The Exonerating Effect of Sexual Objectification: Sexual Objectification Decreases Rapist Blame in a Stranger Rape Context

Abstract

A blossoming body of research documents the effect of sexual objectification on social perception, but little is known about the consequences of sexual objectification. This paper examines how sexual objectification influences men and women’s rape perceptions in case of a stranger rape. We hypothesized that victims’ sexual objectification might diminish rapist blame and increase victim blame in cases of stranger rape. Fifty-eight male and 57 female Belgian undergraduate students were assigned to either a sexual objectifying (i.e., body focus) or to a personalized portrayal (i.e., face focus) of a rape victim. After reading a newspaper report depicting a stranger rape, participants were asked to evaluate the extent to which they blamed the rapist and the victim. As predicted, participants blamed the rapist less in the sexual objectification condition, regardless of participant gender. In contrast, sexual objectification did not increase victim blame. These results have implications for the well-being of rape victims, as well as for the functioning of justice if it leads authorities to show leniency towards the length of penalty a rapist may receive. The implications of these findings for future research on sexual objectification and gender differences in rape perception are also discussed.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the National Fund for Scientific Research (FRS-FNRS, Belgium) and by the Fonds d’Encouragement à la Recherche (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium).

Ethical standards

My coauthors and I do not have any interest that might be interpreted as influencing the research. Applicable ethical standards, specifically the APA standards, were followed in the conduct of the study. The rights of the human subjects participating in our research were protected.

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Correspondence to Philippe Bernard.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Scenario (translated from French).

The famous model Sophie Dialle has been brutally attacked and raped on the night of Monday, March 7. The Brussels police arrested a suspect a few hours after the assault.

After the banquet in honor of the official launch of a new lingerie brand, Lilla©, Sophie Dialle was driven at her home by her chauffeur. Around 11 PM, her best friend invited her to a drink at her apartment located a few blocks away. She agreed and decided to walk. During her journey, the young woman was accosted by a 30 year old stranger who proposed to drive her to her destination. Sophie Dialle, who was suspicious, refused. The man insisted and became threatening. For the victim, it was too late. She was taken away by the stranger in a deserted and weakly lighted up alley. Her attempts to struggle were futile, the man kept her on the ground and raped her. An ordeal that lasted an eternity for the young model. In shock, Sophie Dialle nevertheless managed to call the police, which arrived quickly on the scene. She received psychological help from the police to give evidence. This morning, the spokesman for the police announced that it had arrested a suspect—a man named Loïc Dubois. The latter matches with the photofit and “has no serious alibi”. The suspect has been indicted by the prosecutor. Loïc Dubois’s trial is scheduled to begin in less than 6 months. As for Sophie Dialle, she said she would return to photo shoots as soon as possible.

[Text below the picture: Sophie Dialle has recently posed for Lillas©, a new lingerie brand. Despite her state of shock, the famous model claimed that she will honor the contracts that she signed lately.]

Appendix 2: French Version of the Scales

B1. Victim Blame, adapted from Abrams et al. (2003)

  1. 1.

    How much do you think Sophie should blame herself for what happened? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Sophie devrait se sentir responsable de ce qui s’est passé?

  2. 2.

    How much control do you think Sophie had over the situation? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Sophie avait un contrôle sur la situation?

  3. 3.

    How much do you agree Sophie should not have walked after the sunset if she did not want to have problems / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Sophie n’aurait pas dû marcher dans la rue lorsque la nuit est tombée si elle ne voulait pas avoir de “problèmes”?

  4. 4.

    Do you think this incident could have been avoided by Sophie / Pensez-vous que l’événement aurait pu être évité par Sophie?

  5. 5.

    How much do you think that Sophie is responsible for the way things turned out? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Sophie est responsable de la façon dont les choses ont tourné?

  6. 6.

    How much sympathy do you feel for Sophie / Dans quelle mesure ressentez-vous de la sympathie pour Sophie?

B2. Rapist Blame, adapted from Abrams et al. (2003)

  1. 1.

    How much do you think Loïc should blame himself for what happened? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Loïc devrait se sentir responsable de ce qui s’est passé?

  2. 2.

    How much control do you think Loïc had over the situation? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Loïc avait un contrôle sur la situation?

  3. 3.

    Do you think this incident could have been avoided by Loïc / Pensez-vous que l’événement aurait pu être évité par Loïc?

  4. 4.

    How much do you think that Loïc is responsible for the way things turned out? / Dans quelle mesure pensez-vous que Loïc est responsable de la façon dont les choses ont tourné?

  5. 5.

    How much sympathy do you feel for Loïc? Dans quelle mesure ressentez-vous de la sympathie pour Loïc?

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Bernard, P., Loughnan, S., Marchal, C. et al. The Exonerating Effect of Sexual Objectification: Sexual Objectification Decreases Rapist Blame in a Stranger Rape Context. Sex Roles 72, 499–508 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0482-0

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Keywords

  • Sexual objectification
  • Gender
  • Rape perception
  • Rapist blame
  • Victim blame