Women's Attributions of Responsibility for Date Rape: The Influence of Empathy and Sex-Role Stereotyping

Article excerpt

The purpose of the study presented here was to investigate the relationship among sex-role stereotyping, empathy with the victim, and subsequent blaming of the victim in response to a date-rape scenario. It was hypothesized that sex-typed (traditional) females would be less likely to perceive forced sex on a date as rape and would attribute more responsibility to the victim than would more egalitarian (nontraditional) females. It was also predicted that the enhancement of victim empathy would result in less victim blame. The subjects were 76 female undergraduates who were chosen on the basis of their extreme scores on a sex-role stereotyping scale. Vignettes describing a date rape were used to manipulate victim empathy. Findings indicated that although attributions of responsibility were influenced by the subject's sex-role stereotyping, the manipulation of empathy had no apparent influence on victim blame. Furthermore, the lack of correlation between the degree of victim empathy and the subject's own history of victimization suggests that victim empathy is not a component in victim blame.

Victims of crime, often hurt and suffering, are in need of emotional support from others. Unfortunately, some victims encounter considerable difficulty in obtaining the emotional support they need because they are blamed, to some extent, for their own victimization. This phenomenon, victim blame, appears to be particularly prevalent in regard to rape victims, with family members, friends, the police, and rape victims themselves frequently blaming the victim for the assault (Kanekar & Vaz, 1983; Mazelan, 1980).

PREVIOUS RESEARCH

By taking an attributional approach, past research has offered plausible explanations of why victim blame is particularly prevalent in regard to rape victims. Most of this research, however, has been based on the "classic" rape situation involving violent attack by a stranger and has examined only those characteristics of the victim or situation that influence the perceiver's attributions of causal responsibility. The study presented here attempted to extend the utility of attributional models, hypothesizing that the characteristics of the perceiver of a date-rape situation significantly influence subsequent attributions of the rape victim's causal responsibility for her own victimization.

Past research has suggested that the less the incident resembles a classic rape situation, the less likely the rape victim will be perceived as a "true" victim of a crime (Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1980; Weis & Borges, 1973); hence, victim blame is more likely to occur. It is not surprising, then, that rape by a stranger is reported to the authorities more often than is rape by an acquaintance (Williams, 1984), despite evidence that rape by an acquaintance is much more common (Russell, 1984). Russell found that 35% of 930 randomly selected women in San Francisco were the victims of either attempted or completed rape by an acquaintance, with over a third of these incidents occurring on a date. In addition, more women reported attempted or completed date rape than rape by a stranger. One interpretation of this finding is that, in our society, alleged rapists are held less accountable when they sexually assault a date rather than a stranger and that forced sex on a date is usually not labeled as rape (Klemmack & Klemmack, 1976).

Recent research has attempted to delineate the factors leading an observer to conclude that a rape has occurred. The results have indicated that depictions of rape incidents in the literature (i.e., a mock courtroom case and vignettes describing forced sex on a date) led some subjects to view the situation as "justified sexual behavior" while others perceived it as unjustified rape (Fulero & Delara, 1976; Muehlenhard, Linton, Felts, & Andrews, 1985). This has led to alternative interpretations based on the attributes of the perceiver instead of the situation or the victim's characteristics for explaining causal attributions of a rape incident. …