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Targets of Predators and victimization

Why is the concept of victim precipitation so controversial? Do you feel the concept is adequately supported by evidence?

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Victim precipitation is controversial because it is subjective - defined by the person investigating and often based on the perpetrator's interpretation of the events, rather than facts.

Sometimes, victim precipitation is the only indicator that there had been prior violence.

Victim precipitation is based on the belief that the victim provoked the crime - such as a girl who may have been flirting with a guy and the man then rapes her - he can claim that she was coming on to him.

Victimology is the study of victims as caught up in an asymmetric relationship or situation. "Asymmetry" means anything unbalanced, exploitative, parasitical, oppressive, destructive, alienating, or having inherent suffering. Victimology is all about power differentials, and much more (see Victimology Lecture Notes for all that the field consists of). Any harm to a victim can be physical, psychological, or economic. Arguably the most violent of all criminal harms, serial killing, generally involves the desire to possess everything the victim has, deriving satisfaction from doing all kinds of harm. There are many kinds of victims. Besides "primary victims," there are also "secondary crime victims" who experience the harm second hand, such as intimate partners, family members, or significant others. Some serial killers want to cause harm among these people also. It even makes sense to talk about harm to "tertiary crime victims" who experience it vicariously, through the media or from watching television. Some serial killers seek the notoriety that comes from media exposure. Let's take a look at all the possible ways a person can harm another:

1. Physical abuse -- hitting, punching, pulling hair, slapping, grabbing, biting, kicking, bruising, burning, twisting, throwing, and of course, killing.
2. Sexual abuse -- any unwanted sexual contact, sexual intercourse without consent, rape, forced sexual perversion, forced unprotected sex, and forced sex with other people or animals.
3. Verbal abuse -- derogatory comments, insults, humiliations, or constant put-downs, usually with the victim told they are not physically attractive, inferior, incompetent, unable to succeed on their own, and are not a good role model. The intent is to keep the victim under total control.
4. Psychological/Emotional Abuse -- manipulation and/or intimidation intended to destroy the other's self-esteem or sense of self, usually over long periods of time, including but not limited to destroying or depriving someone of self-esteem, property, personal needs, food or sleep, and the comforts of pets.
5. Spiritual abuse -- spiritual abuse occurs as a deep sense of betrayal by religious traditions or other moral agents of the community when the victim feels that faith did not protect them or that the moral code of society has failed for them.
6. Economic abuse -- insisting they turn over their money, possessions, or wealth, having them beg for necessities, giving them insufficient allowance for basics, or refusing to let them participate in things.
7. Social abuse -- Jokes, criticisms, or put-downs, usually about appearance, sexuality, or intelligence; false accusations, suspiciousness, constant monitoring and control of victim's activities or access to information; isolation.

Basically, victimologists are people who study the above behaviors and the characteristics of people who are vulnerable to them, and the characteristics of people who are capable of resistance. Mendelsohn (1937), an early victimologist, interviewed victims to obtain his data, and his analysis led him to believe that most victims had an "unconscious aptitude for being victimized." He created a typology of six (6) victim types, with only the first type, the innocent, portrayed as being innocent, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other five types, the vast majority of victims, all somehow contributed to their own victimization, and this idea was termed victim precipitation. The notion of victim precipitation has been a controversial notion in criminology, but it should be noted that courts frequently recognize it as a mitigating circumstance, so it is somewhat enshrined in law more than it is in criminology.

Von Hentig (1948), another early victimologist, also studied victims, and found that the most likely type of victim is the "depressive type" -- an easy target, careless and unsuspecting. The "greedy type" is easily duped because his or her motivation for easy gain lowers his or her natural tendency to be suspicious. The "wanton type" is particularly vulnerable to stresses that occur at a given period of time in the life cycle, such as with juveniles or prostitutes. Serial killers tend to prey on wanton or vulnerable types. Von Hentig's work provided the foundation for analysis of victim-precipitation that is still somewhat evident in the literature today. Wolfgang's research (1958) followed this lead and later theorized that "many victim-precipitated homicides were, in fact, caused by the unconscious desire of the victims to commit suicide." Schafer's theoretical work (1968) also represented how victimology invested a substantial amount of its energy to the study of how victims contribute - knowingly or unknowingly -- to their own victimization, and potential ways they may share responsibility with offenders for specific crimes. In fact, Schafer's book, The Victim and His Criminal, from this approach, is supposed to be a corrective to Von Hentig's book, The Criminal and His Victim. Modern criminologists such as Fattah (1991) have defended the idea of victim-precipitation, arguing that in a rigorously pursued, value-free social science there is no reason why it should entail victim blaming. Although it has been used carelessly in the past, Fattah (1991) argues that the concept is a sound explanatory tool best understood by the notion of "transaction" in which both offender and victim play a role. Unfortunately, however, the tendency for victim-precipitation studies to lead to victim blaming has undermined this area's potential and attracted only criticism. "Transaction" studies are still occasionally seen in criminology, however.


Over the years, many academics have come to think about victim precipitation in a negative light; as nothing more than "victim blaming." Research into ways in which victims "contribute" to their own victimization is considered by victims and victim advocates as both unacceptable and destructive. Yet a few enduring models and near-theories exist. Let's mention two or three of them:

1. Luckenbill's (1977) Situated Transaction Model - This one is commonly found in the field of sociology of deviance. The idea is that at the interpersonal level, crime and victimization is a contest of character. The stages go like this: (1) insult - "Your Momma"; (2) clarification - "Whaddya say about my Momma"; (3) retaliation - "I said your Momma and you too"; (4) counter retaliation - "Well, you're worse than me or my Momma"; (5) presence of weapon - search for a weapon or clenching of fists; (6) onlookers - presence of audience helping to escalate the situation.

2. Benjamin & Master's Threefold Model - This one is found in some mainstream criminological literature. The idea is that conditions supporting crime can be classified into three general categories: (1) precipitating factors - time, space, being in the wrong place at the wrong time; (2) attracting factors - choices, options, lifestyles (the sociological expression "lifestyle" refers to daily routine activities as well as special events one engages in on a predictable basis); (3) predisposing factors - all the socio-demographic characteristics of victims, being male, being young, being poor, being a minority, living in squalor, being single, being unemployed. It has the advantage of being very similar to the components of a good, parsimonious theory in criminology; one which points to (a) background or antecedent factors; (b) intervening or motivating factors; and (c) triggering factors.

3. Cohen & Felson's (1979) Routine Activities Theory - This one is quite popular and highly regarded by most criminologists, and briefly, it says that crime occurs whenever three conditions configure or come together: (1) suitable targets - the presence of vulnerable potential victims; (2) motivated offenders - people who will try to get away with something if they can; and (3) absence of guardians - a lack of defensible spaces (natural surveillance areas) and the absence of private security, since the government can't do the job alone.

The phenomena that criminals and victims often have the same socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., are in relatively the same age group) is known as the propinquity hypothesis; and that criminals and victims often live in physical proximity to one another is called the proximity hypothesis.

Most victimological theories fall into one of three rough categories:

Psychopathology theory
The offender is seen as a mentally disturbed individual, also usually suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, who is venting frustration or anger at a target. The victim is also seen as mentally disturbed who somehow induced the offender to harm them.

Feminist theory
The offender is seen as acting upon the current patriarchal (male dominated) makeup of society. The victim is seen as historically socialized to accept this, keep quiet about it, and take what they deserve.

Learning theory
Three variations: (1) inter-generational transmission of violence - in which adults learn it by having seen it as a child; (2) learned helplessness -in which victimization occurs because of economic and emotional dependency; and (3) cycle of violence - in which both victim are caught up in a tension - dis inhibition cycle.

There's no one good theory in victimology. The cycle of violence theory tends to apply well with repeaters, since one thing that both repeat victims and repeat offenders both share in common is denial and minimization, common to all addictive-like cycles. However, certain versions of the cycle of violence theory have had problems holding up in court (see Lecture on Forensic Victimology or more specifically, the Lecture on Psychology of Family Violence). Scientific prediction of violence is a rather inexact science that ...

Solution Summary

Why the concept of victim precipitation is controversial.