I recently came across an article by a London barrister, Barbara Hewson, entitled “The Cult of Victimhood and the Limits of the Law.” Ms. Hewson is an interesting individual and has been a bit of a lightning rod for public statements she has made about Operation Yewtree, the investigation into sexual abuse by British television presenter Jimmy Savile and others, and about rape generally.
This article is mostly directed toward prosecutions for what she terms “stale accusations of historic abuse.” In other words, accusations of sexual abuse that occurred when the victim was a child, but not reported for many years. However, I found one section particularly intriguing, discussing the development of the “victim industry:”
We should be more critically aware of the prevailing ideology of victimhood, which developed in the 1970s, and dominates current thinking. Its mantra, ‘Believe the victim’, sums up the present climate of credulity.
The sociologist Joel Best describes how, ‘as this ideology became accepted by key institutions, it created a victim industry – a set of social arrangements that now supports the identification of large numbers of victims.’[vii] This powerful ideology has seven component beliefs:
- Victimization is widespread;
- Victimization has lasting consequences;
- It is morally unambiguous: the victimizer is exploitative, the victim innocent;
- Victimization often goes unrecognized, even by the victims themselves. As Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal is wont to say: ‘They don’t know they’re victims.’
- Individuals must be taught to recognize their own, and others’ victimization. This involves a process of re-education. It can amount to a conversion experience, sometimes of a religious intensity.
- Claims of victimization must be respected (‘believe the victim’).
- The term ‘victim’ can be disempowering. The terms ‘survivor’ or ‘recovering’ are preferable.
Victim advocates start with initially modest campaigns, addressing clear-cut, egregious examples of exploitation. Having gained social acceptance, they then typically expand the problem’s domain, to include a much wider range of behaviours, which they deem problematic. Thus, for example, we now operate expansive definitions of ‘abuse’, ‘trauma’, and sexual victimization. The definition of what ‘rape’ means in criminal law has also been expanded.
I can’t say how accurate or not is her description of the development of the “victim industry.” However, I did find her description of the “seven component beliefs” strikingly similar to what military justice has experienced over the last few years and the arguments of various victim interest groups. I don’t necessarily say that to indicate a rightness or wrongness of those component beliefs, merely that they seem very familiar. There are several other points in her article that military justice practictioners are likely to find interesting including a good discussion of a study on false memories. The article is worth the five minutes or so it takes to read, if for no other reason than to consider another viewpoint in the ongoing debate on how to balance the interests among victims and accused in sex crime cases.