Sexual harassment and victim-blaming women: Why male 'empathy' could be key

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People blaming the victim of sexual harassment for how they're treated has previously been put down to a lack of empathy.

But a new study suggests something could be more important: feeling empathy towards the perpetrator.

Researchers looked at the responses of students to a "clear-cut" harassment case.

They found men were more likely than women to blame the victim - and show the harasser empathy at the same time.

The paper, published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly journal, said empathy for the perpetrator was a more "consistent" way of identifying victim-blaming.

Men giving 'benefit of the doubt'

In one study, nearly 100 Australian students were asked to respond to a case of a male student harassing a female - where the victim reported his behaviour and he admitted to the majority of her accusations.

Male students blamed the victim more than female students.

Participants in a second study were then asked to take either the harasser or the victim's perspective.

Those who took the perspective of the harasser were more likely to victim-blame the female student - regardless of their gender.

Together the findings suggest that when it comes to blame, the level of empathy shown towards the male harasser is equally or more important than empathy shown towards the female victim, according to researchers at Bath, Exeter and Queensland universities.

Lead author Dr Renata Bongiorno, from the University of Exeter, told Radio 1 Newsbeat both men and women showed the victim the same amount of empathy - and men still showed more empathy for the victim than for the harasser.

But she said their higher levels of empathy for the perpetrator were significant.

The paper suggested an accusation of wrongdoing could "pose a threat" to men's sense of their gender group being moral.

"To reduce this threat, men may afford male perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and interpret events in a way that is biased towards that perpetrator's perspective," it said.

"Men may believe, for example, that the male perpetrator did not mean to cause harm, that what occurred was based on a misunderstanding, or that the allegations are false accounts that are frequently provided by men defending allegations of sexual harassment in court."

Training for potential bias

The academics said a fear of being blamed contributes to low rates of victims reporting sexual harassment.

They said challenging myths around women being responsible for harassment from men could reduce empathy for offenders.

They also highlighted media reports that focus too much on the career achievements of the perpetrator - or the potential impact on their life - as a problem.

Researchers suggested where harassment happens in institutions like schools, men in decision-making roles are trained to be aware of the potential bias.

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