Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Victim

Victim is an important word because it links often traumatic personal or group experiences in contemporary societies to frameworks of belief drawn on by professionals in different fields, as well as by other users of the word, in understanding such experiences and responding to them through public policy, political advocacy, and in wider public debate. In the word’s most general sense, a victim is an individual who is a passive recipient of misfortune.  That individual might become a victim as the indirect and unlooked for result of his or her own actions (e.g. the victim of a beheading or resulting from an addiction).   Or he or she might be the victim of a random misfortune, whether of disease or accident.  More recently, and contentiously, some groups and individuals have used the word as a route to political empowerment.  Governments have also chosen to endow victims with an active role in addressing their misfortune; this is most evident in some criminal justice systems, where the issue then arises whether such ‘victims’ have been given a power to override not only the rights of offenders but also the ability of the state itself to administer balanced justice.

The etymology of victim is straightforward: the word comes from Latin victima (which carried closely related meanings to the earliest English usage).  The 1917 edition of OED lists two main senses: OED sense 1, ‘a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power’, from 15c but not attested after mid 19c  (and with a distinct 18-19c theological sub-meaning, that of ‘Christ as an offering for mankind’); and OED sense 2, from 17c onwards, ‘a person put to death or subjected to torture by another; one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment.’  This second sense may further denote (OED sense 2b), ‘one who is reduced or destined to suffer under some oppressive or destructive agency’, ‘one who perishes or suffers in health from a voluntary enterprise’ and  ‘in a weaker sense: one who suffers some injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated or taken advantage of, etc.’  The last of these meanings, the ‘weaker sense’, accords most closely with contemporary legal definition of a victim as ‘a person who has complained of the commission of an offence against themselves or their property.’  This wider definition encompasses for example the relatives of murder victims, including partners or parents when the victim is a child.   Arguably, what all these meanings share is the concept that an individual victim has become a victim through the agency either of some specific individual, or a particular event, or some other outside influence.  Perhaps this idea is best summed in a phrase also recorded in OED: ‘to fall victim to’, as in the admonition, “Don’t fall victim to a scam” (Daily Telegraph, 28 June 2013).  

Use of victim remained fairly steady over the past century and a half, but has increased massively over the last thirty years.  This is almost certainly because individuals (and groups) have come to be identified as victims not because (or not only because) of what has happened to them but rather because of who they are.   One reflection of this change of emphasis is widespread use of victimisation (from 1840), which suggests that the suffering of the victim is both ongoing and impersonal.  Together with the word victimhood (attested 1862), this cluster of terms  captures the notion, dating from the 1970s, that a victim might be an individual or group caught in what has been characterized as an ‘asymmetric power relationship’. For example, the concept of shared victimhood became central to feminist debate in the 1980s, with the result that domestic abuse, and the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with this phenomenon effectively, came to be seen as a reflection of a prevailing, asymmetric power relationship rather than (or as well as) the result of an individual criminal act. 

Increasingly the identity of a victim has been transformed from being a passive attribute to one voluntarily adopted. This is clear in the claim to victim status made by some groups as a means of establishing a claim to greater rights, stronger protection, or, in the case of affirmative action, preferential treatment.   The notion of victim-status has sometimes been described as providing the basis for ‘identity politics’. According to J. D. Mandle, in “How Political is the Personal?: Identity Politics, Feminism and Social Change”, groups claiming victim status, including ethnic and religious minorities and disabled groups among others, ‘made rights, status and privilege claims on the basis of a victimized identity.’  Responses to such claims have been characterised as victim hatred, or victim envy, or where more positive as stemming from a stance of  anti-victimisation. One example of such a response is Dinesh D’Souza’s, Illiberal Education:  The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991), which argued that there has been a victim’s revolution on US campuses, privileging appeasement of minority student groups in the interests of political correctness at the expense of freedom of thought and speech, sometimes making victims of those academics who do not adhere to a politically correct code.   Ironically, some those who have most firmly rejected the notion of victimhood as a reason for privileging the interests of minority groups have argued that the result of according such status to these groups has led to themselves becoming victims, perhaps nowhere more commonly than among critics of affirmative action.       
The notion that victimhood arises from structural inequalities has also been rejected from other positions. Instead it has been suggested that adopting victim-status may lead individuals to a passive acceptance of their ‘victimhood’.  By the 1990s, some feminists (such as Naomi Wolf) were rejecting the idea of what was termed victim feminism for presenting women as passive and helpless in the face of male domination and aggression.  One result of such reaction against the notion of women as victims has been preference for use of survivor, rather than victim, in describing those who have been subjected to male violence. 

Over the last several decades, victim has acquired an active role in shaping contemporary attitudes towards crime, which may explain the word’s increased frequency in use.  The 1960s and 70s saw increasing recognition of the needs of victims of crime by academics across a range of disciplines, including in the sub-genre of victimologyVictim support (attested from 1973) became the name for specific schemes, and victim compensation programmes also began to be established at around the same time. Such initiatives continue, however, to see the victim in the traditional sense, as the passive object of a criminal act.  From the 1980s onwards, by contrast, victimshave increasingly been viewed as important actors in the criminal justice system in their own right.  On the left, arguments were advanced that the criminal justice system not only often overlooked the plight of the victim but that traditional punishments did little to assist either the individual victim, or the community, or indeed the offender.  This view lies behind the widespread introduction of restorative justice schemes in many developed countries, allowing the victim to both interrogate the perpetrator and at times to dictate the recompense made.  But this placing the victim at the centre of criminal justice might also be traced to a rise in popular punitiveness, and the belief of some on the right that offenders has been accorded too many rights at the expense of the victim.  According to David Garland’s The Culture of Control (Oxford: OUP, 2001), under the influence of popular punitiveness the victim is no longer seen as an ‘unfortunate citizen who has been on the receiving end of a criminal harm’, but rather as a ‘representative character, whose experience is taken to be common and collective, rather than individual and atypical.’ The consequence, for Garland, has been an erosion of the protection given to offenders, since in a ‘zero sum game’ any rights given to the offender are taken away from the victim; and a spate of laws which were agitated for have significantly carried the names of victims: e.g. Megan’s Law in the US; Sarah’s Law in the UK.   A Victim’s Charter was also enacted by the UK government in 1996, setting out what victims might expect from the criminal justice system and introducing use of victims’ statements before sentencing.

If we are all victims now, however, not all victims are equal. Young men, while most likely to be victims of crime, are often depicted as the threatening ‘other’ to pose against the image of the innocent victim, perhaps because they are also most likely to offend.Furthermore, while in the West adopting the identity of thevictim has proved a useful political tool in promoting the rights of minorities, it must also be remembered that in much of the developing world the victims of structural inequality do not have the luxury of such a choice.