Written by: Renata Bongiorno, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Exeter
Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been controversially appointed to the US Supreme Court. The Senate voted in favour of Kavanaugh’s confirmation 50 to 48, despite credible allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her at a high school party in the 1980s.
Polling reveals deep divisions in the US over Kavanaugh’s appointment. But these divisions are not along gender lines. The vast majority of Republicans (73%), including 69% of Republican women, supported Kavanaugh’s nomination. The vast majority of Democrats (73%), on the other hand, thought his nomination should have been withdrawn.
The fact that so many Republican women could betray allegiance to their gender and side with a man accused of sexual assault should come as no surprise. Women’s allegiances go beyond gender. If a woman identifies strongly as a Republican, she may be just as likely as a Republican man to doubt the veracity of a woman’s credible sexual assault allegations against a fellow Republican.
This level of bias among Republican women was on display when Republican Senator Susan Collins made a speech on October 5 detailing the reasons why she would vote to support Kavanaugh’s appointment to the highest court in the land.
Following Donald Trump’s mocking of Ford’s testimony at a controversial rally in Mississippi, now it was Collins’ turn. She acknowledged that Ford’s testimony was credible, but cited a lack of corroborating evidence as reason enough to doubt her claims. She glossed over a lack of a proper FBI investigation into the accusations and facts.
Excusing similar perpetrators
Both women and men are capable of defending men against credible sexual assault allegations when the accused man is from a valued social in-group. This is what we found in our research into community reactions to allegations of sexual assault.
We asked a community sample of majority white Australian women and men to read a summary of a sexual assault trial. The trial involved a woman’s allegations of being sexually assaulted by a male colleague after a work Christmas party.
The victim was always white, but we varied the in-group status of the perpetrator. We described him as “white” (an ethnic in-group member) to some participants and “South Asian” (an ethnic out-group) to others.
We also varied how the victim behaved because past research has shown that a victim’s behaviour can influence people’s opinion on whether or not a perpetrator is guilty. This happens even though it is plausible for victims to behave in a range of different ways in response to a sexual assault.
In one version, participants were told that the victim forcefully resisted the attacker and immediately reported the assault to police. Other participants were told that the victim failed to forcefully resist the attacker and was generally unwilling to cooperate with police investigations.
Our results found that women and men paid particular attention to the victim’s behaviour when the perpetrator was white. They considered the white – but not the South Asian – perpetrator less guilty and less deserving of punishment when the victim failed to forcefully resist the attacker and fully cooperate with police.
That is, we found that both women and men were willing to use common excuses for rape to protect an in-group perpetrator from accountability for sexual assault. When it came to an out-group perpetrator, however, men and women no longer considered how the victim behaved relevant to whether or not the accused was guilty or deserving of punishment.
Women, like men, are susceptible to bias when it comes to protecting in-group men from accountability for sexual assault. One theory for why people show these biased reactions is that they want to regard the groups they belong to positively. This means that people will often turn a blind eye to in-group wrongdoing, while maintaining that the exact same behaviour is deserving of punishment when the perpetrator is not “one of their own”.
Our research shows that both men and women can show such flexibility in their views. Ultimately, then, it is this level of flexibility in holding men who are credibly accused of sexual assault to account that needs to be challenged.
Victim’s testimonies can be a powerful force to jolt people out of their biased responding. Republican Senator Jeff Flake was confronted by two women survivors of sexual assault who implored him to take a stance against Kavanaugh. Following this, Flake made his support for Kavanaugh conditional on an FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations of sexual assault – the reason why there was an FBI investigation at all (although he did subsequently vote in favour of Kavanaugh’s nomination).
Clearly aware of the power of victim’s voices, Trump sought to discredit the protesters, tweeting that they were “paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad”.
But for those seeking greater justice for victims of sexual assault, the fact that not one Republican Senator opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination does look bad. It will fuel the anger behind the #MeToo movement and further efforts to amplify victim’s voices to overcome biased responding that continues to protect men like Kavanaugh from proper scrutiny.
The research described in this article was supported in part by a grant from the Australian Research Council—Discovery Project: DP1201011041.