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Paul_D's picture
Victim Blaming or Target Hardening?

"Some also criticised police messages which had warned people to be aware of their surroundings, with some likening the language to victim-blaming."

"I will not raise my girls in a world where travelling home at night is deemed “risky” behaviour. Women have the right to move freely in this country. Freedom is a right not a privilege."

There seems to be a worrying trend amongst women's groups to label what you and I could called good self protection, or Target Hardening, as victim blaming.  I remember a few years ago a poster campaign in the UK, warning of the dangers of drinking too much and becoming unconscious, had to be withdrawn after accusations of victim blaming.

If people will not accept responsibly for their own personal safety, or reject sound advice as victim blaming, how do you help them?

Tau's picture

To those declaring "victim blaming" I would ask if they lock their front door when they go out? Or even when they're at home.

Taking precautions is not condoning the actions of the attacker/thief or whatever.

This morning a former student shared a post of a girl near where he lives. She was out running and was grabbed from behind and punched in the face. She states that she didn't hear the attack coming because she had earphones in. Now, I hope the attacker is caught and feels appropriate justice. BUT I also counsel that there are lessons that we can all learn from this. I own "hoodies" but I don't wear the hood up. Instead I wear a hat so as my peripheral vision isn't hampered. To me, that's a simple precaution.

Wastelander's picture

Society is a complex beast. I understand their point, but we don't live in an ideal world and I think it's important to promote awareness and protective skills, nonetheless. Just today, my girlfriend had a man start following her while walking in the park, trying to hit on her and get closer to her. She video called her friend, so she had someone on the phone with her, and used the camera on her phone to watch behind her to keep an eye on him as she quickly left the park, and made sure she wasn't followed. Meanwhile, she had switched her mentality to be ready for any sort of physical altercation, and had escape routes in mind. Should she HAVE to think like that because someone starts talking to her in the park? No, she shouldn't. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, it's the safer bet.

Marc's picture

Having a right does not mean that one should always and under any circumstances insist on that right. Sometimes it might be better to waive it.


You get to an intersection and some kid is darting across on their skateboard. Do you a) insist on your right of way and run them over with your SUV or b) stop and let them live?

Some drunkard insults you as they walk past you. Do you a) insist on your right to dignity, ask for their ID and sue them or b) shrug it off and keep walking?

You want to catch your subway home, but you see a suspicious looking crowd loitering in front of the station. Do you a) insist on your right to walk freely in a public space and risk getting robbed or b) miss that train and get a cab? - What if your child is with you?

It's a sunny day so you take the cabriolet to the beach. You're going for a quick swim and you a) insist on your right of property and leave your pants with your wallet in it on the back seat or b) put them in your trunk? - What about your car key?  

Anf's picture

Some members of the political correctness brigade live in some sort of alternate reality.

I wonder how much comfort victims of a tracks and their families take from knowing that they had every right to be where they were or do what they were doing.

The sad reality is that by the very nature and definition of assault of any kind, the attacker simply is not interested in your rights.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

A victim of crime is NEVER to blame for being a victim of that crime. The responsibility ALWAYS lies 100% with the criminal. That should be a given that needs to be clearly expressed if the message of target hardening is to be accurately, effectively and compassionately conveyed.

Paul_D wrote:
"I will not raise my girls in a world where travelling home at night is deemed “risky” behaviour. Women have the right to move freely in this country. Freedom is a right not a privilege."

This is a short extract, so I can only go off what is written here. I’m therefore not sure of the wider context, but you can read the first sentence two ways:

1) A strong desire to change the world we live in.

2) A refusal accept that danger exists on ideological grounds.

I too don’t want to raise girls in a world where traveling home at night is deemed risky. Same for young men, the elderly, and everyone else too. However, as it stands, those risks do exist. Therefore, taking sensible precautions to minimise exposure to those risks is sensible and healthy. Saying, “it should not be that way, so I will act as if it isn’t that way” is unwise.

That does not change the fact that blame ALWAYS lies 100% with the criminal. The criminal’s behaviour is 100% unacceptable. We should never infer that the victim is in any way culpable because their actions did not see them avoid an assault.

If someone does infer responsibility, they are letting the criminal off the hook by accepting their despicable actions as “a given” that the victim is obligated to avoid. NOT SO! Criminal behaviour should not be an accepted given. That’s not the world we want to live in.

“Women have the right to move freely in this country.”

100% agree. We all do. There is an obligation on all of us to ensure that right is upheld and never eroded by the unacceptable actions of others. The caveat is that we don’t live in the utopia we should live in. There are evil people out there who don’t care about the rights we have. The existence of that evil minority needs to be acknowledged. Sensible precautions therefore need to be taken.

In advising safety precautions are taken, we are not saying that the behaviour of those outside society’s rules and expectations is acceptable. Nor are we saying people are to blame if they are targeted by those who disregard our rules and rights. We are simply saying criminals exist, and there are things we can do to help make it harder for criminals to harm us.

“Freedom is a right not a privilege."

It is a right. One that society should seek to promote and unconditionally support. Any infringements on that right are unacceptable … but, once again, the reality is there are evil people who don’t care about the rights of others. It’s an awful and unacceptable reality that we should seek to change, but it remains a reality. And while it does remain a reality, we all need to take sensible precautions in order to do what we can to avoid the unacceptable behaviour of evil people.

In taking those precautions, and advising others should take them too, we are in NO WAY stating or inferring that we don’t have the right to live a life free from threats and harm. It’s a sad reality that not everyone accepts those rights. We, therefore, need to acknowledge that reality and do what we can to mitigate it.

Paul_D wrote:
There seems to be a worrying trend amongst women's groups to label what you and I could called good self protection, or Target Hardening, as victim blaming.  I remember a few years ago a poster campaign in the UK, warning of the dangers of drinking too much and becoming unconscious, had to be withdrawn after accusations of victim blaming.

Victim blaming is ALWAYS wrong. Advocates of Target Hardening should express their message in a way that is unequivocally clear about that. Some aren’t and infer blame if a situation was not avoided. That’s not right! If someone is a victim of crime, then the blame is 100% on the criminal. ALWAYS!

Those good people working for a safe, fair and just society need to accept their work is not yet done. Acknowledging the reality of things is in no way the same as saying that reality is OK.

There are evil people who don’t care about the safety, wellbeing and rights of others. We should not ignore that because we wish the world was different. As we work to make the world a better place, we need to take precautions against those who don’t share our vision or care about our rights.

Paul_D wrote:
If people will not accept responsibly for their own personal safety, or reject sound advice as victim blaming, how do you help them?

If that “sound advice” sounds like victim blaming then it is no wonder people reject it. We need to give sound security advice in a way that makes clear that the blame is always 100% on the criminal and them alone.

If people do reject personal security advice based on ideological wishful thinking, then they are putting themselves and others at risk. The individual can and should do things to make themselves a more difficult target for criminals. That is NOT the same as saying the actions of those criminals is acceptable. It is also NOT the same as saying that people are culpable in an act of violence committed against them if such advice is not followed or proves to be ineffective. The victim is NEVER to blame.

If people refuse to take actions that could help keep them safe, then there is a greater chance they will be a victim of crime. Even then, they are not in any way to blame! The criminal is always the one to blame. Self-protection instructors need to communicate that fact very clearly. That way people will be more open to sound security advice because there is no inference of guilt, blame or an acceptance of the injustices of the world as it stands.

The UK charity Rape Crisis reports that:

Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that's roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour. These figures include assaults by penetration and attempts.

Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year

1 in 5 women aged 16 - 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16

Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police

Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence


Those statistics clearly show the size and scale of the problem. It’s TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE! It needs to change. There are lots of good people working toward that end. Advocates of legal and social change have the goal of eradicating this. They want to stop such abominations occurring. Personal safety advocates share the same goal of stopping those abominations too.

Advocates of legal and social change are looking at long-term, lasting solutions. Personal safety advocates are addressing “sticking-plaster” short-term actions that can help while the work of the advocates of legal and social change is ongoing. They should be on the same team and pulling in the same direction.

Clumsy language that infers the victim being at “fault” is something that needs to be totally eradicated because it is a needless obstacle to a shared goal.

Another shocking statistic from Rape Crisis is:

A third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped (Amnesty, 2005)

Victim blaming is rife! It’s a real issue and it’s no wonder people react strongly when such horrific thinking is so widespread. Personal safety and self-protection instructors need to be 100% clear we are not doing that … because it can sometimes sound like we are if we are clumsy with our phraseology. We can’t get annoyed at people for getting upset when what WE said sounds exactly like victim blaming.

VICTIM BLAMING: “It’s important you follow this advice otherwise you could get assaulted. If you get drunk, then you’re going to potentially attract an assault. If your drink was spiked, you could have avoided that rape if you had been more aware. etc”

It’s no wonder people refuse to listen to that because, even if well meaning, it sounds like victim blaming!

SOUND ADVICE: “It’s NEVER your fault if you are the victim of crime. There’s also nothing wrong with having a good night out with friends. Unfortunately, there are some evil people out there who will target people they feel are inebriated and alone. Here are some sensible precautions you can take while socialising to help keep yourself safe: 1) Stay with friends. 2) Before going out, let someone know where you're going and what time you expect to be home. 3) Don't accept a drink from someone you don't know … etc.

Make it clear it’s never their fault. Make it clear that it is the criminal who is to blame. People are then way more open to the personal security message because it has been effectively communicated. 

1) There are sensible safety precautions that everyone should take. That’s a sad consequence of a world that is currently not as we want it. Such precautions help keep people safe and are very important.

2) The criminal is always 100% to blame for any assault. The victim is NEVER at fault. They are NEVER to blame.

These two messages are not contradictory.

All the best,


Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

I look to the wisdom of the elders. There's a one way street in my home town, near my parents' house. As a young child I might try and cross the road, looking in the direction of the oncoming traffic. My dad would stop me and say the same thing every time. As grandad, he said the same to my children too: "I know it's a one-way street. You know it's a one-way street. The idiot driving the wrong way doesn't know, that's why he's driving the wrong way. So look both ways." To me this is a clear message: you are right, but some people aren't, so be careful. I just wish I could think of a similar snappy version to use in a self-protection / no victim blaming way. 

riversidema's picture

My dad used to say, "You can be right all the way to the hospital."

Marc's picture

Anf wrote:

The sad reality is that by the very nature and definition of assault of any kind, the attacker simply is not interested in your rights.

Iain Abernethy wrote:

A victim of crime is NEVER to blame for being a victim of that crime. The responsibility ALWAYS lies 100% with the criminal.

These are the two main points.

So if we take sensible precautions we might lower our risk of becoming a victim of crime. And if we don't, we might have a higher risk. In any case if we do become a victim of crime we are the victim and the perpetrator is the one to be prosecuted.

Sometimes the sensible precaution might be to not insist on a right we have. But waiving a right can never be our obligation. We cannot be blamed for acting within our rights. That's why it's called a right. It means, we have the support of the law.

Does it make sense to lock the door when we leave the house? Yes, because it makes it harder for thieves to get into the house and steal stuff. So are we required to lock the door when we leave the house? No, because it still against the law to steal stuff when the door is unlocked.

Insurances might view it differently, though. I have an insurence for my bike, and the policy requires that I lock the bike with a heavy lock that costs at least X Euros (ensuring a reasonable quality). If my bike was stolen without such a lock in place it would still be theft but the insurance would not compensate me for it.

Take care (always)


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I have yet to deal with this, the couple times I taught public seminars were to audiences that either did not hold this view, or simply didn't bring it up.I do live in an area where this sort of sentiment is pronounced, so i've given it some thought.I think there are a few different concepts to communicate, in order to smooth over this misconception:

1) I would make clear that I would certainly prefer to live in a world where women were under less threat than they are, and that indeed women face some very awful threats which men typically do not, women must walk through the world with these concerns, and it is not fair. Regardless of political persuasion, if I don't believe this, I probably shouldn' teach a specific course to  women. Simply wanting women to be safer is apolitical.

2) Communicate that while I would love for things to be this way, they presently are not. As I am not teaching a self-defense seminar in the capacity of an activist, my responsibility is teaching self defense. While I certainly support a safer world for women, to make self-defense a priority we must approach "what is", and not what we want things to be, in other words, we have to kind of put our ideological beliefs in our pocket in order to deal with self-defense issues.

As I live in a predmoniantly "left" area, I know that some teachers will be a bit more accomodating and actually include a sort of light social justice component in their training. While I might agree with some of their sentimens personally, I would not do this as I am not teaching in the capacity of a polcitical activist, and I would prefer to not advertise my self as something I am not.

I feel like if I can effectively commuinicate this idea (that I must leave the larger political questions out of it in order to maintain my professionalism - which is how I feel), I have covered my bases, and am operating ethically, whether people accept it or not. There will be a certain number of people for whom this might not be enough, and those people are probably un-teachable by me, and may function better with a teacher who feels more comfortable adding a political component to their self-defense classes, I do not.

Azato's picture

This thread has been a great read, thank you all for it. A small contribution I would like to make is to emphasize that the fact that so many women don't report incidents of sexual assault to the authorities is why victim blaming is such a problem. If more of these incidents were reported less would ultimately occur. I personally have known women that have blamed themselves for being assaulted. They say something like 'I shouldn't have let him give me a ride home'. They aren't wrong, they shouldn't have but that doesn't make them any less of a victim. Its pretty much the equivalent of forgetting to lock your door, getting robbed, and deciding not to call the authorities because you made a mistake. No one would do that, it's backwards thinking. -Dan

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Azato wrote:
I personally have known women that have blamed themselves for being assaulted.

That’s so tragic, but very common and understandable seeing as victim blaming happens. Women see what was said about other victims, and then decide they don’t want the secondary trauma of that. I can understand that. It’s awful and makes my blood boil that anyone should ever be made to feel that way, but I understand it. It’s so very wrong and as a society we have a long way to go on these issues.

As individuals, we can help by ensuring we are always clear the victim is never to blame. Mistakes in personal security do not make one culpable when bad people take advantage of those lapses. Who has not made mistakes in that regard? The victim is never at fault. The blame always lies 100% with the perpetrator. When that is the position taken in wider society, we will see many more victims come forward because they will do so knowing they are going to be supported and not vilified or blamed.

All the best,


PASmith's picture

One thing to bear in mind I think is that this sort of "victim blaming" language can start from a very early age.

My daughter (aged 6-7 at the time) was having some trouble with an annoying boy at school. Not out and out bullying per se but he's a disruptive child that doesn't think through what he's doing and likes to annoy people. My daughter had a couple of incidents with him where she was hurt or upset (grabbed her hood as she ran past and pulled her off her feet for example). When this all came to light and we discussed it with her, her teachers and school clubs staff it turns out that on several occasions my daughter was basically told to "just stay away from him". Rather than tackle his behaviour and conduct (which is tricky and ongoing) they took the easier route of trying to make a good kid adapt her behaviour to avoid interactions. Needless to say I was not happy with this. It struck a chord with me, as someone interested in self protection and trying to instill good habits for my kids.

IMHO for too long we've ignored or avoided trying to change the troublesome behaviour of men (boys will be boys!), part through varying degrees of sexism and part because it's a hard problem to tackle and instead done what this school did and advised the equivalent of "change the way you behave and just stay away from him/them".

And quite rightly many women (and men of course) have become sick of this line of reasoning. It might be a practical line of reasoning. It might be an effective line of reasoning (don't go out, don't wear this, don't do that, etc). But I can well see why people have a problem with that line of reasoning when it places a burden on the victim to change their ways rather than the aggressors.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

PASmith wrote:
One thing to bear in mind I think is that this sort of "victim blaming" language can start from a very early age ...

That’s a very good post and they are solid observations. Much to think about there. Thanks of posting!

All the best,


Josh Pittman
Josh Pittman's picture

I've been thinking about this issue since this thread first appeared, and here's what I think I can contribute:

It seems to me that there are two basic principles of language at the heart of this debate: (1) the effects of our language are not bound by our intentions, and (2) language is very powerful.

Principle 1 is readily demonstrable by the fact that we misunderstand each other in conversation all the time. Here’s an example: I once had a meeting with a student in which she told me she would miss our next class meeting because she was going home to participate in a memorial for her brother. In an effort to show interest in her life and sympathy for her pain, I asked a few questions about her brother and the memorial. I later learned that my student interpreted this conversation as my “interrogating her about her dead brother to the point of tears.” Obviously, I did not intend for this to happen, but my words had a negative effect on her, and whether I wanted that to happen or not is irrelevant to her experience of the conversation.

Recognizing principle 2 is, I think, what drives those who work for social change. They understand that the terms we use determine the ways we think about issues. For example, before we understood alcoholism as an addiction—that is, before we had the word addiction as a suitable category for alcoholism—that dependency was a moralized phenomenon. People created societies to advocate for “temperance” because they thought of alcoholism as a lack of the virtue temperance. Here’s another example from my teaching experience: I once had a student write a paper in defense of racial profiling. He justified this position by boiling the issue down to safety vs. political correctness. His basic point was that citizens and police need to be more concerned with keeping themselves and each other safe than with offending people. This was in the wake of some significant race riots that took place in reaction to unjustified police violence against racial minorities here in the US. The problem with my student’s argument, of course, is that it ignores the real, life-and-death effects of racial profiling (e.g., police shooting unarmed black men). In fact, it perpetuates the very attitudes that result in unjustified police violence. The way we talk about this phenomenon (e.g, placing it into the category of “political correctness”) determines how we will rank its importance (in this case, offending people is less important than safety).

Now, we know that victim-blaming language is powerful enough to create and reinforce harmful ideas about sexuality and rape, as demonstrated by the statistics that Iain referenced and the anecdote that Azato shared. These ideas themselves make (predominately) women less safe. We who say we want to make people safer need to avoid inferring a dichotomy between safety and changing people’s attitudes. Those who want to change social attitudes toward violence are not burying their heads in the sand—they just recognize that a society in which victim blaming is a valid attitude is a less safe society.

While we who teach self-defense must acknowledge the power of language to shape social attitudes, there may be some social activists who need to acknowledge the value of self-protection. We can’t create a dichotomy between those two ways of changing the world, and neither should social activists.

Back up to principle 1: sometimes, the language we have available to us causes effects we do not intend. I did not intend to cause my student pain when I asked about her brother, but it does no good for me protest that she is in some way wrong to feel that pain as a result of our conversation. In the same way, we who are concerned with teaching self-protection have to remind ourselves that sometimes language speaks through us--we can find ourselves using language that carries connotations we did not intend to manifest. So, it's no good to insist, "I didn't mean it that way"--the effects of our language are sometimes quite independent of our intentions.

Principle 1 cuts both ways, however. Just as we can’t hide behind our intentions to justify our language, so we shouldn’t find our intentions judged on the basis of our language—that is, of course, when giving the benefit of the doubt makes sense. The least responsible strain of social activism can encourage this kind of moralizing, and people whose language has failed them can find themselves accused of nefarious intentions. If this happens to you, don’t get defensive; blame the effects that you did not intend on the failure of your words to communicate your intentions.

Understanding that (1) the effects of language operate independently of our intentions for it and that (2) language is very powerful helps me to navigate this issue. I think it gives a healthy appreciation for the work of social activists and a way to understand how I might sometimes be in some ways responsible for effects I did not intend to have on the world.