Perception of a rape perpetrator as a successful person decreases the likelihood of labeling it as rape, study finds

The perception of an alleged rapist as a successful person predicts whether people label the incident as rape, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The study highlights how rape myths can impact the evaluation of a rape case.

“Usually there is a paradox in responsibility regarding rape: although people think that rape is a very serious crime, and it should be punished severely, they often blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator,” said study author Boglárka Nyúl of Eötvös Loránd University.

“When a rape scandal broke out in the media in Hungary, we were interested in understanding the mechanisms of bias, using the example of a rape case of László Kiss, a famous and popular swimming coach.”

“The swimming coach initially denied it, so the rape case was ‘uncertain’, and both media and social media reactions used rape myths to defend László Kiss and make his story credible. However, after our data collection there was an unexpected turn of events, as the victim came forward with the story of her rape. Following her appearance, the swimming coach publicly admitted the crime,” Nyúl explained.

“We examined the role of rape myths — which are beliefs about rape (i.e., about its causes, context, consequences, perpetrators, victims, and their interaction) that serve to deny, downplay or justify sexual violence that men commit against women — and the importance of the perceived success of the perpetrator in the evaluation of a rape case.”

“In our study looking at a real-life event, we had the opportunity to identify the mechanisms of bias in the actual social context in which rape cases are evaluated and interpreted. This is especially relevant in the normative context of Hungary where reported rape cases are very low.”

In an initial study, which took place before Kiss admitted to his crime, the researchers surveyed 870 Hungarians regarding the case. The researchers also conducted a second survey of 105 Hungarians after the perpetrator admitted his crime.

When the rape case was still uncertain, participants who were more accepting of rape myths were less likely to describe the allegations as rape. These participants were also more likely to say that his success as a swimmer was important to consider.

People who agreed with rape myths such as “If a girl doesn’t physically fight back, you can’t really say it was rape” and “When girls go to parties wearing slutty clothes, they are asking for trouble” were also more likely to say it is important that the perpetrator is a successful swimmer, which in turn predicted more favorable moral judgments of the perpetrator and a lower likelihood of labeling the case as rape.

“Furthermore, this real-life story with high public awareness allowed us to compare judgments when the case was somewhat more uncertain and when the same case became indisputable. We found when the rape case became indisputable people who accepted rape myths more judged the perpetrator’s reactions less, but there was no connection between rape myth acceptance and whether they labeled the case as rape anymore,” Nyúl told PsyPost.

“The importance of the perpetrator’s success did not affected moral judgment or rape labeling anymore. Although these results suggest that biased information processing had a more powerful effect on the evaluation of the case when the rape was uncertain, previous attitudes about rape continued to affect moral judgments even when the case was indisputable.”

Like all research, the study includes some caveats.

“For the purpose of this research, we used the example of a swimming coach because this was the example presented to us by real-life events. However, based on this case, we cannot be sure that patterns would be exactly the same if the perpetrator was a different kind of celebrity,” Nyúl said.

“Future studies should consider testing the effect of different types of celebrities, especially taking into account that celebrities represent different types of role models. Although actors and musicians may be more popular and admired than successful sport persons, however, from a moral perspective their lifestyle and acts may be more harshly evaluated and considered less normative than that of a sportsperson.”

“Furthermore, we can distinguish between different kinds of success, such as success based on high social status and success based on competence or hard work. Future studies could focus on whether these two sources success have different effects on the evaluation of the perpetrator and the rape case,” Nyúl explained.

“The importance of understanding the connection between rape myth acceptance and biased perception in the case of a real-life case is twofold,” Nyúl added. “Firstly, it can provide information about the evaluation of cases in the complex social reality where judgments are affected by multiple factors in contrast to the controlled setting of the lab. Secondly, scandals that people talk about for weeks can strongly influence the normative context in which all other rape cases are evaluated.”

The study, “Perception of a Perpetrator as a Successful Person Predicts Decreased Moral Judgment of a Rape Case and Labeling it as Rape“, Boglárka Nyúl, Anna Kende, Márton Engyel, and Mónika Szabó.