Victim Attribution and Empathy:
Assessing Juror Attitudes on Transgender Sexual Assault Victims
Lizbeth Quiroga, Lluizupa, Dominican University New York
Abstract: Sexual assault affects hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States. The 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey reports sexual assault doubled between 2017 and 2018 from 1.4 to 2.7 victims per 1000. The victim is typically assumed to be a young, heterosexual cisgender female in sexual assault discussions in scholarly and popular discourse despite anyone can be sexually assaulted and certain groups, particularly transgender people, are especially vulnerable. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey concluded that 47% of transgender individuals experience sexual assault at some point in their life. Norton and Herek (2013) researched social attitudes toward transgender people and their victimization, and found men exhibit greater negative social responses than women; since they see transgender individuals as violating gender and societal norms. A cisgender female rape victim may not report their victimization to avoid anticipated attacks on their character. Therefore, one would suspect transgender females would be less likely to come forward. An experiment was conducted in the spring of 2022 to see the correlation of victim attribution between two types of female victims. 53 participants read a sexual assault scenario with a cisgender female victim, or a transgender female victim followed by a questionnaire targeting victim blame, empathy, and rape myth acceptance to simulate juror perception. Greater victim empathy and lower victim blame for the cisgender female were hypothesized. This study spotlights the need for social understanding of inclusive and common victimhood which may encourage increased reporting, improved juror attitudes, and better trial outcomes.
A prevalent and underreported crime that remains a problem in the United States is sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2015), the majority of sexual violence victims tend to be females, as 1 out of 3 women experience it between the ages of 11 and 17. Given the abundance of statistics and information on these victims, there is an apparent gap in the data and literature on those who step outside this demographic. In recent years, individuals from the LGBTQ community have coalesced against social discrimination and fought for equal rights and visibility for victims. With respect to the transgender community, it is apparent they are stigmatized and vilified in certain areas.
Irrespective of sexual and gender identity, victims of rape are subjected to blame (Blackham, 2006; Pederson & Strömwall, 2013). This is also interlaced with a lack of victim empathy. Thus, it can be said the perpetrator is not the only one on trial as the victim must also face the criticism and judgment of others. Taking into consideration transgender discrimination, this paper seeks to assess if the gender identity of the victim impacts victim blame attribution. Previous scholarly literature has delved into the role jurors play in sexual assault cases when factors of victim blame are introduced which have hinted to negatively impact the decision to convict the perpetrator (Sommer et al., 2016); and additionally, a lack of juror motivation to convict if the victim is seen as unlikeable (Rerick et al., 2019).
This study adds to the scant research on social attitudes, and more specifically, juror perception of transgender sexual assault victims by assessing victim blame and empathy. Focusing on juror perception of these individuals would increase awareness of potential bias and prejudice within the criminal justice system that could impede adjudication of these cases and jeopardize justice for special victims. Thus, this study intends to explore the factors that contribute to the potential differences in assessment of the rape victims.
This paper begins with a review of scholarly literature to identify relevant themes and identify gaps in empirical research. The literature review is organized into three major topics: 1) Societal Views on Transgenderism 2) Aspects of Rape Culture and 3) Jurors and Rape Victims. After the literature review, the methods section provides information about the sample population, scenarios, questionnaire, procedures conducted in this study, and the analysis conducted to obtain the results. The results of the experiment are then reported. Lastly, this paper ends with a discussion section consisting of future research recommendations and study limitations.
Recent research studies and scholarly literature have aimed to highlight opposition faced by transgender persons not only in rape cases but in their daily lives as well. In what follows, the relevant scholarly literature is reviewed to explore three primary areas: attitudes towards transgenderism, aspects of rape culture, and juror perception of rape victims that lead to victim blaming and limited empathy. Understanding the contributions of these factors promotes a clearer understanding of how transgender victims are regarded in the criminal justice system and how their efforts for respect and justice may be futile.
Societal Views on Transgenderism
Social views of transgenderism are important to explore to ascertain the challenges transgender individuals face in their daily lives and interactions. Jauk (2013) defines a transgender person as someone who does not correspond with their birth sex which extends to those who temporarily or permanently alter their gender presentation. He conducted ethnographic research on the gender violence experienced by transgender people. One of the main contributing factors to transphobia and gender bashing, which are said to be warnings to the transgender community for transgressing gender norms, is indicated by the endorsement of gender norms. Thus, these individuals are at an elevated risk for victimization, especially during gender transition. Additionally, gender ideology such as traditional masculinity was a predictor of transprejudice and overall negative views of transgender and nonbinary groups (Perez-Arche & Miller, 2021). Findings such as this one contributed to the formulation of the hypothesis as it is apparent the endorsement of traditional gender views plays a strong role in the negative attitudes toward non-conforming individuals. Furthermore, Jauk (2013) conducted interviews that revealed transgender individuals are highly susceptible to hate crimes, verbal harassment, physical violence, and police harassment for their nonconformity. Transgender women also declared an increased exposure to sexual harassment as they faced additional issues of misogyny for their femininity.
Lewis and colleagues (2017) evaluated disparities in the acceptance and attitudes towards various segments of the LGBT community. It was determined that gays and lesbians were associated with more positive attitudes than transgender persons thus they not only lack support in a general setting but within their own community as well. This was further reinforced in the finding of decreased support for nondiscrimination policies of transgender individuals compared to lesbians and gays. Additionally, this study proclaimed partisanship played a role in this finding as Republicans were seen to hold a more unfavorable attitude toward transgender rights and people, which is consistent with the findings of Norton and Herek (2013) that state high political conservatism was linked to low feeling thermometer ratings of transgender people. A feeling thermometer is a scale commonly used to assess feelings towards an individual or group. By using a U.S. probability sample of heterosexual adults Norton and Herek (2013) were also able to discover these negative attitudes were connected to high levels of authoritarianism, anti-egalitarianism, and support of gender binary beliefs. Interestingly, religiosity was only an indicator of negative transgender attitudes in women but not in men.
Aspects of Rape Culture
Many scholars contend popular culture is saturated with news stories, video games, and pornographic imagery that promote the objectification of women and the normalization of sexual violence. Social perceptions are shaped by these misogynistic cultural messages and influence the way the public views and regards victims of sexual violence. Grubb and Harrower (2009) contend that a negative public perception of victims leads to rape myth acceptance, victim blame, and limited sympathy. Grubb and Harrower (2009) examine factors that influence victim attribution through a questionnaire. A key conclusion was men exhibit attitudes of higher victim blame than women, which could be associated with just-world beliefs and the Defensive Attribution Theory in which people decrease the level of blame for victims with whom they can identify. This finding correlates with the results of the study conducted by Diamond-Welch et al. (2021) that found cisgender men have low rates of perceived similarity to a heterosexual female rape victim scenario.
The endorsement of rape myths being stereotypes or false beliefs about rape has been tied to rates of victim-blaming (Hills et al., 2019). Additionally, the study by Diamond-Welch et al. (2021) found transgender and cisgender women had lower rates of rape myth acceptance (RMA) and the most victim empathy compared to cisgender and transgender men. This is attributed to the sense of shared gender identity and expectations of femininity with respect to the heterosexual female rape victim. Moreover, the relationship between the perpetrator and victim, specifically a previous consensual and sexual relationship meaning an acquaintance rather than stranger rape was associated with lower levels of believability towards a victim’s report and greater levels of RMA (Nason et al., 2019).
In an effort to address the negative experiences of transgender victims, Thomas, Amburgey, and Ellis (2016) examined the role of anti-transgender prejudice as a mediator between victim blame and just world beliefs (BJW). Under this ideology, people believe the world is a fair one therefore, negative behavior will be punished. They created two vignettes in which the victim was perceived as not trans and trans. The main finding specified the correlation between anti-transgender prejudice and victim blame was greater for the transgender victims. Davies and Hudson (2011) also used rape scenarios and assessed judgments toward transexuals, crossdressers, heterosexuals, and homosexuals. It was concluded that the crossdresser received the most victim blame. This supports Jauk’s (2013) claim of unfavorable societal attitudes to those who visibly challenge gender norms. Unfortunately, transgender rape victims must also face the reality of people viewing their victimization as less severe or illegitimate. Men are found to exhibit anti-transgender prejudice more than women. In this sense, the rape is regarded as a consequence for a transgender person’s nonconformity, reflective of a just world ideology (Blackham, 2006).
Jurors and Rape Victims
The obstacles rape victims face can have damaging effects such as the responses of the criminal justice system that could be re-traumatizing this is referred to as secondary victimization. This is associated with common misconceptions of jurors on what constitutes “real rape.” Tinsley, Baylis and Young (2021) claim jurors held expectation of physical resistance from victims and a lack of it affected their belief in the credibility of the accusation. This is flawed thinking as it neglects other valid responses of victims that could include freezing up. Other factors included type of clothing, flirtatious behavior, delayed reporting of rape, the appearance of good behavior, and characteristics of the defendant also affect complainants’ credibility.
Juror decisions are found to be significantly influenced when alcohol and drugs are involved in sexual assaults. Victims who willingly took a chemical substance influenced juror decisions as they were deemed more blameworthy and less credible (Stewart & Jacquin, 2010). Moreover, victim blame is exacerbated and in some cases perpetrator culpability is lessened. Stewart and Jacquin’s (2010) study also showed that jurors with high rape myth acceptance were associated with lower guilt ratings for the defendant.
Defendants in sexual assault cases are innocent until proven guilty. A review of the scholarly literature, however, reveals that sexual assault victims are not afforded the presumption of innocence that perpetrators enjoy. Public perception of sexual assault victims is likely to subscribe to rape myth acceptance and a just world hypothesis. When victims are transgender, blame may intensify, and juror bias can impact case outcomes. The literature emphasizes the need to highlight the influence of juror perception and bias in sexual assault cases that could jeopardize the justice sexual assault victims seek. Therefore, it is vital to shed light on recent upcoming social movements that have targeted awareness of these issues. The #MeToo Movement is key in fighting misinformation and the false narrative of “real rape” that permits greater public awareness and education on the reality of rape that can aid in dispelling rape myths (Leary, 2020).
This study seeks to simulate juror perception to explore attitudes towards a cisgender female victim and a transgender female victim. All participants were given a hypothetical rape scenario that had one of two conditions. Both scenarios were identical except for the manipulation of the victim’s gender identity. Scenario A had a cisgender female and scenario B had a transgender female. The scenarios/conditions were randomly assigned to participants. They were instructed to read the scenario and then answer the questionnaire that was designed to assess victim empathy and victim blame followed by components of rape myth acceptance connected to perpetrator culpability. It was hypothesized that participants would display higher levels of victim empathy and lower levels of victim blame for the cisgender victim.
Note: Other majors include Athletic Training, Biology, Business, Business Management, Communication Information Systems, Communication Studies, Finance, Marketing, Pre-Occupational Therapy, Social Science, and Social Work
Participants for this study were composed solely of students from a liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley region. Several students in the sample were taken from a Victimology class session. A total of 53 students participated, all of whom were required to be a minimum of 18 years of age. Additionally, participants enrolled in General Psychology I or II classes received one research credit for their participation. Out of the 53 respondents, 34% were males and 66% were females. Respondents were from all four academic classes, with first-year students comprising the largest group of the sample- 30.2%. The most common major and GPA range for respondents was Criminal Justice and a 3.0 to 3.4. Moreover, the most common number of credits obtained was between 1 to 29, representing 24.5% of respondents. Lastly, the religiosity level was at a mean level of 3. This means there was a moderate level of religiosity given it was assessed on a 5-point scale, ranging from not at all to extremely.
The main aim of this study was to determine if gender identity influenced victim attribution and empathy in rape cases. Participants were provided with two versions of an acquaintance date rape scenario in which both were male perpetrated. Definitions of cisgender and transgender were also provided to respondents to eliminate any confusion in the terminology. Scenario A involved a cisgender female and scenario B a transgender female victim. After reading one of the two scenarios inspired from the vignettes of Grubb and Harrower (2009), Javorka (2014), and Acosta (2021), participants were asked to answer sets of questions and rate their reaction to statements. These questions were broken into four sections taken from Blackham (2006), Grubb and Harrower (2009), Acosta (2021), and the updated Illinois Rape Myths Acceptance Scale. The first set assessed victim blame regarding the victim’s resistance during the rape on a 7-point scale. A question given was, “Do you think Holly can be blamed for the attack for not putting up enough of a fight?” The second set of questions assessed victim blame regarding the victim’s action prior to the assault on a 5-point scale. A question given to rate was, “To what extent did Holly lead the man on?” The third set of questions was aimed to evaluate victim rape empathy on a 5-point scale. A question given was, “I can understand why a rape victim feels bad for a long time?” The fourth set of questions assessed the endorsement of rape myths also on a 5-point scale. A statement given to rate was “Holly didn’t physically resist so it cannot be considered rape.” The remaining questions were for demographic assessment regarding gender, GPA, credits, major, and religiosity.
A full risk application was sent to the Institutional Review Board of the college in which participants for the study were taken from. It was approved in February 2022. Participants were given an informed consent form that stated a vague title and purpose of the study--an investigation of attitudes toward sexual assault. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two study conditions: scenario A or scenario B. Both scenarios used acquaintance date rape in which the victim known as Holly was asked on a date by Jack whom she met through a mutual friend gathering. In both conditions, Holly went to a restaurant for dinner with Jack which was followed by heading back to his dorm for a movie that unfortunately resulted in rape. Scenario A identifies Holly as a cisgender female and scenario B identifies Holly as a transgender female. Both scenarios depict Jack as a cisgender male. Participants were then instructed to answer the questionnaire in which the initial questions assessed victim attribution regarding the victim's resistance at the time of the rape and her actions prior to the assault on a 7-point scale or 5-point scale both ranging from not at all to extremely. The following questions related to victim empathy and rape myth acceptance interlaced with perpetrator culpability both on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The questionnaire ends with demographic questions. After completion of the questionnaire, respondents were thanked for their participation and given a debriefing form that explained the true purpose of the study and revealed that deception was used to manipulate the gender identity of the victim.
All the responses were inputted into the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) program. The questions were broken down into four sections that assessed victim blame regarding the victim’s resistance toward the perpetrator and the victim’s prior actions, victim rape empathy, and rape myths. The responses were summed for each section for each participant. In order to create the graphs, the sums were broken into two groups to take into account the two conditions. The average for each group was found. This means there was an average of sum response for the transgender scenario and another for the cisgender scenario for each of the four sets of questions. To determine statistical significance an independent samples t-test was conducted. A two-sided test was used, and a p-value was given for each of the four sets of questions.
Victim Blame-Victim Response During Rape
Figure 1 displays how respondents assigned blame regarding the victim’s resistance during the rape between the transgender and cisgender victim on a 7-point scale. The average sum of the responses for this set of questions revealed the average victim blame value for the transgender victim was 5.54. For the cisgender victim, the average victim blame value was 5.59. The independent sample t-test conducted showed there was no statistical significance between the transgender victim (M=5.54, SD=2.626) and the cisgender victim (M=5.59, SD=2.374); t(51)= .079, p=.938.
Victim Blame- Prior Actions
Figure 2 shows how respondents assigned blame for the victim’s prior actions to the cisgender victim and the transgender victim. The average sum of victim blame given to the transgender female was 8.58. The average sum of victim-blame given to the cisgender victim was 7.48. An independent t-test that compared the group means and showed that the results are not statistically significant between the means of the transgender victim (M=8.58, SD=3.624) and the cisgender victim (M=7.48, SD=2.026); t(51)= -1.365, p=.178.
The figure below demonstrates how respondents associated victim rape empathy towards the transgender victim and the cisgender victim. As Figure 3 displays the transgender victims had an average rape empathy value of 29.58. The cisgender victim had an average rape empathy value of 29.67. Through an independent sample t-test that compared the group means it showed that these results are not statistically significant between the means of the transgender victim (M=29.58, SD=4.483) and the cisgender victim (M=29.67, SD=4.438); t (51) =.073, p=.942.
Figure 4 demonstrates how participants responded to rape myths, specifically the endorsement of rape myths pertaining to the cisgender and transgender victims. As displayed below, the transgender victim received a higher endorsement of rape myths with an average sum response value of 3.15. The cisgender victim received lower rape myth acceptance with an average sum response value of 3.07. The independent sample t-test showed that these results are not statistically significant between the means of the transgender victim (M=3.15, SD=.834) and the cisgender victim (M=3.07, SD=.267); t (51) = -.473, p=.638.
The purpose of this study was to determine differences in the level of victim blame and empathy attributed to a cisgender female or transgender female. Including the component of rape myth acceptance, the results of the current study showed slight differences between the two victims. Through analysis, it was concluded none of the results had statistical significance. Additionally, a sizable portion of the study sample were Victimology students. Having participants educated on the issues rape victims face would interfere with the results as they have been conditioned to go against a victim blaming mindset. Moreover, religiosity was assessed as high religiosity ratings have been connected to unfavorable views of transgender people however, as it was a moderate level of 3 (based on a 5-point scale) the impact cannot be said to be significant on the results.
It was hypothesized that the cisgender female victim would receive higher victim empathy and lower victim blame compared to the transgender victim. This hypothesis was formulated after an extensive literature review. Using an acquaintance date rape scenario and a transgender victim was purposeful as this type of scenario has been connected to higher rates of victim blame and transgender people facing negative attitudes such as discrimination and prejudice for their gender identity. Under these conditions, it was then hypothesized participants would assess the cisgender victim in a more positive manner.
The first scale assessed victim blame in relation to the victim’s resistance during the rape on a 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely) scale. Interestingly the results showed that participants rated the cisgender victim as slightly more blameworthy than the transgender victim. Therefore, respondents assigned a faint increased level of victim blame to the cisgender female victim for what they believed was an inadequate victim response identified by a lack of physical resistance and attempt to escape. The second scale assigned victim blame regarding the rape victim's prior actions to the sexual assault. This was assessed on a 5-point scale. The results demonstrated a slighty higher level of victim blame for the transgender victim’s prior actions to the assault than the cisgender victim. The transgender victim received slightly more blame for her actions leading up to the assault that referenced the victim being careless and leading on the perpetrator. These results of victim blame are to be expected as past literature has mentioned transgender victims face anti-transgender prejudice that has been connected to a just world ideology (Thomas et al., 2016). Under this pretense, the victimization of transgender individuals is justified for opposing genderism thus, they got what they deserved. To summarize, the transgender victim only received slightly more blame for her prior actions but not for her response during the rape.
Rape empathy was the next component assessed in this study which was based on a 5-point scale, 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The cisgender victim received slightly more victim empathy at an average sum response of 29.67 compared to the transgender victim at 29.58. Both sum values were similar hence there is not a prominent difference in the assessment of both victims regarding rape empathy. The results from this scale are understandable given 66% of the sample was females. As past literature has referenced, females tend to have higher rates of empathy as they can more easily able to understand and identify with the victim. Additionally, the issue of women being at higher risk for victimization than men tie in with similarity to the victim that contributes to higher empathy scores in women (Osman, 2014).
Lastly, rape myth acceptance (RMA) was assessed as this has previously been connected to victim blaming (Hills et al., 2019). These findings were based on a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The results from this scale showed that participants endorsed slightly more rape myths for the transgender victim than the cisgender victim. Transgender individuals face backlash for their gender identity due to the violation of gender norms and with the additional component of RMA being linked to a shared gender identity these factors can explain the finding of more endorsement of rape myths for the transgender individual (Diamond-Welch et al., 2018; Jauk, 2013).
The findings concluded from this study only partially supported the hypothesis for two major reasons. Firstly, as stated in the results section of this paper none of the findings had any statistical significance. Regardless of the cisgender victim receiving slightly lower victim blame and slightly more victim empathy the analysis has shown there is not an enormous difference between both study conditions. Additionally, the cisgender victim only scored lower victim blame for her prior actions leading up to the assault. Therefore, the victim blame aspect regarding the cisgender victim in the hypothesis was partially correct, as they received slightly more victim blame for their response during the rape compared to the transgender female.
This study contains several limitations. The most significant of which involves the method for data collection. For the purposes of convenience and fear of low participation rates, a Victimology class was also polled for this study. This was a confounding variable in the experiment as it is a crucial component in evaluating the data. During the process of inputting data, a response pattern was found in this part of the sample that favored the victim in all aspects. As this study was conducted at the end of the semester these participants were likely well versed in victim blame attribution and just world thinking. Additionally, the top three majors included Criminal Justice, Nursing, and Psychology. Students who choose these majors may not judge others for their victimization and will likely have strong altruistic tendencies. Therefore, considering these limitations and the intent for these participants to simulate juror attitudes toward rape victims, this would not be a true representative sample of jurors. Moreover, it would be highly unlikely for a defense attorney to select these individuals as jurors in a rape case because they would likely be cognizant of victim blame attribution and empathetic toward the victim. Another limitation is the results are not generalizable due to the small sample size and lack of diversity, as participants were limited to students at one liberal arts college of which a sizable portion were in a Victimology class. Moreover, given this was a self-report questionnaire on attitudes towards rape victims, the responses may be shaped by social desirability bias which is answering in a manner that participants believe is socially acceptable and not a true reflection of what they believe or think.
Given the little research provided on the assessment of transgender sexual assault victims, this study was exploratory. To aid in the progression of this topic, future research should seek to incorporate participants of various age groups which would allow researchers to determine any generational differences regarding victim blame and empathy. An effort should be made to obtain an increased random and general population sample which supports the generalization of results. Another suggestion would be to assess participants’ past sexual victimization as it has been seen that it influences rape empathy scores in which they tend to have higher empathy ratings (Osman, 2014). This is, admittingly, a sensitive topic, and participants may be reluctant to respond truthfully to a personal question about sexual victimization. The use of an acquaintance date rape scenario was purposeful for this project as the scholarly literature demonstrates victim blameworthiness increases if they know their attacker (Grubb & Harrower, 2009). Conducting a study with different rape scenarios such as a stranger rape or marital rape could be beneficial to determine any differences in victim empathy and blame. Lastly, future research may consider how the prominence of the #MeToo movement and other pro-victim social media campaigns have influenced public attitudes and perceptions of rape victims (Leary, 2020).
Unfortunately, rape victims are not immune to public shame, humiliation, and blame. With this in mind, this study introduced a different victim gender identity that has been previously connected to unfavorable public attitudes. This study sought to contribute to the scholarly literature about rape victim blame and address the scant literature about transgender sexual assault victims. It is widely known that sexual assault victims face challenges that impede their pursuit of justice. Transgender sexual assault victims will undoubtedly suffer an even greater wrath of victim blame and despair associated with victimization. Victim-driven social movements and campaigns are important because they address the weaknesses in the justice system and the condemnatory attitudes that contribute to anti-victim sentiment. There are ambitious efforts to improve conditions and inspire actionable change on a broad level. These efforts should be well-funded to improve the plight of victims and create a more accepting society and an accessible and promising path to justice for all.
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