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Stereotypes determine responses to sexual violence

Published: 22nd March 2021 Last updated: 14th July 2022

Ideas about what is "normal" play a large part in the responses to stories of victims of sexual violence. People generally react more negatively when events deviate from the stereotypical story, for example, when the victim is male. This is evident from Eva Mulder's doctoral research, which she will defend at Tilburg University on March 26, 2021. Mulder calls for more attention to the "gray areas" of sexual violence in benefit of the victims.

Eva Mulder investigated why and how negative reactions towards victims of sexual violence come about. In eight experimental studies she had Dutch, German and British respondents respond to victims who do not meet the ideal standard, for example because they did not resist or reacted angrily instead of sad or afraid afterwards. 

The results of the study confirm that ideas about what is "normal" play a large role in responses to victim stories. Respondents generally react more negatively when a victim deviates from the ideal victim image. In fact, the influence of normative expectations appears to be so strong that a man who has been raped runs the risk of being considered "more feminine" by others.

Respondents are also reluctant to classify the situation as sexual violence when they are confronted with a non-stereotypical scenario, for example, when there is no explicit coercion. On the other hand, in abstraction most people think that sex without mutual consent is rape.

Gray areas

Just identifying sexual violence appears to be a complex process characterized by gray areas, especially in these changing times, says Mulder. It is important to be aware of this complexity, both within scientific research and in the public domain. In the Netherlands, an attempt was made last year with the bill by Minister Grapperhaus to criminalize "sex against the will". After much criticism - sex against the will was not seen as rape in the bill - Grapperhaus released a new bill in March.

According to Mulder, the ambiguity and dynamics of involuntary sex therefore seem difficult to put into a (new) category. Even outside the legal framework, it is important to consider that responses from the social environment not only affect the victims themselves, but also contribute to our knowledge of what counts as violence, as innocence, and as a story that deserves sympathy.

Note for the press

Eva Mulder will receive her doctorate on Friday 26 March at 4 p.m. from Tilburg University. The promotion can be followed via a live stream. Thesis title: The Normality of Rape? Observer Reactions to Stories of Female and Male Sexual Assault. Supervisors: Prof. A. Pemberton, em. Prof. A.J.J.M. Vingerhoets.

For more information, please contact Eva Mulder via email: A review copy of the dissertation is available via