What Is Victim Defending?

What Is Victim Defending?

Victim defending rejects the premise that those who suffer are partly at fault and challenges the

recommendation that people who were targeted must change their ways to avoid future incidents. First of all, victim blaming is criticized for overstat- ing the extent to which careless habits, foolhardy actions, attention-grabbing behavior, and verbal instigation explains the genesis of an illegal act. Motivated offenders would have struck their cho- sen targets even if the victims had not made their tasks easier, called attention to themselves, or aroused angry reactions. Second, victim blaming is condemned for confusing the exception with the rule and overestimating the actual proportion of

mutable and interchangeable, with continuous move- ment between the two roles…. This position, under- standably, will not be welcomed by those who, for a variety of practical or utilitarian reasons, continue to promote the popular stereotypes of victims and victi- mizers, according to which the two populations are as different as black and white, night and day, wolves and lambs. (Fattah, 1991, p. xiv)

Calls for Research into the Victim’s Role in Specific Crimes

Murder: In many crimes, especially criminal homicide, which usually involves intense personal interaction, the victim is often a major contributor to the lawless act.… Except in cases in which the victim is an inno- cent bystander and is killed in lieu of an intended victim, or in cases in which a pure accident is involved, the victim may be one of the major precipitating causes of his own demise. (Wolfgang, 1958, pp. 245, 264)

Rape: The offender should not be viewed as the sole “cause” and reason for the offense, and the “virtuous” rape victim is not always the innocent and passive party. The role played by the victim and its contribution to the perpetration of the offense becomes one of the main interests of the emerging discipline of victimol- ogy. Furthermore, if penal justice is to be fair it must be attentive to these problems of degrees of victim responsibility for her own victimization. (Amir, 1971, pp. 275–76)

Theft: Careless people set up temptation–opportunity situations when they carry their money or leave their valuables in a manner which virtually invites theft by

pickpocketing, burglary, or robbery. Carelessness in handling cash is so persistently a part of everyday living that it must be deemed almost a national habit…. Because victim behavior today is conducive to crimi- nality, it will be necessary to develop mass educational programs aimed at changing that behavior. (Fooner, 1971, pp. 313, 315) Victims cause crime in the sense that they set up the opportunity for the crime to be committed. By changing the behavior of the victim and potential victim, the crime rate can be reduced. Holders of fire insurance policies must meet fire safety standards, so why not require holders of theft insurance to meet security standards? (Jeffrey, 1971, pp. 208–209) Burglary: In the same way that criminologists compare offenders with nonoffenders to understand why a per- son commits a crime, we examined how the burglary victim and nonvictim differ in an attempt to under- stand the extent to which a victim vicariously contri- butes to or precipitates a break-in. (Waller and Okihiro, 1978, p. 5) Auto theft: Unlike most personal property, which is preserved behind fences and walls, cars are constantly moved from one exposed location to another; and since autos contain their own means of locomotion, potential victims are particularly responsible for varying the degree of theft risk by where they park and by the occasions they provide for starting the engine. The role of the victim is especially conse- quential for this crime; many cases of auto theft appear to be essentially a matter of opportunity. They are victim-facilitated. (McCaghy, Giordano, and Henson, 1977, p. 369)


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cases in which blameworthy conduct took place. Shared responsibility is said to be unusual, not com- mon. A few people’s mistakes don’t justify placing most victims’ attitudes and behaviors under a microscope, or under a cloud of suspicion. Third, exhorting people to be more cautious and vigilant is not an adequate solution. This advice is unrealistic because it overlooks the cultural imperatives and social conditions that largely shape the attitudes and behaviors of both parties in a conflict.

Over the past several decades, many victimolo- gists have embraced the tenets of victim defending, and have sharply denounced crude expressions of victim blaming as examples of muddled thinking and confused reasoning about the issue of shared responsibility. Excerpts of the earliest victim defend- ing arguments condemning victim blaming views appear in Box 5.2.

Victim defending is clear about what it opposes, but it is vague about what it supports. Two tendencies within victim defending can be distinguished concern- ing who or what is to be faulted. The first can be called offender blaming. Offender blaming removes the burden of responsibility from the backs of victims and restores it entirely onto the shoulders of lawbreakers,

“where it belongs.” Victim defending coupled with offender blaming leads to traditional criminological thinking, characterized earlier as “offenderology.” The question once again becomes, “What is ‘wrong’ with the offender? How does he differ from the law- abiding majority?” If the answer is that the offender has physical defects or even genetic predispositions to act violently, then the sociobiological theories of crimi- nology become the focus of attention. If the offender is believed to suffer from mental illness, personality disorders, or other emotional problems, then the the- ories of forensic psychology are relevant. If the offender is said to have knowingly and intentionally chosen to prey upon others, then the explanations center on the classical/rational choice/free-will and deterrence theories about pleasure and pain, benefits and costs, and conclude with the necessity of punishing those who decide to steal and rob.

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