The MeToo movement has highlighted the widespread problem of men’s sexual harassment of women, and the common phenomenon of victim blaming. A new research based on two studies reveals the impact of misplaced empathy.
The dark side of empathy
Although our society has made some progress, we still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment. It happens disarmingly often, in all environments, and typically gets unpunished.
Women are usually reluctant to make a sexual-harassment complaint — and when they do, they often encounter victim-blaming attitudes, especially from men. To highlight these attitudes and the dark side of the empathy that fuels them, researchers devised two studies.
In the first study, participants responded to a story about a male student’s harassment of a female student. Men blamed the victim more than women, which researchers interpret through a greater empathy for the male perpetrator and not lesser empathy for the female victim (as is the conventional knowledge).
In the second study, participants were asked to focus on either the man’s or the woman’s point of view in the same situation. Both men and women tended to focus on the male perpetrator’s perspective, again indicating greater empathy for men, which suggests greater empathy for the perpetrator. Again, taking the man’s perspective leads to more female blaming.
“It is widely assumed that a lack of empathy for female victims explains why people blame them, but we actually found that empathy for the male sexual harasser was a more consistent explanation of variability in victim blame.
It’s important to note that overall, victim blaming wasn’t high overall — but the fact that it exists at significant levels (something which has also been consistent with past research) is concerning. This is where societal interventions can be carried out, researchers stress.
“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,” Dr. Bongiorno added.
In addition to policy and media awareness, it’s important that each and every one of us is aware of these effects.
“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. And victim-blame continues to make it very difficult for women who are sexually harassed to come forward and get a fair hearing when they do.”
The study “Why Women Are Blamed for Being Sexually Harassed: The Effects of Empathy for Female Victims and Male Perpetrators” has been published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.