Sexual Harassment: Men's Empathy for Abusers Would Explain "Victim Blame"

After hearing a story of sexual harassment, men would tend to put themselves in the shoes of the abuser, which could lead to blame for the female victim, critics say. According to them, this could explain why so many women still hesitate to complain.

Since the revelations about the Harvey Weinstein affair in October 2017 and the #MeToo and #Balancetonporc movements that followed, it seems that speech is more free in people who have been harassed or sexually assaulted. According to a French IFOP survey published nearly a year later, 86% of respondents admitted to having been the victim, at least once, of a form of sexual assault or assault on the street.

And while the number of complaints of rape and sexual assault recorded by law enforcement increased by nearly 17% and 20% in 2018 respectively, many women are still afraid to cross the line, especially because of the image that it could send back from them and reproaches they might receive. Researchers from the Universities of Exeter, Queensland and Bath have studied the subject. According to their study published Sunday, August 18 in the journal Psychology of Women QuarterlyMen's empathy for sex offenders could explain why they tend to blame the victim.

To reach this conclusion, researchers conducted two studies of 230 Australian students who were asked to read a clear incident of sexual harassment. The story, developed by the scientists, was about a student harassed by a student on the same campus. For several months, the young man had made unwanted advances, tapping on his buttocks, putting his arms around his waist or sending him pornographic photos and demanding that she do the same. On several occasions, after drinking, he knocked on his door asking for "a hug" and then insulted her when she refused to open. When the girl finally denounced him to the University, the student admitted most of the allegations but assured him that he was joking. He also explained that he had no intention of upsetting her, convinced that she was "loving that attention".

Focus on the victim's point of view

In the first study, participants of both sexes showed equivalent levels of empathy towards the victim. However, men put themselves more in the abuser's shoes and tended to blame the girl a little more than women.

For researchers, this reinforces the theory of social identity that members of a group are more likely to identify with and apologize to other members of the same group.

In the second study, the researchers asked the participants to focus on how this story could affect the life of the boy or girl who was trying to move forward. They then noted that the men and women who had focused on the abuser's point of view had shown greater empathy for him and more blamed the victim. On the other hand, when they asked them to focus on her point of view, participants of both sexes gave her less reproach.

The negative aspect of empathy

This research shows the negative aspect of empathy. "Despite movements like #MeToo, women are still scared of the negative consequences of a sexual harassment complaint," says Dr. Renata Bongiorno, from the University of Exeter who led the research. "Many women are blamed for things when they do, especially on the part of men," she laments.

And continue: "It is generally assumed that a lack of empathy for female victims explains why people are blaming them, but we have actually found that empathy with the male sexual harasser is a more consistent explanation of the variability of Blame the victim (...) Media reports about sexual harassment - especially those involving men - often focus on their point of view and the damage to their lives after being reported as a sexual stalker ".

"Our results highlight the harmful consequences of this approach for female victims," ​​warns the scientist. Because this "continues to make it very difficult for women who are victims of sexual harassment to file a complaint and get a fair hearing when they do."

However, not all is so dark, since this research also revealed that the "blame of the victim" among men decreased when asked to apprehend a situation from a woman's point of view. A possible way to mobilize both sexes against harassment and sexual assault, Bongiorno hopes.

70% of rape complaints filed in France

In France, 70% of rape complaints - 60% for minors - are dismissed. "The most frequent rapes are those most at risk of being dismissed, such as rape without violence, rape by partner, rape of young children, paternal incest rape denounced by mothers, Rape on disabled people, marginalized, "says psychiatrist Muriel Salmona, a specialist in sexual violence, at the site bastamag.net in an article devoted to the subject in 2017.

The main explanation for this ranking is the lack of clarity of the story. Believing that they do not have enough elements, the magistrates often decide not to pursue the case. Another reason and not least: the prescription, which allows many attackers to fall between the cracks. While it was 10 years for rapes and attempted rapes on adults and 20 years after the majority for minors, the government has recently extended ten years in both cases.

"This lengthening will give victims the necessary time to denounce the facts, and takes into account the phenomenon of traumatic amnesia," he wrote then on its official website in October 2018. But despite these changes, several associations continue to demand the imprescriptibility of sexual violence.