some sort of failure. The victim says “it is definitely not my fault.”

The culture of victimization is closely tied to what Amitai Etzioni (1987), a sociologist at Georgetown University, called the ‘rights industry.’ This ‘industry’ is a collective term for those who fight for the rights of groups, such as women, abused children, minorities, the homeless, experimental animals, AIDS victims, or illegal immigrants.

The concepts of ‘rights’ and ‘victims’ are often closely related. Fighting for a ‘right’ infers that a right was denied. While not always the case, many claims for rights pose a moral claim on someone else, as in the battle between smokers and non-smokers and very often between men and women. Fighting for a right all too often means claiming a victim status. Ironically, the rights movement often victimizes one group while liberating another. What seems to be a noble, justified, long overdue act of protecting a victim can easily turn to blame and warfare. When this happens, conflict, injustice, and victimization are perpetuated, and the possibility of resolution and healing is destroyed.

Similar to the rights movement is the recovery movement. In the last decade we have seen an explosion of 12-Step programs attending to an endlessly growing list of addictions. Many of the 12-Step programs help their members master recovery and discourage feelings of blame and victimhood. However, within the recovery movement, some programs like ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and CODA (Co-Dependants Anonymous), can easily perpetuate the membership’s sense of victimization instead of enhancing their sense of self-mastery and personal power (Kaminer, 1992; Tavris, 1993). Identifying oneself primarily and over long periods of time as an adult child of an alcoholic is to embrace the permanent identity of a wounded victim. While becoming conscious of the original family dysfunction and its effect on the individual is often necessary for healing, it is only the first step. Remaining indefinitely with ACA groups not only keeps people in the mode of the victim, but also prevents them from growing to a place of empowerment and choice. While programs such as AA, NA, GA, and OA attend to a specific addictions, the co-dependency movement assumes, ludicrously, that 96% of the population are victims of a disease they call ‘co-dependency’ (Schaef, 1986).

We have become a nation of victims, where everyone is leapfrogging over each other, publicly competing for the status of victim, and where everyone is defined as some sort of survivor.We have become a nation of victims, where everyone is leapfrogging over each other, publicly competing for the status of victim, and where everyone is defined as some sort of survivor. Shamelessly, many people in recovery compare their individual sagas of abuse in alcoholic families or sexual harassment on the job, with the experiences of World War II Holocaust survivors who endured the atrocities of the concentration camps (Herman, 1992). Today it is fashionable to be a victim. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Kitty Dukakis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Michael Reagan are leading this newest trend. Oprah’s, Geraldo’s, and Donahue’s shows are saturated with victims from all walks of life, proudly confessing their victimization on national T.V. (Hughes, 1993; Kaminer, 1992; Sykes, 1992; Tavris, 1993).

The blame-victim approach is not confined to the rights or recovery movement. It is also at the heart of the legal system’s approach, which attempts to respond to injustice and violations by identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators and compensating the victims (Sykes, 1992; Hughes, 1993). The faulty part of this legal approach is the focus on simplistic, linear, short term, and face-value justice. It is concerned with differentiating between two opposite poles: right from wrong, guilty from innocent, or conviction from acquittal, and is insensitive to situations where some responsibility is shared by both defendant and plaintiff.

In claiming the status of victim and by assigning all blame to others, a person can achieve moral superiority while simultaneously disowning any responsibility for one’s behavior and its outcome. The victims ‘merely’ seek justice and fairness. If they become violent, it is only as a last resort, in self-defense. The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.

At the heart of the blame approach is a system of warfare, which centers on the outcome of moral or legal battles rather than on the resolution of conflict and the prevention of future violence. As such, it neither reduces pathology nor protects the victim. Sending an abusive husband to jail stops the beatings, and may give the wife a feeling of justice and revenge. It will not help the husband deal with his violent behavior, and it will not teach the wife about her more subtle role in the violent relationship. By confirming the wife’s status as a victim, the legal solution is likely to perpetuate further violence. On the one hand, the imprisoned husband may leave prison with more rage and violent tendencies than he had when he was incarcerated, and on the other hand, the wife may simply find herself another abusive man. Whether or not their abusive husbands were charged, restrained, or jailed, women who were abused as children are likely to engage in abusive relationships unless some healing occurs (Viano, 1990). The hope for victims does not lie in the blame approach and the legal system. Hope is established when the victims acquire higher self esteem, learn to differentiate between love and violation, and when they can feel that they are entitled to loving relationships.

The question then becomes, if mental health workers are devoted to healing and prevention, why is the blame approach so pervasive? The answer lies in understanding that not only do the mental health workers mirror the general culture of victimization, but they also abide by the unspoken politically correct rule that the role of the victim in violent systems is NOT to be explored.

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Re-Thinking ‘Don’t Blame The Victim’

In response to decades of racial oppression, the civil rights movement spearheaded the effort to stop blaming the victims. In an understandable backlash, William Ryan wrote his book Blaming the Victim (1971). In it he contends that blaming the victim is a method of maintaining the status quo in the interest of the group in power. The conclusion was clear: ‘do not blame the victim.’ Though valid within its historical context, this message also resulted in silencing any exploration of victimhood during subsequent decades, inadvertently perpetuating further victimization.

Do not blame the victim has been translated into: do not explore the role of the victim.Theories of victimology and research have concentrated mainly on domestic violence, on the effect of traumas on victims (including PTSD research), perpetrators and bystanders, and on treatment. Very few writers have warned against the unrealistic and ultimately patronizing portrayal of victims of crime as total innocents (Viano, 1990), while most scholars have avoided this field altogether, for fear of being accused of ‘blaming the victim.’ Do not blame the victim has been translated into: do not explore the role of the victim.

Sexual coercion has haunted women for many millennia, paralleling the ways that dominant cultures enslave, exploit, and destroy weaker ones (Brownmiller, 1992, Herman, 1992). The feminist and civil rights movements have been instrumental in attempting to correct this gross injustice by fighting for equal rights and dignity for all people. While the feminist and civil rights principles are undebatably just, some have carried the principles to illogical extremes. There are those who would consider the culpability of a woman who knowingly dated a man who had previously raped her on a par with that of a young girl victim of child-rape.

The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.While it is clear that abuse of women by men is unjustifiable under any circumstance, still it is important to differentiate between relative degrees of responsibility. To adhere to a victim ideology which states that victims are always and completely innocent is absurd. It has yet to be widely understood that by alleviating all women or any victim from any and all responsibility to predict, prevent, or even unconsciously invite abuse, is to reduce them to helpless, incapable creatures, and in fact, re-victimizes them.

In her popular book The Battered Woman, Walker (1979) uses Seligman’s (1975) theory of ‘learned helplessness’ to explain why women do not leave their battering relationship. This popular approach implies that women in battering relationships, like the experimental dogs, have absolutely no choice, no say, and no control over the initiating of, and staying in these abusive relationships. In reality these two situations cannot be compared so easily. There is no doubt that most battered women do not perceive that they have any viable and safe options such as shelters, rape counseling, or legal services geared specifically to abused women. This perception stems from their often, realistic fear for their own and their children’s lives, grim economic realities, and the social, police, and legal systems’ high tolerance of wife beating (Gelles & Straus, 1988; Walker, 1979). To use Seligman’s model in a battering situation is not only humiliating and degrading to women, but also casts them in the totally helpless role of victim.

Any analysis which assumes that women make choices, contribute to their misfortune, and that they are neither the only victims nor totally innocent and helpless, is seen as blaming the victim, betraying women, and allying with patriarchal society and sexist men (Caplan & Hall-McCorquodale, 1985; Cook & Frantz-Cook, 1984; Herman, 1992; Sundberg, Barbaree, & Marshall, 1991; Walker, 1979; Yollo & Bogard, 1988).

Mental health workers are fully aware of the wide array of self destructive behavior, such as playing Russian roulette or the Chicken game, drunk driving, smoking, drug abuse, obsessive gambling, self mutilation, and, of course, suicide. They are aware that some individuals are more prone to be picked upon, that some repeatedly get into trouble, and that some are more easily victimized than others. Despite this awareness, the psychology of victims is largely an empty field.

To understand better the dynamics of violent systems, we must first free ourselves from the binds of politically correct thinking. We must dare to expose the cultural and psychological forces that lead to violence, and to explore the complementary roles that abusers, abused, and bystanders play in such systems.

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On Victims And Victimizers

The family has always been considered one of the most important institutions in many cultures, ideally providing its members with their fundamental needs for safety, food, affection, intimacy, and socialization. In fact, conflict is inevitable in families and violence is all too often pervasive.The family has always been considered one of the most important institutions in many cultures, ideally providing its members with their fundamental needs for safety, food, affection, intimacy, and socialization. In fact, conflict is inevitable in families and violence is all too often pervasive. In their daring analysis of family violence and abuse, Gelles and Straus (1988) assert: “You are more likely to be physically assaulted, beaten, and killed in your own home at the hands of a loved one that in any place else, or by anyone else in our society” and conclude that, “Violence in the home is not the exception we fear; it is all too often the rule we live by” (pp. 18-19).

From a very young age we are taught not to trust strangers, not to take candy from them or follow them to their cars. Milk cartons and grocery bags carry pictures of missing children who have been abducted. The mass media saturates us with stories of innocent victims who have been raped, robbed, and murdered by people unknown. More and more Americans arm themselves, barricade their homes, and avoid going places for fear of violent crime. The commonly held belief is that the victim and victimizers are strangers to each other, yet it can be argued otherwise.

While the media, our teachers, and the milk cartons tell us the danger is ‘out there,’ in fact, the home and one’s own neighborhood are the places where one is most likely to get hurt. Murder statistics shed further light on the relationship between victimizers and victims. It shows that at least 88% of murder victims in the U.S. had an ongoing active relationship with their murderers. The relationship ranged from intimate or close friends (28%), to relatives (24%), and acquaintances and paramours (36%). Only 12% of the cases involved complete strangers (Jain, 1990; Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967). The F.B.I. reports that 1.5 million children are abducted each year. The agency also claims that most of these children (80-90%) are abducted by a parent in a custody dispute and not by strangers (Gelles & Straus, 1988).

The political arena presents a very similar picture. Enmity increases with the decrease of proximity and increase in similarity among the warring parties. Civil war and wars of liberation are often more brutal than wars between nations, and disputes between countries that share a common border are reportedly more bloody and less likely to be resolved by non-violent means that international wars between countries which do not share a common border (Keen, 1986; Zur, 1991).

Legal, sociological, and clinical data have repeatedly shown that while most abusers were abused as children, not all abused children become abusers. In cases of domestic violence, research has shown that both perpetrators and victims are likely to come from backgrounds where they suffered or witnessed consistent abuse (Gelles & Straus, 1988; Viano, 1990). Apparently, the line between victims and perpetrators is not that clear. The abused is likely to abuse or be abused again. Being a victim in early life no doubt increases the likelihood that later in life one will become a victimizer, a victim, or both.

To summarize, perpetrators and victims are much more likely to be intimately involved with each other than to be strangers. Abused and abusers can also be embodied in the same person, someone who initially was violated, then became a violator.

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Psychology Of Victims

In order to understand the psychology of victims, we must understand the major characteristics of a victim or what differentiates victims from non-victims. Whether the trauma is domestic violence, sexual molestation, or a hostage situation, the question is: what separates those who overcome the trauma and live life meaningfully from those who suffer at length from acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? For example, what separates women who leave abusive husbands from those who do not? Or what separates Vietnam veterans who today live meaningful lives from those who have become drug addicts or live in the mountains as armed survivalists? The difference between victims and non-victims who operate within the same social, political, economic, and legal context lies not in external factors, as is so often argued, but, as described below, in how they view themselves, the world around them, and their relationship to the trauma.

The following section provides the first comprehensive description of victim psychology. It describes the main characteristics of victims, their relationships to the abusers, the origins of victimhood, and a typology of victims.

1. Victims’ Characteristics

Victims are likely to attribute the outcome of their behavior to situational or external forces rather than to dispositional forces within themselves.The victim’s locus of control is likely to be external and stable. An external locus of control orientation is a belief that what happens to a person is contingent on events outside of that person’s control rather than on what one does. Stable, in this context, refers to the consistency of the out-of-control feelings of the victim vs. the belief that the outcome of events is due to luck or random events (Rotter, 1971). Similarly, victims harbor feelings of self-inefficacy, of not being successful in affecting one’s environment or in one’s life. Consistent with the above characteristics, victims are likely to attribute the outcome of their behavior to situational or external forces rather than to dispositional forces within themselves. Low self-esteem, a sense of shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, and an internal sense of badness are integral elements in the psychology of those who perceive themselves as victims.According to social exchange theory (Worchel, 1984) and behavioral psychology, victims’ actions, apparently and unexpectedly, provide enough rewards and benefits to sustain the victim type of behavior. This means that as long as the cost of being a victim is less than its benefit, or when a victim’s behavior is rewarded, the individual will maintain the behavior. While the costs and suffering of victims are apparent, the benefits are much more subtle, and, for the most part, unconscious. They may include the right to empathy and pity, the lack of responsibility and accountability, righteousness, or even relief as the bad self is punished.

2. The Victim-Victimizer Dyad

Victims have complementary needs to be in relationship with victimizers.Co-alcoholics are coupled with alcoholics, abusers with abused, masochists with sadists, and victimizers with victims. In all these dyads the roles are mutually dependent and complementary. The power of these roles has been shown most clearly in the alcoholic and co-alcoholic and in intimate abusive relationships. When the alcoholic stops drinking it is not unusual for the relationship to end and for the co-alcoholic to find another ‘wet’ alcoholic. The conclusion is simple; the co-alcoholic need to control, to be the competent, responsible, ‘morally right’ partner outweigh the hardships of living with an alcoholic. Similarly in abusive relationships, if the woman has a history of abuse by father, stepfather, or former husbands and healing did not occur, she is likely to be attracted to abusive men. As long as she associates love with violence she will not be attracted to non-abusive men.

Victims have complementary needs to be in relationship with victimizers. These needs often manifest in countertransference analysis during psychodynamic psychotherapy. Therapists who work with victims often experience aggressive, violent, or abusive feelings. These feelings evoked in the clinician by a victim-patient, and which must never be acted upon, exemplify the power embodied in the unconscious make-up of the victim to evoke victimization.

The victim’s identity and (mainly unconscious) needs are connected to low self esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, low sense of efficacy, belief that they are not in control, and possibly a desire to be punished. Adults who maintain a primarily victim identity will not be attracted to a non-abusive partner not because they are masochists by nature, but because of the cultural and familial influences that shaped them in certain ways, described in the following section.

3. The Making Of A Victim

Are victims made or born? This question is tied to the debate of nature vs. nurture and the dialectical balance between destiny and choice.Are victims made or born? This question is tied to the debate of nature vs. nurture and the dialectical balance between destiny and choice. The basic assumption of this paper is that there is no gene for victimhood. Two types of forces are most influential in our lives: the social/political and the familial. The social and political realities are likely to systematically victimize certain groups, such as women, minorities, and the disabled. The familial environment of early childhood is influential in preparing individuals to embrace or reject the victim role. A single event, such as robbery, war, plane crash, or rape, does not transform a person into a victim. It takes a certain consistency in the environment to raise a victim (Sykes, 1992).

As the ‘American dream,’ the legal system, the ‘rights movement,’ the recovery movement, and especially co-dependency groups have contributed to the development of a nation of victims, so, too, do politicians, attorneys, and military generals often justify their actions through blame. U.S. foreign policy is based on claims of ‘self defense’ and blame. America got into the war in Vietnam and sustained 40 years of cold war to avoid ‘becoming a victim’ of the spread of communism. Later America felt victimized and threatened by the tiny island of Granada, Noriega of Panama, and Sadam Hussein of Iraq, and more recently by Somalia’s so called War Lord Adid.

Within this political victim-blame climate, people’s journeys towards victimhood often start at home with abuse or abandonment. Those who were abused in their childhood internalize shame, guilt, and a low sense of self worth. They learn to associate love with abuse, intimacy with violation, and care with betrayal. They internalize the message that they are not worthy of love. In order either to make sense of their world or protect their ideal view of their parents, they believe their own badness caused the abuse and that they must deserve it.

Victims of childhood abuse may become victimizers, victims, or both. The pain and rage from the abuse and betrayal may turn inward, or can be turned onto another person. With external support or internal resiliency they can become neither (See figure 1). When the rage turns inward, a person can become either self destructive (self mutilators, suicidal, and other self defeating behaviors) or destroyed by others (victim). For these people, destruction by self or others is the last means of maintaining a feeling of being potent.

Cycle of Abuse

Children who were abused received repeated reinforcement in their childhood to act as a victim. Often it was the only way to get acknowledged by parental figures. Identification and imitation of the parents’ roles of victim or victimizers may lead to corresponding behavior. If a boy identifies with an abusive father, we can expect him to attempt to repeat the abusive behavior. Similarly, a girl who observes her mother being abused is more likely to engage in such behavior herself (Gelles & Straus, 1988). It is not uncommon for a person to assume both roles and become an abuser as well as a victim.

Social legitimacy of violence and victimization in our culture goes far beyond the familial battlefields. Television programs, video games, movies, school playgrounds, neighborhoods, and national and international politics all legitimize the use of violence to resolve conflicts. Whether it is Sunday morning cartoons, an interactive violent video game, or the armed invasion of a foreign land, a clear message is sent that it is acceptable to use force as a means to achieve a goal. When the culturally violent messages complement the familial ones, children may not have any other frame of reference, and are most likely to fall into the role of victims, victimizers, or both.

4. Typology of Victims

The basic assumption of the legal system is that there is one party in a dispute who is guilty and 100% responsible for the crime, and another party who is totally innocent. While in some cases the responsibility is clear, in most cases the situation is more complex.

The following is an attempt, based partly on Mendelson’s (1974) original formulation, to classify victims according to their relative degree of responsibility and power to control or affect situations. These categories also judge the degree of guilt or responsibility, ranging from total innocence/no guilt, to 100% responsibility /total guilt.

4a. Non guilty- innocent victim:

This category includes victims who do not share the responsibility of the offence with the perpetrators. These are innocent victims whom we cannot expect to be able to avert the offence by anticipating it or by preventing it.


  • Children who are sexually or physically abused, or neglected.
  • Rape or murder victims when the crime is unforeseen, unprovoked, and perpetrated by complete strangers.
  • Severely mentally ill or disabled adults who get hurt or exploited.
  • Those who suffer a crime while unconscious.
  • Victims of random or rampage shooting.
  • Victims of unexpected natural disasters: victims of earthquake in a non-earthquake zone.
  • Victims of corporate greed, such as those perpetuated by corporations who sell genetically modified foods which cause cancer, or corrupt banking practices, which scheme people of their savings or homes.

4b. Victims With Minor Guilt:

his category includes victims who with some thought, planning, awareness, information, or consciousness could have expected danger and avoided or minimized the harm to themselves. They ‘could or should have known better.’


  • Adult victims of repeated domestic violence where shelters are available (after patterns are established and it is no longer unpredictable).
  • Marital rape victims after the first few episodes (when the pattern has been established and it is no longer a surprise)
  • Women who are raped after choosing to get drunk (the minor responsibility is for electing to be completely helpless and unconscious, at the full mercy of others, in a situation that has the potential to be dangerous).
  • Adults who were victimized due to being in the wrong place and the wrong time, where with some awareness, preparation, and caution they could have prevented the assault.
  • Jews who suffered during the Holocaust are, of course, not responsible for the Nazi’s evils, but, as some claim, they could have resisted more, been less co-operative, and not ‘gone like lambs to the slaughter’. They could have read/seen the situation better and more of them could have left Europe in time, as 40% did. However, taking into account the history of the jews and the personality they had developed in response to how they were treated over centuries in Europe, their ‘obedience & compliance’ is more understandable. 

4c. Victims who share equal responsibility with the perpetrators:

This category includes victims who share equal responsibility with the offender for the harm inflicted on them. These are people who are conscious and aware of the situation and chose to be part of it. They are not caught by surprise, and common sense could have anticipated the damage that occurred.


  • A man who contracts a sexually transmitted disease from a prostitute.
  • Victims who seek, challenge, tease, or entice the perpetrator.
  • Willing participants in a Chicken Game, gun dual, or double suicide.
  • Co-alcoholics, co-addicts after the initial phase of their relationship (after it has been clearly established that the partner is an addict).

4d. Victims who are slightly more guilty than the offender.

This category includes victims who are active participants in an interaction where they are likely to get hurt. While they seek the damaging contact, the offender can easily withdraw from the situation, unlike those in category #5, to follow. Unlike those in the previous category #3, the offender is less responsible for the damage than is the victim.


  • Drunk people who harass sober bystanders and get hurt.
  • Cult members who chose to enter the cult as adults and then were brainwashed and harmed. (i.e., Jonestown, Waco).
  • An abusive husband who is killed by his battered wife (he is primarily responsible but, as this paper states, the abuse must be viewed also as an interaction, and some responsibility shared between the couple).
  • Citizens who collude by passivity in their country’s atrocious acts and get hurt by other countries armies (i.e. politically inactive German civilians who did not fight the Nazi regime and got killed by the allies army attacks)

4e. Victims who are exclusively responsible for their victimization:

This category includes victims who initiated the contact and committed an act that is likely to lead to injury. In these cases, the one who inflicts the damage is not guilty and acts in pure self-defense or as expected from his position. This category is reserved for legally and clinically sane adults.


  • Rapists who are killed by their complete stranger- victims in self-defense.
  • Mercenaries who are wounded or killed.
  • People who smoke and get lung cancer.
  • Suicide by those who are not mentally ill. (Mentally healthy and competent individuals can choose to commit rationally planned suicide for which they bear the full responsibility)

The above categories represent an attempt to differentiate among many situations of victimhood. They comprise a controversial, inconclusive, and incomplete grid to determine guilt or responsibility. Demographic, cultural, and personal variables, while not accounted for in the above categories, are nevertheless crucial for the assessment of guilt and responsibility. When evaluating the degree of responsibility, the following parameters must be also included: ethnicity (minorities are more disposed to victimization than those in the majority), gender (women are more disposed to victimization than men), socio-economic status (poor vs. rich), physical attributes (less attractive, weak vs. more attractive, strong), mental status (mentally ill, dysfunctional vs. healthy, functional), familial background (abused, neglected vs. loved, nurtured), cultural values (cultures that promote violence vs. those that promote harmony).

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From Blame to Healing

Applied to victimization, systems analysis is concerned with the ways the dynamics of victimization develop, how they escalate towards violence, and what may affect them to shift toward non-violent resolution.Violence begets violence, similarly, blame begets blame. Blaming men, women, minorities, the rich, or the poor keeps the race for victim status alive. An individual or group can win the battle, become the victim of the year, yet lose the war. Victims’ blame behavior and lack of accountability are the very reasons they may continue to get hurt, injured, and abused. It is apparent that the blame approach is neither effective in resolving the problems of violence, nor in protecting the victim from further victimization, nor protecting future generations from continuing the cycle of abuse.

An alternative approach is the systems analysis approach (Bateson, 1979; Laszlo, 1976). Applied to victimization, systems analysis is concerned with the ways the dynamics of victimization develop, how they escalate towards violence, and what may affect them to shift toward non-violent resolution. Who is right or who is to be blamed is not the concern of this approach. Instead, it offers ways to intervene and hopefully stop the patterns of violence.

Applying systems analysis to victimization, the following assumptions arise:

  • Victimization, like violence, is not genetically programmed.
  • Victimization, as discussed in this paper, happens within a context of relationship and a certain environment or culture. Hence, each participant’s behavior must be understood within the context of the relationship and its legal, economical, political, and social context.
  • Participants in the victims-victimizers-bystanders dynamic assume (mainly unconsciously mutually dependant and complementary roles.
  • Intervention or change in the system can be initiated at any time, by any participant. Any change in behavior by one of the participants is likely to affect the others’ behavior and may lead to a different outcome.
  • The interaction within the victimizer-victim-environment can lead to violence or to other options, such as non-violent or peaceful resolution. The non-violent options will alter the victim and victimizer roles, and may include termination of the relationship.
  • Cultures can promote victim-victimizer, violent, or blame systems, or they can promote respectful relationships among its members who in turn make a sound commitment to resolve conflicts non-violently.

Looking at the different roles in victim systems, such as the abuser, abused, and bystanders, as mutually dependant is the foundation stone of this approach. While the psychology of abusers (Beasley & Stoltenberg, 1992; Viano, 1990) and bystanders (Lantane & Darley, 1970) has been thoroughly explored, systems analysis also demands a look at the generally ignored role of the victim.

Victimization is a complex phenomenon and any inquiry or therapy must include multiple approaches or perspectives. Five types of considerations, all equally important, should be explored prior to any intervention when therapists work within a victim-system. Firstly, the nature of the interaction between victimizers, victims, and the environment (including bystanders) must be examined. It is of utmost importance that there is no blame or finger pointing towards the victimizer or the victim. Secondly, one must approach the individual victim with empathy and attempt to understand the present self-destructive behavior in the light of the victim’s past and evolution. Thirdly, there must be an assessment of the victim’s level of consciousness, sanity, and ability to plan and control behavior. Fourthly, cultural and sub-cultural factors present since childhood, such as race, economic status, and gender, must be taken into account. Finally, the cultural context as revealed through the legal, educational, and political systems, the media, and popular trends, must be considered.

Applying these clinical guidelines to the case of domestic violence (where the husband is the abuser), therapists must first understand the interplay between husband and wife and how their behaviors contribute to the maintenance and escalation of violence. The therapist should neither blame the abusive husband nor the battered wife, but focus on the destructive system they both developed and maintain. Next, both victim’s and abuser’s behavior must be empathetically understood within the context of their familial history. Special attention must be given to history of abuse and abandonment. Subsequently, the woman’s mental, intellectual, physical, and economical resources must be assessed (if necessary, protection should be providing accordingly and/or immediately). The therapist must then seek to understand how gender, race, and other factors, such as disability, apply to the couple’s violence system. Finally, the therapist must know and understand how the culture and subculture within which the couple operates (including the criminal justice system, economic and community resources, etc.) contribute, collude, and perpetuate their violence system.

Only with the understanding of the above components and the use of system theory (often in conjunction with other theoretical orientations) is the therapist likely to intervene effectively. Whether the therapist works with individuals or the whole system, the most immediate task is to prevent any imminent violence. The long-term goal must be to help the patient, whether victim, victimizer, or bystander, to assume a new role and new behavior. The ultimate task of therapy is to help all participants live their lives meaningfully and with more dignity.

Without blaming, the therapist's goal is to move the victim from blame to responsibility, from helplessness to accountability, and from hopelessness to empowerment.In cases when one ends up working with the victim individually, one has to walk the fine line between empathy and collusion. Without blaming, the therapist’s goal is to move the victim from blame to responsibility, from helplessness to accountability, and from hopelessness to empowerment. Victims should never take total responsibility for their suffering; however they must develop an understanding of how they contribute to their own victimization. While acquiring a cohesive sense of self, the victims must be helped to feel better about themselves, raise their self-esteem, and work through the legacy of their childhood abuse. Therapy must enable victims to break the dangerous and painful link between love and abuse while helping them realize that they deserve respect and dignity like any other human being.

By understanding types, origins, and the mode of operation of victims therapists and non-therapists alike will be able to recognize, prevent, and intervene in violent systems, enabling all participants to live better lives. For this to happen, victims must overcome their feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. They must not focus on blame, and avoid moral self-righteousness. They have to believe that they have a part in what happens to them and overcome their victim patterns. The healing process should empower them to become conscious contributors to the unfolding of their lives, which can become dignified and meaningful.

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