When asked to respond to a “clear-cut” example of sexual harassment, male students showed greater empathy with the male perpetrator than female students, according to researchers from the universities of Exeter, Bath and Queensland, Australia.
Previously it has been suggested that a lack of empathy with victims explains the tendency to victim-blame but the authors said identifying with the male harasser was a more “consistent” indicator.
They looked at the responses of more than 100 Queensland students to a scenario where a male student harassed a female student over a long time, later admitting to most of the accusations when she reported his behaviour.
While overall victim-blaming was not high, researchers found that the male participants who blamed the victim more than women had greater empathy for the male perpetrator.
Using the same scenario, the students were asked to take either the perpetrator or victim’s perspective.
Regardless of their gender, those who took the perspective of the perpetrator were more likely to victim-blame the female student.
The researchers say the study highlights a dark side to empathy.
They wrote: “Accusations of in-group wrongdoing, as in the case of a man’s sexual harassment of a woman, may pose a threat to men’s sense of their gender group as 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.
“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.”
A fear of being blamed contributes to low rates of reporting of sexual harassment and victim-blaming can be seen as a form of secondary victimisation, the paper said.
The researchers said the scenario presented to the students was of “clear-cut” harassment, warning that less straightforward cases may lead to increased empathy with the male perpetrator and, therefore, greater levels of blame toward female victims.