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: 

  1. Victimization is widespread;
  2. Victimization has lasting consequences;
  3. It is morally unambiguous: the victimizer is exploitative, the victim innocent;
  4. 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.’
  5. 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.
  6. Claims of victimization must be respected (‘believe the victim’).
  7. 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.

8 Responses to “The Ideology of Victimhood”

  1. J says:

    Fascinating. Even as a self-described government hack, this worries me.

  2. stewie says:

    much like the extremists on the pro-victim side, she covers up some truths in a whole lot of ridiculousness.  No I don’t think the “victim” is to blame in a legitimate case of sexual assault so yes, certainly crimes/acts are morally unambiguous. Of course victimization has lasting consequences.  Claims should be respected, at least enough to take a look at them and see if they have merit…if they don’t then toss em out, if they do, then drive forward.
    Some of what she writes I agree with.  The difficulties of recovered memory or long-term abuse, or that victim advocates can go too far in the other direction (not happy with the re-write to rape that includes sticking a finger in someone’s mouth).  I wish she’d stuck with those bits and not gone all wonky with an article that is no doubt going to cause a kerfuffle with the other barristers, or even disturb tea time.

  3. Tami (a/k/a Princess Leia) says:

    I think we’ve seen a marked increase in “victimhood” since the 2007 revisions of Article 120 kicked in.  Enlarging the scope of conduct that becomes criminal, SHARP training telling everyone consent isn’t possible after 1 drink, telling enlisted personnel it’s impossible for them to consent to sex with officers, equating blacking out with passing out.  Even now with SHARP training videos, they portray the woman getting out of control drunk and the man preying on her; that is simply not the reality of most sexual assault cases.  Anyone who tries to tell women they still need to be responsible for themselves is “victim-blaming.”  “Rape trauma syndrome” is ridiculous.
    I think the Navy Academy case is an excellent example of “victimhood” gone awry.  Then when the accused is acquitted, the “victim” is “disappointed” in the outcome.  But only because she was told she was a victim by so many people, maybe she believes it.  If she had been facing sexual assault charges, her level of intoxication would have been irrelevant.

  4. stewie says:

    I don’t think “rape trauma syndrome” is ridiculous.  I completely agree that rape causes trauma, and that there is no one “way” for a rape victim to act.  The problem is that advocates take it way beyond that kind of common sense argument to something that magically wipes away lies, fuzzy stories, and anything else they need it to resolve.
    Elements of the pendulum swinging too far are there for sure, but IMO the author goes too far the other way.

  5. SFC V says:

    Anytime someone uses the term “re-education”  it concerns me.   It’s a very Orwellian word.Tami, I would agree with your comment about “victim blaming.”  You can’t prevent sexual assault by waiting for it to happen and then prosecuting the offender.  Prevention requires affirmative action on the part of all concerned in order to avoid it from happening in the first place. 
    It’s one thing to say you should do these things to avoid risk and quite another to say it’s your fault because you didn’t do these things.  It’s a fine point but one that is lost on many people. At trial it’s not really all that relevant that the victim didn’t take some preventative measure.  But it is certainly relevant to the discussion of how to prevent such things from happening.  Hope that makes sense. 

  6. Lieber says:

    what Stewie said.

  7. Zeke says:

    @ Sam Adams –

    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.

    Unfortunately, it seems there is no such debate being had by policy makers.  No disrespect intended to the wealth of criminal justice experience reflected in this blog’s readership, but if senior military an civilian leadership’s rhetoric is any indication, the justice experts who are concerned with balance have nobody’s ear but their own.

  8. RKincaid3 says:

    S.A.  Great write-up.  Too bad there is so much truth in the article’s premise. And sad, too, that if true, the U.S., military has apparently joined the ranks of the perpetual victimizer–with the only question being who is the victim: the CW or the accused?  Given all the changes to the UCMJ that are clearly designed to effectuate a particular result (the antithesis of a just process), determing who is a victim from among all those who can claim the title, is now a futile effort. In this sense–we as a society have failed miserably since being a victim, er, survivor, is so much a preferred status. Indeed, indeed it confers a title of honor and sympathy that only the cruel can or will challenge or question.