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Victim services

Hidden victimhood

A person picks up a Catch22 Justice booklet from a chair. Overlaid is text that reads: "Wisdom Wednesdays: Justice Blog Series".

Katherine Fuentes Dominguez, Head of Service for Nottinghamshire Victim Care, shares her insight on the perception of victims and what is meant by ‘hidden victims’.

“I started working for Catch22 in 2015 in their new victim service in Leicester, Victim First, before moving to the Nottinghamshire service, Victim Care in 2017. What attracted me to a job with Catch22 was the sense that we could do things differently. Catch22’s approach to supporting individuals really appealed to me too; not putting service users in boxes – ‘offender’ or ‘victim’ – just individuals, who have needs, that we could help.”

What is hidden victimhood?

Hidden victimhood is what happens when society develops a profile of what a victim should look like – how they behave, what sorts of crime they experience, and what their background might be. Those who fall outside of this definition can end up struggling to self-identify as a victim or feel they won’t be viewed favourably as a victim and are therefore less likely to access support as a result. This means these ‘hidden victims’ aren’t receiving the support they need.

We’ve seen this borne out in our data from victim services: lack of engagement with particular communities; a reluctance to report certain crimes; institutional barriers to criminal justice for certain groups, and mistrust of the criminal justice system in general.

What is the public perception of a victim?

The Victim’s Code of Practice (2015) defines a victim as ‘A natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence; a close relative of a person whose death was directly caused by a criminal offence.’ This definition is clear, uncontroversial, and neutral in its language. It should make ‘victimhood’ an unproblematic concept. However, this typically isn’t the case.

People rarely like to refer to themselves as a ‘victim’ – it attracts negative connotations, weakness, fragility, or even the suggestion of self-pity. We see some professionals shy away from using the word – most notably with victims of sexual violence or domestic violence. These victims are usually referred to as ‘survivors’, especially in the criminal justice system. So how have we gotten to a place where the word victim is being abandoned by even professionals familiar with the legal definition?

As a society, we’ve always been fascinated by stories of crime and punishment and want to see justice served – but in today’s media sphere, stories must compete for attention. This has led to simplifying these stories – where the complexities and nuances of the circumstances get lost, and the focus is given to a ‘deserving’ victim that readers want to champion and have sympathy for.

So, what makes a victim sympathetic? Norwegian Criminologist Nils Christie proposed that there is an ‘Ideal Victim’ – one that is blameless, vulnerable, respectable, not associated with the offender, and able to capitalise on their role as a victim. Those who fall outside of these criteria, are then by default ‘unacceptable’ as victims, and would be, according to Christie, seen as phonies or undeserving of sympathy.

This black and white view of deserving or undeserving victims has given rise to a range of responses when people are presented with the ‘wrong’ sort of victimhood. The reaction to ‘undeserving victimhood’ usually manifests itself in public discourse in the following ways:

  • Victim blaming – What was she wearing? Why was he walking there?
  • Toxic masculinity – ‘Man up’ – physical trauma ok/emotional trauma is not
  • View of crime as an ‘occupational hazard’ – sex workers being raped, rough sleepers attacked
  • The false perception of choice – Why didn’t she just leave him?
  • Myth of common sense – fraud victims portrayed as ‘mugs’ or ‘fools’ for getting scammed
  • No agency/invisible victims – victims who don’t exist in public discourse – modern day slavery, trafficking, those who can’t speak English

How does this affect a victim’s self-perception?

By seeing ideal victimhood championed and unsympathetic victims vilified, we internalise these messages.

When we do experience a crime, but cannot fit the ideal victim profile, it breeds a sense of shame. Shame is defined as ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour’ – in this case, it’s the internalised message that you are somehow responsible for your victimisation.

When shame is multiplied across communities, it becomes stigmatised and talked about less and less. This in turn creates isolation for those victims, which results in secondary victimisation, caused by a lack of support. It is this repeated pattern of shame, stigma and isolation that results in certain communities or people avoiding the criminal justice process, so they don’t receive justice and become hidden victims.

What is the impact of hidden victimhood?

Some of the most vulnerable people in society are not receiving the help they need and are entitled to. Research tells us that the dominant views of victimhood in society have already impacted on how victims are treated in the criminal justice system:

What can we do about it?

We need to overcome the perceptions of victims that have become embedded in society. To achieve this, we need to:

  • Examine our own bias – how have media perceptions affected us?
  • Challenge others when they express views that perpetuate shame.
  • Listen to wider perspectives and escape the echo chamber of our social circles and social media feed.
  • Champion others so they can ask for support.

We then need to ensure that we promote visible victimhood by:

  • Identifying the communities around us – who are we meant to be engaging with?
  • Engaging meaningfully with them – on their terms, ask what they need from us.
  • Empowering them by stepping back and listening to their perspectives.
  • Make co-design and co-production of services a genuine priority.

In Nottinghamshire Victim CARE, we have developed our ‘Community Point Programme’, which aims to link up with organisations of all sizes across the region, to increase our outreach capabilities. We’ve seen an increase in awareness of victims’ rights, what support they can expect, and have empowered communities to access our support.