Female victims of sexual assault are less likely to be believed if they aren’t stereotypically attractive, new research finds

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  • Women who do not fit into traditional standards of beauty are less likely to be taken seriously as victims of sexual harassment, according to new research by the American Psychological Association.
  • Traditionally, femininity is framed as thin, young, and predominantly white in the United States. The data suggests women who fall outside of this norm are seen as less credible.
  • The authors said the bias “could prevent non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed from receiving the civil rights protections afforded to them by law.”
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New research by the American Psychological Association found women who do not fit typical expectations of femininity are less likely to be taken seriously as victims of sexual harassment.

The data, gathered from 11 different studies and 4,000 people total, looked at how victims of sexual harassment fit into the stereotype of being a woman and what effect that had on how credible their accusations were considered.

Participants were given scenarios to judge to determine whether or not a person had experienced sexual harassment in five of the experiments.

The results suggest women who do not conform to a thin, young, white, and traditionally feminine aesthetic are less likely to have their claims of sexual harassment believed or seen as psychologically harmful.

“Perceiving sexual harassment involves noticing a behaviour that might qualify as harassment and linking that behaviour to gender-based group membership,” Bryn Bandt-Law, co-author and a doctoral student at the University of Washington, said in a press release. “We wanted to understand what happens when the victim does not look or act like a stereotypical member of that gender-based group.”


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Ambiguous situations were less likely to be labelled as sexual harassment when the victim did not fit gender norms

Whether or not a victim fit into traditional gender expectations also impacted how more ambiguous, everyday instances of sexual harassment were perceived. Four of the experiments gave participants scenarios like a boss asking about a woman’s dating life and a supervisor touching a woman’s waist and asked to judge if they were sexually harassed.

The results showed women who did not fit into a “Western” mould of femininity were less likely to be perceived as victims of harassment in the ambiguous scenarios than stereotypically feminine women.

The final two experiments analysed how participants thought women were psychologically impacted by instances of sexual harassment.

Across the board, women who did not fit into traditional femininity were assumed by participants to be less psychologically impacted than stereotypically attractive women.

Previous research found women who do not fit into a stereotypical mould are more likely to face sexual harassment but less likely to be believed

Previous studies indicate women who do not fit into the traditional Western standard of femininity, particularly women of colour, might be targeted more as victims of sexual harassment because of how credible they are seen by society.

A 2019 study found Black women are more likely than their white colleagues to report instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The shift from sexual harassment of white women to African-American women indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces,” the report read.

While this previous research exists, according to the researchers, the new findings are the first to point to a direct theory on why some victims of sexual harassment are believed and why others are ignored.


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These differences in perception based on appearance could alter the way certain women receive legal justice (or don’t) in cases of sexual harassment.

“If women’s nonconformity to feminine stereotypes biases perceptions of their credibility and harm caused by harassment, as our results suggest, it could prevent non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed from receiving the civil rights protections afforded to them by law,” Bandt-Law sad.