Men may be more likely to victim-blame women who are sexually harassed because they are more empathetic with the perpetrators, new research suggests.
When asked to respond to a “clear-cut” example of sexual harassment, male students showed greater empathy with the male perpetrator than female students, according to researchers from the universities of Exeter, Bath and Queensland, Australia.
Previously, it has been suggested that a lack of empathy with victims explains the tendency to victim-blame, but the authors said identifying with the male harasser was a more “consistent” indicator.
They looked at the responses of more than 100 Queensland students to a scenario where a male student harassed a female student over a prolonged period of time, later admitting to the majority of accusations when she reported his behaviour.
While overall victim-blaming was not high, they found that the male participants who blamed the victim more than women had greater empathy for the male perpetrator.
Using the same scenario, the students were asked to take either the perpetrator or victim’s perspective.
Regardless of their gender, those who took the perspective of the perpetrator were more likely to victim-blame the female student.
The researchers say the study highlights a dark side to empathy.
They wrote: “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 towards that perpetrator’s perspective.
“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.”
A fear of being blamed contributes to low rates of reporting of sexual harassment and victim-blaming can be seen as a form of secondary victimisation, the paper said.
The researchers said the scenario presented to the students was of “clear-cut” harassment, warning that less straightforward cases may lead to increased empathy with the male perpetrator and, therefore, greater levels of blame toward female victims.
Challenging myths that women provoke sexual harassment from men, or are often dishonest about their experiences, could help reduce empathy for male offenders, they believe.
Media reports that give “undue prominence” to male offenders’ professional accomplishments and how their lives could be negatively affected by being linked to harassment should also be challenged.
The paper warns that, when harassment occurs in institutional settings, such as a student being harassed by a teacher, training should be provided to make male decisionmakers aware of the potential bias.
They also believe that perpetrator empathy may help explain a lack of support for victims of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, adding: “It would be valuable to examine whether concern for the perpetrator’s predicament—in addition to a lack of empathy for victims—can help explain inadequate support received by victims more generally.”
The paper is published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.