Victim is an important word because it links often traumatic personal or group experiences in contemporary societies to frameworks that understand such experiences and respond to them through public policy, political advocacy, and in wider public debate. The etymology of victim is straightforward: the word comes from Latin victima. Its first sense is that of a sacrificial offering, and this strong sense is made stronger by the identification of the sacrificial offering and thus the victim as Christ. By C17, however, it has developed the more general meaning “a person who is put to death or subjected to torture by another; one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment.” These strong meanings developed into a general sense of a passive recipient of misfortune. While in earlier uses such misfortune has been regarded as individual or random, there has been a concerted attempt in recent years to use the word as a route to political empowerment as the status of victim becomes structural. 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 of 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 justice.
These recent developments depend on more recent meanings recorded in the OED: “One who is reduced or destined to suffer under some oppressive or destructive agency,” 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 definitions of a victim as “a person who has complained of the commission of an offence against themselves or their property” (Crown Prosecution Service). This wider definition encompasses, for example, the relatives of murder victims, including partners or parents when the victim is a child. 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 the recent widespread use of both victimization and victimhood, both of which are C19 coinages and show a remarkable increase in frequency after 1980. They both capture 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 problem 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 inflicted 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.” This increase in the use of victim as a political category has drawn harsh criticism. For example, there has been an argument that there has been a victims’ 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.
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 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 toward crime, which may explain the word’s increased frequency in use. The 1960s and 1970s saw increasing recognition of the needs of victims of crime. Victim support (attested from 1973) became the name for specific schemes, and victim compensation programs 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 onward, by contrast, victims have 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 center of criminal justice might also be traced to a rise in popular punitiveness, and the belief of some on the right that offenders have been accorded too many rights at the expense of the victims.
According to David Garland’s The Culture of Control (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” (11). 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 have 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