Men more likely to victim-blame women who are sexually harassed as they have greater empathy for male perpetrators

A new study debunks the widely assumed argument that men lack empathy for female victims as researchers find that empathy for the male sexual harasser is a more consistent explanation

Despite movements such as #MeToo, women still fear the negative consequences of making a sexual harassment complaint. Many women face victim-blaming attitudes when they do, especially from men.

Such victim-blaming continues to make it very difficult for women who are sexually harassed to come forward and get a fair hearing when they do.

Scientists now have an answer to the question as to why women are blamed for being sexually harassed. They found that men’s empathy for other men who sexually harass women is the reason why they are more likely to blame victims.

The research shows that empathetic attitude for a male perpetrator - where men are much more likely to view things from the perpetrator’s point of view - contributes to increased victim-blame in a clear case of sexual harassment.

According to the researchers from the universities of Exeter, Queensland, and Bath, their findings highlight a dark side to empathy. They say while perpetrator empathy is typically higher in men (when considering male perpetrators), but it can be increased among women when they are shown the point of view of a male perpetrator.

The researchers say a greater focus on this negative side to empathy is warranted to understand why women, who are victims of sexual harassment, are often blamed, rather than supported when they experience abuse.

“Men blamed the victim more than women (in our study), which was explained by their greater empathy for the male perpetrator but not lesser empathy for the female victim. These findings are based on a clear-cut case of sexual harassment, whereby the male perpetrator admitted to most of the alleged behaviors, and participants recognized his behaviors were sexual harassment. It suggests that male perpetrator empathy may be equally or more important than female-victim empathy for explaining victim blame for sexual harassment,” the researchers say in their findings published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

“Media reports of sexual harassment - especially involving male perpetrators - often focus on their point of view and the potential damage to their lives for being outed as a sexual harasser. Our findings point to the damaging consequences of that focus for female victims. To improve responding, everyone but especially men, should be mindful that their empathy for a male sexual harasser can increase their likelihood of blaming women for being sexually harassed,” says Dr. Renata Bongiorno from the University of Exeter, who led the research.

Gender differences in attitudes toward sexual harassment

According to researchers, women and men tend to have different attitudes and beliefs about sexual harassment and how it affects women.

Reviews suggest that unless the behavior is extreme - such as sexual coercion - men are much less likely than women to perceive it as sexual harassment.

“For instance, men are much less likely than women to consider derogatory remarks or dating pressure (for example, unwanted, repeated requests for a date) as sexual harassment. Men are also more likely than women to believe that women fabricate or exaggerate sexual-harassment claims, have ulterior motives for filing a complaint, or are to blame for being sexually harassed due to behaving or dressing in a provocative manner or failing to clearly discourage men’s sexual advances,” says the study. 

Men are likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the male perpetrator. The reason, explain the researchers, is that as people derive an important part of their identities from their existing social groups, they are motivated to evaluate their ingroups as positive and moral.

Men may believe, for example, that the male perpetrator did not mean to cause harm, that what occurred was based on a misunderstanding, or that the allegations are false - accounts that are frequently provided by men defending allegations of sexual harassment in court.

Men are likely to give the benefit of the doubt to the male perpetrator. The reason, explain the researchers, is that as people derive an important part of their identities from their existing social groups, they are motivated to evaluate their ingroups as positive and moral (Getty Images)

“Accusations of ingroup wrong-doing, as in the case of a man’s sexual harassment of a woman, may pose a threat to men’s sense of their gender group as moral. To reduce this threat, men may afford male perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and interpret events in a way that is biased toward that perpetrator’s perspective,” says the study.

Empathy for perpetrators helps explain victim-blaming

The research, based on two studies, compared people’s reactions after reading about an incident of sexual harassment.

“The goal of this research was to examine how empathy - both for a female victim of sexual harassment and for a male perpetrator - influences men’s and women’s likelihood of blaming the victim for being harassed,” says the study.

In the first study, the team chose the context of female students being sexually harassed by male students within a higher-education setting.

Participants were self-identified male and female Australian university students, who responded to a ‘vignette’ describing a female student’s serious allegation of sexual harassment against a male student living in the same residential college.

Findings reveal that men and women showed equal levels of empathy for the female victim - but men’s greater empathy for the male perpetrator explained why they were more likely than women to blame the victim.

The findings debunk what is widely assumed that men lack empathy for female victims and hence, blame them. 

“In study 1, men’s greater tendency to endorse victim-blame was explained by their greater empathy for the male perpetrator but not by their lesser empathy for the female victim. This finding suggests that men need not feel lesser empathy for a female victim than women to feel relatively greater empathy for a male perpetrator and to thereby be more likely than women to blame a woman for being sexually harassed,” the findings state.

The second study was an experiment where people were asked to focus on the man’s or the woman’s point of view before reading the same information.

Analysis from the second study shows that both men and women who focused on the male perpetrator’s point of view showed greater empathy for him and blamed the female victim more.

“Consistent with this view, we found that male and female participants asked to take the perspective of the male student accused of sexual harassment, rather than the female student who had been the target of abuse, reported relatively greater empathy for the male perpetrator and relatively less empathy for the female victim, with both helping to explain their greater tendency to blame the victim,” says the study.

The research team says that beyond gender, the implications of other factors such as the national and ethnic backgrounds of the victim and perpetrator should also be examined.

“The #MeToo campaign has highlighted the extent to which the sexual harassment of women by men is an ongoing obstacle to gender equality. Adequately responding to this form of abuse relies on understanding and ultimately overcoming victim-blaming and other related attitudes, which are more likely to be endorsed by men than women,” the research team recommends.

The researchers say additional efforts that may be effective for reducing empathy for male perpetrators include challenging media reports that give undue prominence to their professional accomplishments or that focus on how the man’s life will be negatively affected if there is a finding of sexual violence against him.

Another important implication from their findings for male perpetrator empathy is that they can be used to improve how complaints of sexual harassment are handled within universities and other organizations. 

“To ensure that appropriate action is taken against male harassers, organizations may need to implement training to ensure that decisionmakers, who are often other men, are made aware of this potential bias and trained to not be unduly influenced by their empathy for that perpetrator. Additional steps to ensure a collegial relationship does not exist between decisionmakers and the accused are also likely to be necessary. This may be especially important in cases where students are sexually harassed by members of staff, and concern for the fellow staff member (and their career) outweighs concern for the welfare of students,” the findings state.

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