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SFU study examines ‘victim blaming’

By Jane Deacon

SFU researchers are studying the issue of victim blaming when it comes to sexual assault. (FOTOLIA)

SFU researchers are studying the issue of victim blaming when it comes to sexual assault. (FOTOLIA)

The phenomenon of blaming rape victims can be influenced by how the sexual assault is defined, finds a new study out of Simon Fraser University.

Its results find that assault victims are less likely to be considered at fault when the rape is considered a “hate crime” – or the result of prejudices against women as a group.

The implications of the study resonate with Samantha Grey, of Vancouver’s Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, who said that victims are commonly blamed.

“Women will often get asked, ‘What were you wearing,’ ‘What were you doing at this place at this time with this person?’” she said.

SFU’s research examines the mock case of a woman stranded by car trouble and offered a ride by a passing male driver. After she gets into the car, the driver turns onto a side road and rapes her, the victim later tells police.

Is she at fault?

How you answer that question is influenced by your definition of rape, finds SFU’s study – with people more likely to blame the victim when rape is defined as a personal assault.

Creating a “mock jury” scenario, researchers provided 156 study participants with one of two legal definitions of rape: either as a hate crime against women or as a personal act perpetrated by one individual against another.

“Jurors” were asked a series of questions on the victim’s and perpetrator’s individual responsibilities for what happened.

Those working with the hate crime definition — which takes the focus away from the individual — were significantly less likely to blame the victim, said Lisa Droogendyk of SFU’s Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Lab.

The findings have the potential to change the way victims of sexual assault are treated, she said, potentially encouraging more victims coming forward to report crimes.

“The idea that women are sometimes targeted for violence on the basis of their gender isn’t exactly a new idea,” she said. “What’s new is that we’re suggesting that if we talk about it in that way, think about sexual assault and describe it more in group terms, that that might have positive effects in terms of reducing victim blame.”

By reframing the discussion away from individual responsibility, it allows people to consider the more systemic causes of rape, said Grey.

“When we see rape as just an attack of one man onto one woman, we focus solely on either her behaviour and the things that she did, and what she could have done to prevent it,” she said.

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