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Essay on Victims and Victimology: Analysis of Theoretical Background

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The label of ‘victim’ is a social construction, therefore it’s society that decides who is most worthy of it. Walklate (2018) argues that there’s a distinction between those who offend, and those who are victimised. The theoretical research into what we know about victimization is both contingent and contested in many ways depending on the type of discourse used, whether that’s derived from academic literature, political agenda, legislature or the media. Nile Christe (1986 as cited by Dignan, 2004) proposed the idea of the ideal victim. Christie identified 6 attributes that at the level of social policy, make up a legitimate victim status. These key attributes are as follows;

  • The victim is weak compared to the offender, making the ideal victim to be sick, elderly, very young or female.
  • The victim is not purposefully putting themselves at higher risk of victimization.
  • The victim is blameless.
  • The victim has no relation to the offender, or as Christie states “stranger”, potentially implying that the offender is an individual.
  • That the offender is big and bad.
  • The victim portrays a sense of sympathy to be viewed as a victim.

Whether or not this proposal of the ideal victim is correct is to be further discussed, however, it’s fair to assume that it’s academic research like this that would influence individuals’ perspectives of victims, and therefore influence their status within society. In addition to this, these views could also be used to determine the status of victims within a political context, consequently affecting potential reforms done by social and criminal justice policy makers. Regarding the majority of society, it’s possible that media presence could have a heavy influence on an individual’s perception, as literature like this could be used to determine what makes a victim news worthy. This, in turn, would not only potentially segregate certain victims from exposure, but it could also heavily affect the status of those whom they choose to call victims.

While criminology focuses on the relationship between crime and criminals, victimology is the focus of crime and its victims. The works of Von Hentig and Mendelsohn (1948; 1956 as cited by Wolhuter, Olley and Denham, 2008) are known to contain the earliest references to the role of victims in crime, and how they could precipitate their own victimisation. The work they created, known as positivist victimology, focused on attempting to find what distinguishes a victim from an ideal individual who doesn’t suffer crime. Von Hentig’s (1948 as cited by Burgess, Regehr and Roberts, 2010) study titled “In The Criminal and His Victim” identified categories of individuals who were more likely to become a victim, focusing mainly on the social and psychological variables that may have contributed to make them more prone to their own victimization. Mendelsohn’s approach similarly led to an estimation of how culpable a victim was in the incidence of a crime, concluding in an example where a husband murdered his wife and her lover; had it not been for the perversity of his former wife, he would never have been guilty (Mendelsohn, 1974 as cited by Wolhuter, Olley and Denham, 2008).

Von Hentig’s work particularly inspired a variety of other theorists who subsequently built on top of his theories. Amir (1971 as cited by Burgess, Regehr and Roberts, 2010), most controversially applied Victim Precipitation theory in his study titled Patterns of Forcible Rape, were he found that 19% of 645 rapes recorded by police in Philadelphia were victim precipitated. Wolfgang and Fattah (1958; 1971 as cited by Burgess, Regehr and Roberts, 2010) continued this more empirical way of researching, focusing more on specific crimes such as Criminal Homicide, Rape and Robbery. It can be concluded that positivist victimology, as described by Miers (1989, as cited by Mawby and Walklate, 1994) has three main features; the identification of factors which may produce patterns of victimization, a focus on interpersonal crimes of violence, and to identify victims who have contributed to their own victimization.

The perspective of an individual putting themselves in greater risk of being a victim was elaborated in Hindelang’s, Gottfredson’s and Garofalo’s (1978 as cited by Walters, 1990) lifestyle model, in which the likelihood of being victimized is evaluated through the consideration of lifestyle variables. Similarly, Cohen and Felson (1997 as cited by Lambert, 2017) developed routine activity theory. Both theories highlight that lifestyles and activities can potentially place an individual in situations where the likely-hood of them meeting an offender is higher. Miethe and Meier (1994 as cited by Finkelhor and Asdigian, 1996) argue that these two theories are essentially the same, stating that these models involve scenarios in which there is a motivated offender, a suitable target and an absence of protection. Here we can see similarities to the positivist approach to victimization. The most obvious of which is that the victim, is either consciously or not putting themselves in situations where they are more likely to be victimised, and therefore precipitating it. This is a stark contrast to Christie’s previously mentioned ‘ideal victim’, as it goes against the notion of a blameless victim. As mentioned earlier, being female could potentially increase the likely-hood of being victimized, however, being a female is not a routine activity, and therefore may not allow the individual to prevent precipitation. If the potential offender is seeking a victim, then its possible that the routine activities of being a female could increase or lower the chances of being victimised. This would therefore affect the status of victims, in particular female victims because notions of victim blaming could become more apparent.

One of the most influential movements regarding the status of female victims was that of feminists. Radical Feminism critiqued the institution of patriarchy, regarding it as a form of oppression that overlooks all social institutions, such as education and ethnicity. Radical Feminism, as stated by Walklate (2018), aims to see social change in the form of political agenda on male violence against women. However, politically during the 1980’s they were still faced with the issue that men were in the majority. Because of this, policy-making and implementations were all male solutions, with Kelly (1988 as cited by Walklate, 2018) stating that minimal attention had been paid to how women define abuse and violence. This movement can be regarded as second wave feminism and as it increased, so did the amount of female representation within government. This started to influence legislation and policies, allowing for greater support towards the status of female victims within society.

Feminist Victimology criticises positivism for not considering the role of power relations between the victim and the offender. In 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales, otherwise known as CSEW, estimated that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault. Furthermore, 5 out of 6 victims did not report their experiences to the police (Ons.gov.uk, 2018). As mentioned previously, Amir’s (1971, as cited by Burgess, Regehr and Roberts, 2010) research only focused on reports that were reported to the police and the same is to be told with Wolfgang’s and Fattah’s research. Taking a positivist approach to sexual violence has many flaws, as the theory relies on the individual to state that they are a victim, of which only 60% of female rape victims were prepared to do so in 2017 (Ons.gov.uk, 2018).

The feminist critique of the positivist approach is that it assumes that there is an appropriate level of behaviour that the victim has failed to keep; an argument that is directly linked with the previously mentioned routine activity and lifestyle theory. The effects of these theories on the status of victims can often be seen today. There are multiple examples featured in the media of how the police are seen to advise women to ‘always stick to well-lit streets’ and take multiple precautions when alone at night (BBC News, 2019). Increasing the sense, that in this situation it’s the victim’s fault if a crime or assault occurs. Victim Blaming and rape culture as cited by Thacker (2017), are both inherently linked, and that the normalization of the blaming of victims for their attacks can have a strong effect on the criminal justice system, influencing the outcomes of trials and the treatment of victims. As cited by Thacker (2017), a sixteen-year-old student was sexual abused by two classmates while she was in a defenceless intoxicated state. However, despite photographic evidence that was taken by the offenders themselves, the defence lawyers of the trial questioned her credibility as a witness due to her intoxication, and also went further by questioning a close friend of the victim, stating that she, the victim, had not been assaulted because she sometimes “lies about things” (Almasy, 2013 as cited by Thacker, 2017, p.89). Having had these attempts to prove that the victim may have precipitated her own victimisation, she was in turn revictimized in the criminal justice system. However, the largest part of her revictimization came in the form of the media. News reporters, as cited by Thacker (2017, p.89), are quoted to have expressed sympathy for the offenders, which was then echoed by individuals on social media, stating that the girl “wanted it” and that if you’re “drunk/slutty at a party, and embarrassed later, then just say you got raped.” Many of the feminist beliefs mentioned above can feature under the heading of Critical Victimology, which has the three main concepts of rights, citizenship and the state (Mawby and Walklate as cited by Newburn, 2017).

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Victimization has often been used as a tool for political parties to gain a following, and this can have a direct effect on the status of victims. The earlier theories mentioned above tend to be criticised for being too theoretical, and not useful in terms of making social policy. Left and Right Realism are concerned with theory and research that should provide practical solutions. There are two main types of Realists. Firstly, there are those such as James Q. Wilson (1982 as cited by Kelling and Coles, 1997) who is a Right Realist who arguably created one of the most important theses that underpins the Rights ideology titled The Broken Window thesis, which considers crime from the perspective of political conservatism. He argues that traditional criminology is unhelpful to those who try to deal with it. An example of this is Cornish and Clarke’s rational choice theory which focuses on the decision making of why an individual commits a crime (Eriksson, 2011). Following this, Right Realists have a zero-tolerance approach to crime, focusing more specifically on street crime. As Wison (1995 as cited by Ugwudike, 2019) states, the Right justify this approach due to street crime causing direct victimization, which in turn, produces a greater fear of crime. However, there is also evidence that suggests that more powerful crimes produce a wider ranging, more severe victimization than street crimes (1995 as cited by Ugwudike, 2019).

Secondly there are Left Realists. There are many ideological similarities between Right and Left Realism. Just as the Right did, the Left also focused mainly on predatory street crimes, mainly by deprived communities. They appear to also share the Right Realist’s view that it’s an individual’s choice to commit a crime. Here, we again see a reflection of the ideas that have been mentioned previously in the rational choice theory. The difference between the two is that they propose different crime control measures. The Right solely focuses on the offending individual and the setting of the crime, whereas the Left Realist’s focus on the crime, and social context. The views on what is considered effective policing differs between the two also. The Right believes in police empowerment, whereas the Left proposes a more democratic, decentralised approach to policing. To summarise the main differences, as Friedrichs and Rothe (2011 as cited by DeKeseredy and Dragiewicz, 2011) stated, the Left primarily prioritises social justice over order, and place an emphasis on factors that are less positivistic.

Furedi (1997, as cited by Walklate, 2006) stated that observers from all developing countries on both sides of the Atlantic have commented on the growth of the culture of victimhood. Furthermore, Furedi (1997 as cited by Walklate, 2006) suggests that the recent growth of victim-hood could have a direct correlation with a shift in culture. The term itself, as supported by Dignan (2005 as cited by McGarry and Walklate, 2015) states that the title “victim” has had relatively recent connections with crime, specifically with the development of the criminal victimization survey in both America during the 1960s, and England and Wales during the late 1970s. The use of victim surveys was first introduced in America with the President’s crime commission in 1967 after serious urban rioting the previous year. The surveys purpose was to devise a more accurate way of measuring crime, in hopes to avoid some of the traditional methods based on police records. Another reason is that it’s possible that some victims may become reluctant to co-operate with the criminal justice system by reporting the crime. Using the previously mentioned case study, as cited by Thacker (2017) as an example, The notion of secondary victimization, which refers to how victims have felt so badly treated by the criminal justice system, that its comparable to being victimized all over again was evident in the study cited by Thacker (2017), and can also be seen in Edwards, Chambers and Millar’s (1984) ‘Investigating Sexual Assault’, were it was suggested that the tactics used in cases of sexual assault, purposefully implied that victims were to blame for their own victimisation.

Bateson (2012) stated that an individual is far more likely to participate in politics if they have been victimised. Reinforcing this, a big factor of victim visibility could potentially be linked with the role of the media. In cases such as the Moors Murders during the 1960s; Ian Bray and Myra Hindley were convicted of multiple counts of child murder, resulting in an intense amount of media attention (Dignan, 2004). Furthering this, the confessions of the two that followed in 1987 again, repeatedly resulted in media exposure, not just for offenders, but for the families of the victims (Maguire, Morgan and Reiner, 2007). In high profile criminal cases, the media have not only ensured greater visibility of the victims, but also have often portrayed the victims as a key voice about how ‘their’ offenders should be dealt with. A more recent example of this is that of the mother of Jamie Bulger, who actively campaigned against the release of two young men who murdered her son at the age of 10 (Maguire, Morgan and Reiner, 2007). This resulted in a letter writing campaign conducted by the Sun with the intended purpose to sway the Home Secretary’s decision of when they would be released (Parliament. House of Lords, 1997). The media can therefore play a vital role in providing a public platform to campaign for criminal justice reforms, allowing for a positive change that directly effects the status of victims. A great example of this is the campaign for the introduction of ‘Sarah’s law’, a Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme that allowed parents controlled access to information relating to convicted child offenders living in the immediate surrounding area (Dignan, 2004).

While in some cases the media can be used in a positive way, there are many cases where it negatively affects the status of victims, and this becomes more apparent when you factor in the previous theories that have been mentioned. According the CSEW statistics, 1 in 4 people (26.2%) said they thought that they were either very, or likely to be a victim of crime within the next year (Ons.gov.uk, 2019). However, in more detail, the accuracy of these perceptions varies greatly by age group. Those aged between 16 to 24 had the tendency to underestimate their victimisation, while those aged 35 and over had the opposite tendency of overestimating their potential likeliness of being victimised (Ons.gov.uk, 2019). It could be argued that these tendencies could be supported by lifestyle and routine activity theory, as it would seem likely that younger adults, place themselves in scenarios such as clubbing, were the risk of victimization is dramatically increased. Adding to this, it could also be argued that individuals make decisions based upon their assumptions of crime and victimization. In addition to age, there are clear gender related differences featured in the surveys. Women were found to be more likely to worry about crime, but also to be twice as likely to worry about violent crime compared to men (ONS 2014 as cited by Newburn, 2017) This continued theme that some individuals suffer crime more than others is termed Repeat victimization, where it was found that crime is unevenly distributed both socially and geographically (Doerner and Lab, 2010).

Victims, until recently have been a minimal part of the criminal justice system. Dignan (2005 as cited by Newburn 2017) described the developments of the past three decades as an era of ‘disenfranchisement’ and that victims of crime have often been treated with neglect and sometimes with harsh and insensitive treatment. However, only in the past three decades has there been increased government attention towards the victims of crime, resulting in a substantial amount of services aimed towards meeting victim needs, and just as important, victim rights. Compensation schemes, also known associated with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995 were of the first actions that formally recognised the needs of victims (Legislation.gov.uk, 2019). The CICA uses the notion that ‘blameless’ victims are more worthy of compensation, of which is judged by the claimant’s convictions. Unlike routine activity and lifestyle theory, the victim’s actions as a result of the criminal injury does not apply, more so that the moral worth of the individual is a deciding factor of if they are deserving of public money (Miers 2007 as cited by Newburn 2017).

Victim rights, regarding the status of victims was first formally addressed in the form of the Victim’s Charter in 1990 (Ministry Of Justice, 2012). The second Victims Charter, had a serious impact on the status of victims, covering the police responsibilities regarding providing information, and complaint procedures if victims felt that standards were not met (Ministry Of Justice, 2012). Furthermore, in 2002, the Home Office published a paper titled justice for all with the sole aim of ‘rebalancing’ the criminal justice system in favour of victims, witness’s and communities (Ministry Of Justice, 2002). The research conducted by early feminist theorists has had a large influence in informing policy agenda in relation to understanding victimization. As cited by Walklate (2006), the success of this influence is demonstrated by the changes within legislature, regarding the introduction of Sexual Offenses Act 2003, and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. While this is a testament to those who have fought for feminism, the relationship between feminist ideas and Victimology isn’t without its own issues. The most well-known of these being tied with the previously mentioned ‘Ideal Victim’, specifically the labelling of women as either a victim, or a survivor, and how that label had wider connotations with an individual appearing weak, a theme common in positivist victimology.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 allowed for the publication of a Code of Practice for Victims of Crime. The latest iteration of this code sets out many entitlements for victims, including information on what to expect from the criminal justice system, a formal confirmation of reporting a crime, referral to organisations that support victims of crime and more. This code also includes the ability to create a Victim Personal Statement allowing for the opportunity to explain how the crime has affected them, making it possible to adjust procedures in relation to feedback and experiences. While these changes within the criminal justice system propose a positive change towards the status of victims, it’s described by Dignan (2005, as cited by Newburn, 2017, p.392) as “partial enfranchisement at best”, with the influence of Christie’s previously mentioned ideal victim still being prevalent in some policy initiatives. Dignan (2005 as cited by Newburn, 2017, p.392) goes on to further state that criminal justice has failed victims, as it doesn’t associate victims as those who suffered harm as the result of a crime. To conclude, whilst there are still shortcomings regarding how the justice system handles victimization; it’s vastly more supportive and accommodative compared to half a century ago. The theorists mentioned in this essay, both positivist and feminist, have had a large impact on the status of victims, and the support available today would not have been possible without their influence. The balance between victim entitlement and an adversarial system must be kept as equal and as fair as possible, and with the introduction of papers such as Victims Strategy, the status of victims should only improve more and more (GOV.UK, 2018).

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