Rachael Howe and Dr. Niwako Yamawaki, Psychology
Rape affects approximately one in six women in the United States (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). In addition to direct mental repercussions women experience from rape, they also frequently encounter lack of support, hostility, and isolation from the community, resulting in further psychological distress (Yamawaki & Tschanz, 2005). For example, law enforcement personnel subject rape victims to a “second victimization” by asking them to repeatedly relive the trauma and even attribute blame to the victims. Prejudice heavily influences the degree to which this victimization occurs, especially in more ambiguous (but not less traumatic) cases such as acquaintance rape (Campbell, 2006).
An important but often ignored type of prejudice is weight-based discrimination. An estimated 33% of Americans were obese between the years of 1999-2000 (Peskin, 2003). Those who are overweight are subject to discrimination and are perceived as less credible, less trustworthy, and less reliable. This is seen in a variety of domains including the courtroom (O’Grady, 2011). Since obesity percentages have risen since the 1960s and will likely continue to rise, weight-based discrimination is relevant to an increasingly high percentage of Americans.
Secondary victimization of rape victims is likely to be compounded if they are obese. Given the prevalence of both rape and obesity, it is imperative to study the factors that contribute to weight-based discrimination against rape victims.
To study discrimination of obese rape victims, we recruited participants through BYU Psychology Department’s online SONA research system to take part in our developed Qualtrics survey. Participants were presented with an ambiguous scenario in which acquaintances had engaged in sexual intercourse; the woman (Janet) claimed it was rape, but the man (Mark) claimed it was consensual. While the description of the scenario did not change between conditions, the photographs representing Janet and Mark did. In one condition, Janet was digitally altered to look obese while Mark appeared normal weight. In another condition, Janet appeared to be normal weight while Mark appeared to be obese. In another condition both Janet and Mark appeared to be obese, and in the final condition both Janet and Mark appeared to be normal weight.
After reading the scenarios within one of the various conditions, participants were asked to fill out a series of brief surveys measuring the dependent and moderating variables of the study. They were asked how severely Mark deserved to be punished, how much blame could be attributed to Janet, and how credible Janet was as a witness. Blame attribution and perceived credibility were measured using the Blame Attribution Scale and the Witness Credibility Scale. In addition to this, participants were asked to complete a test measuring how much they did or did not subscribe to obesity/rape myths before they were presented with the differing conditions.
We hypothesized that an alleged rape victim would receive greater blame-attribution and be perceived as less credible if she was obese as compared to a non-obese female. We further hypothesized that acceptance of weight-based stereotypes would moderate the relationship between alleged victim credibility and victim body size. After reviewing the data, we found that male participants were inclined to blame Janet and endorse obesity myths more than female participants. Participants of both genders tended to rate the credibility of Mark significantly higher in the scenario where Mark appeared to be normal weight and Janet appeared to be obese compared to the scenario where Mark appeared to be obese and Janet appeared to be average-sized. Participants who held greater myths were prone to show less credibility of Janet. In particular, myth acceptance was the significant predictor of credibility in the scenario where Janet appeared to be obese compared to the scenario where Janet appeared to be normal weight. Lastly, participants tended to rate Mark as less credible when he appeared to be obese than when he appeared to be normal weight.
Given the prevalence of obesity and rape in the United States, it is important to investigate the differing patterns in others’ negative attitudes toward obese victims. By identifying the factors that influence blame attribution toward obese rape victims, this study may be useful in refuting rape myths in order to ameliorate secondary victimization of rape victims. Understanding the factors that influence rape-based discrimination also have implications in our law enforcement and judiciary systems where discrimination of obese and raped victims occurs all too often. More research must be done on this subject so we can better understand weight-based discrimination of rape victims and counter its negative effects.
- Campbell, R. (2006). Rape survivors’ experiences with the legal and medical systems: Do rape victim advocates make a difference? Violence Against Women, 12(1), 30-45.
- O’Grady, M. (2011). A jury of your skinny peers: weight-based peremptory challenges and the culture of fat bias. Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, 47.
- Peskin, G. (2003). Obesity in America. JAMA Surgery,138(4), 354-355.
- Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Full report of the prevalence, incidence, and consequences of violence against women: Findings from the National Against Women Survey [Report NCJ 183781]. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
- Yamawaki, N., & Tschanz, B. (2005). Rape perception differences between Japanese and American college students: On the mediating influence of gender role traditionality. Sex Roles, 52(5), 379-392.