Criminal law

Sexual Harassment Claims Are Biased By Beauty Standards, Report Finds

Key Takeaways

  • The extent to which an accuser is prototypically attractive can impact the response to sexual harassment claims.
  • The defense’s appearance can further influence outside opinion.
  • Removing the accuser and defendant from view is a short-term solution to explore.

While everyone has an idea of what features and characteristics they find attractive or feminine, these thoughts become detrimental when applied, consciously or not, to believing accusers and defendants in court cases.

A new report from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the extent to which women are prototypical, or conventionally attractive and feminine, affects the likelihood of others believing their sexual harassment claim.1

Feminine Presenting Individuals Were More Likely to Be Believed

Across 11 studies, 4,065 individuals were provided various scenarios of sexual harassment against a woman, and asked to complete tasks such as drawing or identifying how they pictured the woman to look. Participants demonstrated a clear mental link between prototypical beauty—more feminine—and the perceived appearance of the target of sexual harassment.

Simultaneously, people were less likely to give incidents the label of “sexual harassment,” and viewed them as less psychologically harmful, when the accused was outside these biased notions of beauty—appearing more masculine.1

“Unfortunately, perceived beauty can affect how others view a victim’s truthfulness regarding sexual harassment claims. Studies have shown that more attractive individuals are believed more often than less attractive individuals when coming forward with sexual harassment claims,” says Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, a family law attorney and founder and managing partner of The Cronin Law Firm.

“These preconceived notions, as misguided as they are, illuminate the perceptions of average citizens regarding sexual harassment,” says Cronin.

How Does This Bias Affect Perception of Credibility?

In the first five studies, researchers presented participants with scenarios such as unwanted romantic interest and exposure to crude, pornographic content. Researchers then prompted participants to draw or pick a picture identifying the accuser. Prototypical women were drawn or selected most often.1

The next four studies presented women outside of the standard notions of beauty and asked if specific incidents were sexual harassment. Participants were less likely to qualify an occurrence as sexual harassment in these instances.

The final two studies examined whether people were less likely to find a claim credible or an instance harmful if the woman coming forward was not prototypical. Participants rated these women as less credible and as having faced less harm than those they deemed good-looking.

Numerous studies have found that women who are perceived to be more feminine and more physically attractive are more likely to be believed when they report sexual harassment.

— Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD

“People have stereotypical—or prototypical—beliefs or schemas about who is a victim of sexual harassment. In Western culture, it is a young attractive woman,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD, a psychology professor at John Jay College in New York and author of “Sexual Violence: Evidence Based Policy and Prevention.”

Jeglic continues, “Numerous studies have found that women who are perceived to be more feminine and more physically attractive are more likely to be believed when they report sexual harassment.”

Just as participants assumed non-prototypical women were less psychologically harmed, the opposite can be true. “This perceived attractiveness can also lead to increased perception of harm,” says Cronin.

“An attractive individual, who fits female beauty stereotypes, will appear to be more harmed by a less attractive defendant. Moreover, perceived harm can shape judgments of credibility—victims who are perceived as more distressed are also perceived as more credible.” Why Victims of Sexual Assault Get Blamed

Perceived Attractiveness Is Also a Factor

While the study looked specifically at if an accuser was prototypical, previous studies show that the defendant’s looks are another factor. “Research has consistently found that, in experimental studies, jurors are more likely to acquit attractive defendants and convict unattractive defendants. This is known as the attractiveness leniency bias.

“However, even using real trial data, they have found that in cases of rape and sexual assault, attractive defendants have been given lesser sentences than unattractive defendants,” says Jeglic.

People have stereotypical—or prototypical—beliefs or schemas about who is a victim of sexual harassment. In Western culture, it is a young attractive woman.

— Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD

A 1980 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that, in 67 of 73 cases examined, the defendant’s perceived attractiveness directly correlated with decreased severity of the sentencing.2

“Both men and women attribute more positive characteristics to attractive parties regardless of context,” says Cronin. Ways to Support a Victim of Sexual Assault

Steps to Remove Bias in Sexual Harassment Cases

A lack of bias around what a person who is sexually harassed looks like would be the ideal situation. However, until these perceived notions are gone from the equation, removing the opportunity for bias is an immediate solution. In cases of sexual harassment, Jeglic suggests the defendant and accuser remain hidden from the view of the judge and jury.

She notes that beyond looks, a person’s voice may even be considered attractive or feminine so, when possible, a voice disguiser could be helpful. “If these steps are to be incorporated into courtroom standards, it would be very effective in negating potential bias in sexual harassment cases,” she says.

In the long term, society can take steps to limit or remove these biases. A huge piece is education. “It is possible that as we as a culture become more educated about sexual harassment generally—that it can happen to anyone regardless of sex, gender identity, race, ethnicity, attractiveness—we will come to understand the breadth of the problem and our biases will diminish.

“Jurors can be instructed about the nature of the attractive leniency bias and how it can impact decision making in sexual harassment trials,” says Jeglic.

I believe there will always be biases, but through education and cultural enlightenment, bias will diminish over time.

— Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, Attorney

Both Cronin and Jeglic credit the #MeToo movement with further evening the playing field for people who come forward and acknowledge biases in the system. “I believe there will always be biases, but through education and cultural enlightenment, bias will diminish over time. We saw movements like #MeToo create a new standard where victims felt empowered to come forward with instances of sexual harassment,” says Cronin.

Equal treatment of all genders and proper representation can help to solve this as well. “In modern times, women have become integral parts of society, with professional lives rivaling and overtaking men,” says Cronin. “As women further gain equality, I believe biases will diminish as a society will view all parties on an equal footing regardless of factors like attractiveness.”

The level at which a person is prototypical isn’t a proper determinant for believing their claim of sexual harassment or if they could have perpetrated it. However, widening the scope of what features are considered attractive may remove some of the issues. “It will also be good if we have more representation of all types of people in the media, movies, magazines so that women of all shapes, sizes, ages, races, and ethnicities will be considered attractive,” says Jeglic.

What This Means For You

For fair sexual harassment trials to take place, changes are needed societally and in the courtroom. “Biases in sexual harassment cases are a problem that leads to inconsistent verdicts and unfair treatment to parties,” says Cronin.

The judicial system should implement safeguards wherever possible in order to eliminate biases. When we remove biases then the judicial system can be equitable and fair for all.

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