Victim Blame and the Disinhibition of Sexual Arousal to Rape Vignettes

By Sundberg, S. L.; Barbaree, H. E. et al. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Victim Blame and the Disinhibition of Sexual Arousal to Rape Vignettes


Sundberg, S. L., Barbaree, H. E., Marshall, W. L., Violence and Victims


The present study examined the effects of differing levels of victim blame on the sexual arousal of males to rape vignettes. In the first experiment, a between-subjects experimental design was used to compare four groups of eight university males for their erectile responses to vignettes rated as low, medium, and high along a victim blame continuum. All groups found a consenting vignette more arousing than a nonconsenting vignette, however, this difference was significantly smaller for subjects in the high blame condition compared to the low and medium blame conditions. A second experiment supported the disinhibiting effect of the high victim blame manipulation using 12 university males in a within-subjects experimental design. The disinhibiting influence of victim blame on male sexual arousal to rape cues was discussed in relation to our broader understanding of sexual assault.

Feminist writers have identified misconceptions concerning rape which are prevalent in our society (Brownmiller, 1975; Clarke & Lewis, 1977; Russell, 1984). Surveys of rapesupportive beliefs among the public have demonstrated the widespread acceptance of such assumptions (Burt, 1980; Field, 1978). One such widely held belief is that rape victims play a role in their own victimization (Field, 1978; Field & Bienen, 1980; Schulz & DeSavage, 1975). Scully and Marolla (1984) have demonstrated that this attribution of responsibility to the victim or victim blaming is an extremely common justification used by convicted rapists in order to reduce their own responsibility for a nonconsenting sexual encounter. It is therefore important to investigate the ways in which rape-supportive beliefs lead to behavioral consequences (Sundberg, Barbaree, & Redston, 1990).

A number of published studies have demonstrated that sex offenders can be differentiated from nonof fenders using measures of penile erection to audiotaped vignettes describing consenting and nonconsenting sexual encounters (Abel, Barlow, Blanchard, & Guild, 1977; Barbaree, Marshall, & Lanthier, 1979; Baxter, Barbaree, & Marshall, 1986; Hall, 1989; Quinsey, Chaplin, & Varney, 1981). Results from these studies generally show that nonrapists are more aroused to consenting compared with nonconsenting vignettes, while rapists show similar arousal levels between the two types of stimuli (Abel et al., 1977; Barbaree et al., 1979; Quinsey & Chaplin, 1982,1984), or that rapists show greater arousal to the rape cues than to consenting cues (Earls & Proulx, 1987; Quinsey & Chaplin, 1984). These results have been interpreted in two ways. Abel et al. (1977) speculated that rapists have a preference for sexual encounters that include elements of force and violence. Barbaree et al. (1979) offered an alternative explanation: namely, that elements of force or nonconsent act to inhibit sexual arousal in nonrapists to a greater degree than in rapists.

This inhibitory process has been disrupted in nonrapist men in a laboratory setting, using experimental manipulations which are analogous to factors known to be associated with actual sexually aggressive acts (Marshall & Barbaree, 1984). For example, the ingestion of alcohol (Barbaree, Marshall, Yates, & Lightfoot, 1983), anger provocation by a woman (Yates, Barbaree, & Marshall, 1984), prior sexual arousal (Malamuth, Haber, & Feshbach, 1980), permissive instructions suggesting that arousal is acceptable and expected (Quinsey, Chaplin, & Varney, 1981), and sexual arousal shown by the rape victim (Malamuth & Check, 1980), have been shown to increase the levels of sexual arousal shown by nonrapist men to rape cues. It is not clear which aspect of the rape stimulus is responded to by rapists during these laboratory tests, or whether sexual arousal to rape cues motivates or influences rape behavior in the natural environment (Barbaree, 1990). Inasmuch as the failure to inhibit arousal in the natural setting may be a component part of the behavior of men leading up to a sexual assault (Marshall & Barbaree, 1984, p. …

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