This study examined differences between lawyers (n = 91) and undergraduate students (n = 120) regarding their evaluation of behavior as sexual harassment (SH) and blame attributions toward offender and victim. The current study used a cross-sectional, comparative, independent measures design.

Also examined was the correlation between these perceptions and belief in a just world (BJW) hypothesis. The respondents were presented with case descriptions of SH that were identical in all aspects but the perpetrator and victim’s gender (alternately depicted as male/female and female/male).

Results showed that both lawyers and students agreed that the described event comprised SH, yet gender bias was evident. Both lawyers and students were more inclined to regard the behavior as SH when the vignette description depicted the perpetrator as a man (i.e., female victim) than as a woman (male victim). Gender bias was also evident in the examination of blame attributions, which were higher toward a male (vs. female) harasser.

Nonetheless, the findings indicate that lawyers were less biased than students, manifested in less victim-blame and higher perpetrator blame attributions. No correlation between BJW and perceiving the vignette as SH and blame attribution was found. The findings indicate discriminatory judgments of SH based on gender. Gender-related stereotypes and sociocultural explanations are discussed.

Discussion: The current research examined lawyers’ perceptions of SH, as well as their perceptions compared with those of students. The findings showed that both lawyers and students agreed that the described event should be viewed as SH. Nonetheless, while lawyers attributed more blame to perpetrators, students attributed more blame to victims, a finding that may indicate a more objective perception by lawyers versus students.

However, further thorough examination of the findings shows that the picture is not that clear. The interaction between the victim/offender’s gender and judging the behavior as SH, as well as examination of blame attributions, offers some interesting insights into how gender may affect lawyers’ perceptions. Similar to students, lawyers were more inclined to regard the behavior as SH when the vignette description depicted the perpetrator as a man (i.e., female victim) than as a woman (male victim).

Gender bias was also evident in the examination of blame attributions. It is not surprising that victim blame attribution was lower than perpetrator blame. Thus, also the finding whereby perpetrator blame attribution was higher among lawyers than among students. Nonetheless, in this case as well the findings indicate gender bias among the lawyers (although less than among the students) manifested in higher blame attributions when the victim was a woman and the perpetrator was a man.

It appears that the sociocultural model proposed in the 1980s by Tangri et al. (1982) is still relevant for explaining the gender differences found. According to the model, since women are taught and rewarded for passive and avoidant behavior and men are taught and rewarded for aggressive and dominating behavior, an interaction consisting of a woman sexually harassing a man contradicts the social conditioning and gender role instilled in us in the process of socialization. This social perception, which contradicts the situation described (where the woman is the aggressor), minimizes interpretation of the behavior portrayed as SH.

The results may also be indicative of the participants’ stereotypes about the “typical” sexual offense victim, namely, that women, and not men, are the victims of such crimes. Drawing from rape research, men are not seen as “real” victims of rape, due to several myths and misconceptions, among which are that men always can defend themselves from an attack and want sex (Sleath and Bull, 2010).

System justification theory (SJT; Jost et al., 2004) posits that “people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate” (Jost and Hunyady, 2005, p. 260). According to SJT, different ideologies, for example, opposition to equality, serve system justifying functions and are used to protect the status quo (Ståhl et al., 2010). Similarly, it may be argued that a woman sexually harassing a man contradicts and poses a threat to the traditional sexist conceptions of gender roles and behavior and to the stereotype that men cannot be victims of sexual offenses. Such a threat triggers attempts to justify the status quo, manifested in minimization of female aggressiveness and male victimization, as reflected in participant interpretation of the behavior as SH and their blame attributions.

The impact of the above mentioned stereotypes may be particularly true in Israel, a militarist society in which masculine norms of behavior, beginning with mandatory military service, are emphasized (Sarid, 2015; Shechory-Bitton and Jaeger, 2019). Although, in recent decades, Israeli women have gained more equality (gradually more women are occupying positions traditionally regarded as exclusively male; for example, in the army), the gender perception is still that women are weaker, more vulnerable, and therefore it is also harder to attribute to them behavior interpreted as SH. Gender inequality in Israeli society is evident in many Jewish families, as well as in the patriarchal Jewish religion. The Jewish family is tied to ancient religious traditions which are patriarchal in nature. The family is a dominant institution in Israeli society and in most Jewish Israeli families, religious ideology takes precedence over gender ideology. Religion in Israel is not separated from the state, and rabbinical courts have jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce. Their rulings represent Orthodox views of family and gender roles. All these central institutions (army, family, and religion) contribute to gender inequality and are the focus of feminist critiques (Lindsey, 2015).

Cultural characteristics related to gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes may influence perceptions of offenders and victim-blaming and may be particularly relevant to perceptions of sex offenses. It is generally assumed that attitudes toward rape and degrees of rape blame attribution vary on the basis of culture (Van der Bruggen and Grubb, 2014). This may also be the case for other sex offenses. It follows that offender and victim-blaming should be examined and interpreted in the context of examinees’ specific cultural background. Comparative studies are needed to account for culture-related differences (Van der Bruggen and Grubb, 2014).

The present research results are supported by previous findings in the research literature with general population samples. For example, a study that explored judgments of SH conducted in Israel (Shechory and Ben Shaul, 2013) found that, unrelated to their gender, respondents evaluated behaviors where the woman is the perpetrator as the least sexually harassing, particularly when the victim was a man. Similarly, others found that when the perpetrator was presented as a woman and the victim as a man, both women and men were less inclined to perceive the behavior as SH than when the perpetrator was presented as a man and the victim as a woman (Runtz and O’Donnell, 2003; McCabe and Hardman, 2005).

The resemblance described above between the responses of lawyers and students suggests that the social perception described exists in systems of law as well. Although the legal system emphasizes the neutrality and objectivity of its employees, and despite the conception that lawyers’ work has a rational basis (Bergman and Wettergren, 2015), lawyers may be biased – similar to anyone else (Knight et al., 2016).

This inference is further supported by lawyers’ perceptions regarding the needed legal measures. The questions on attributing blame to the perpetrator included, in addition to a direct question on evaluating the degree of blame, items concerning the justification for prosecuting the perpetrator for his/her behavior and whether the victim should report the crime to the police. The lawyers’ outlook, whereby a male perpetrator is more deserving to be prosecuted than a female perpetrator for the same act, is compatible with the judgment bias designated “chivalry bias” (Daly, 1987), whereby protective patriarchal outlooks related to gender stereotypes lead to judgment bias favoring female offenders within law enforcement and the justice system. Empirical studies support the idea that female offenders receive more lenient treatment than male offenders who carry out similar acts (Curry et al., 2004; Van Slyke and Bales, 2013; Shechory-Bitton and Zvi, 2019).

Notably, caution should be employed in interpreting the findings, as relatively few studies have explored perceptions of sex offenses by professionals in general and lawyers in particular. Most of them focused mainly on serious sex offenses of rape, female victims, and police officers (Sleath and Bull, 2017; Shechory-Bitton and Jaeger, 2019). Despite previous evidence that myths and stereotypes regarding sex offenses common in general society are also prevalent in the enforcement and legal systems (Rumney, 2009; Page, 2010; Shechory-Bitton and Jaeger, 2019), there is also evidence that this is true mainly in cases with no objective independent evidence [e.g., Closed-circuit TV (CCTV) or eyewitnesses]. This is what facilitates the impact of stereotypes and attitudes held by judges (Lovett and Kelly, 2009), jurors (Ellison and Munro, 2010), police officers (Hine and Murphy, 2019), and even offenders (Debowska et al., 2018b).

Nevertheless, most sexual offenses are non-stranger assaults, and tangible evidence is therefore often lacking, thus making these cases at great risk for bias (Willmott et al., 2018). Yet, the more serious the offensive behavior described, the more limited the impact of the perpetrator and victim’s gender on the judgment passed. Gender differences were observed mainly in cases when the situation judged was vague and given to interpretation (for review, see, for example, O’Leary-Kelly et al., 2009).

While examining the relationship between BJW and victim blaming, we found that lawyers demonstrated higher levels of BJW than students. Still, our hypothesis concerning the correlation between BJW and perceiving the vignette as SH and blame attribution was not supported. Previous findings from studies that examined the relationship between BJW and victim blaming have been inconsistent in establishing whether just world theory provides a useful explanation for why rape victims are blamed (Sleath and Bull, 2010). Some research shows that stronger BJW was associated with blame attribution (see comprehensive review by Hafer and Bègue, 2005), as well as in cases of sexual assault (e.g., Strömwall et al., 2013; Landström et al., 2016; Adolfsson and Strömwall, 2017). However, in other studies, BJW did not predict victim or perpetrator blame and it was suggested that high BJW results in blaming only in certain circumstances, such as blaming victims of injustice, but not necessarily victims of rape (Ford et al., 1998; Sleath and Bull, 2010). Accordingly, using alternate BJW measures was suggested (Hafer and Sutton, 2016).

For example, Maes’ (e.g., Maes, 1998; Maes and Schmitt, 1999) distinction between ultimate justice and imminent justice seems promising, as blaming victims and offenders are related to imminent rather than long-term justice (Hafer and Sutton, 2016). Yet others suggested that BJW may be more complex than allowed for by self-report questionnaires (Toews et al., 2019). In light of the criticism regarding the construct and measurement of the BJW, our research findings indicate the need for further research, using other measures of BJW.

The present study has several limitations. It was hard to recruit lawyers to participate in the study, and therefore, the sample size is relatively small. We also did not examine the lawyers’ field of specialty and activity. This is unfortunately reflective of how difficult it is to recruit meaningful sample sizes, especially on “sensitive” topics related to sexual assault (see also Sleath and Bull, 2012). Therefore, the findings and the ability to generalize from this sample to the entire population of lawyers must be treated with caution. In future research, differences within the population of lawyers should be examined as well, according to their specific field of occupation. It would be interesting to explore whether there is a difference between those engaged in criminal law versus civil law. Participants in the present study were both civil and criminal lawyers and all of them were asked to judge the case as a criminal case. Also examined should be the association with working with sexual offenders, judging sexual offenses, etc.

In addition, the comparison group consisted of undergraduate students. However, according to Van der Bruggen and Grubb (2014), observers from the general population make similar judgments of blame as do student participants. In addition, due to the sample size, it was not possible to examine gender differences between the respondents, although all the statistical analyses included controlling for the respondent’s gender. Various studies indicate gender differences with regard to judgment in situations involving sexual offenses (see, for example, Shaver, 1970; Grubb and Harrower, 2009; Vonderhaar and Carmody, 2015; Adolfsson and Strömwall, 2017).

Another limitation of the study is that the three scales – victim blame scale, perpetrator blame scale, and judging the behavior as SH – were developed for use in the current study, based on the conceptualization of their contents. Although they had reasonable internal consistency values, their items were not subjected to factor analysis. This is recommended for future studies. Another limitation concerns the issue of the power of the analyses. Sufficient power was found for the analyses of covariance, yet, as the regression analyses were found not significant, their power is low.

Finally, in future research, the topic should be examined in more diverse and larger populations. In the current study, no additional information was provided on the perpetrator or victim aside from that associated with the incident and their gender. There is a need for additional studies examining how professionals engaged in criminal law and lawyers, in particular, judge different situations of SH, as well as how various characteristics of the victim and offender affect these judgments. Among other things is the effect of homosexuality. The current study focused on harassment occurring in the context of heterosexual interaction. Future research should also look at the effect of same-sex harassment. Homophobia was found to strongly correlate with blaming homosexual male victims of rape (Van der Bruggen and Grubb, 2014), although examining perceptions of legal professional may yield different results.

In conclusion, although in recent decades there has been growing evidence, side by side with a rise in social awareness, that men too are sexually assaulted and harassed (Javaid, 2018; Weare, 2018), and, at the same time, that women are increasingly involved in crime, the current findings indicate that SH of a man by a woman is met with forgiveness, even by those in charge of maintaining justice. Women are still not perceived as perpetrators of SH but rather mainly as victims. These perceptions appear to reflect common gender stereotypes, are unfair toward men who are victims of sexual assault and do not advance the understanding and treatment of the sexual assault of men. Accordingly, it seems to be extremely important to expand educational and informational programs that will help change attitudes, undermine prevalent myths, and reduce the ability of both perpetrators and of society to devalue the victims. This is extremely important for male victims as this may release them from guilt feelings that arise due to social messages stemming from prejudice and stereotypical thinking. Such social change will assist both male and female victims, both of whom often avoid reporting the assault and seeking therapeutic help (for review, see Van der Bruggen and Grubb, 2014).

The findings concerning lawyers are partly encouraging (for example, attributing blame to the perpetrator rather than to the victims). However, they also demonstrate that some Israeli lawyers in the justice system exhibit stereotypical views capable of generating judgment bias and discriminatory treatment of SH by gender. Minimization of male sexual victimization may be particularly problematic within the legal system, as well as within other areas dealing with sexual offense victims (i.e., medicine and mental health). Reluctance to acknowledge that males can be victims of sex crimes might hinder the proper care that they should receive, as well as achieving justice (Romano and De Luca, 2001). Given the limited training provided to lawyers, expansion of educational systems in order to help change views and dispel common myths is of great significance. Further studies are needed in this area. Perceptions of legal professionals are rarely studied despite the clear importance of understanding the way they think about and feel toward victims and perpetrators, particularly in the context of sexual offenses, where tangible evidence is often lacking and stereotypes may exert great impact.


Shechory-Bitton & Zvi

Front. Psychol., 21 August 2020 |

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