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Research Considers How Political Affiliation Impacts Views On Sexual Harassment Claims

Proposed moderated mediation model with sexual assault myth acceptance mediating the relationship between political group identification and sexual assault/#MeToo perceptions, moderated in part by political party affiliation and gender identity.
WAMC screenshot
Proposed moderated mediation model with sexual assault myth acceptance mediating the relationship between political group identification and sexual assault/#MeToo perceptions, moderated in part by political party affiliation and gender identity.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he will resign in the face of sexual harassment allegations from multiple women following a damning report from the state’s attorney general and with an impeachment inquiry growing. But some Democrats have claimed the third-term governor was unfairly forced from office. Research by Syracuse University Professor Rebecca Ortiz looks at how political affiliations can impact one’s view of sexual harassment allegations. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Ortiz, an assistant professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, before Cuomo announced his resignation.

Ortiz: When the #MeToo movement started, we saw a lot of political leaders, politicians, political candidates – part of the discussion around sexual assault and allegations being posed against some of these people, mostly powerful men. And, of course, we saw that then-candidate Donald Trump was being accused of sexual assault, and a number of other Republican and Democratic leaders. And so I was curious, because I started to look at how the public was responding to these allegations. And really, mostly anecdotally, because I was just doing some observations of social media, my friends, you know, colleagues, that kind of thing, I started to notice this bias really is what ultimately I found in the studies is that there's this bias towards believing and giving more credibility to allegations that are made against political leaders that are of an opposing party. Meaning if you're a Democrat, you would be potentially more likely to believe an allegation against a Republican candidate, or if you're Republican, a Democratic candidate. So I was curious because this idea of blame, or reducing the belief in an allegation, because it's somebody that is or is not like you, is not a totally new finding. So it's under this idea of what's called “social identity threat” or “out group discrimination” is another term. Our identities are made up of a lot of different things. Our identities can be related to our gender, our race, ways in which that we congregate in social groups and identify ourselves. And one of the biggest ways right now especially I think we could argue that we identify as based upon our political identities, especially if we are somebody who is politically active and really engaged in that identity. So I was curious to look at, because this idea of social identity threat where when somebody from your group, especially somebody who represents and is powerful in your group is accused of doing something bad, it can often feel like a threat to your own identity, it can feel like, not that you're being accused of it, but that a piece of you is part of these allegations. And so you can engage in bias where you're less likely to believe that that could be possible, because really, you don't want to believe that someone like you could do that behavior. But then it's also if somebody who's not like me, sort of the out group, the other group, it helps kind of reinforce that my identity is the right one if they're accused. And so I'm more likely to believe. It can get a little hairy. But the basic idea is that we are all trying to protect our egos. And that's been looked at in a lot of different ways. How it hasn't been examined is within the context of sexual assault and political identity. And so I wanted to run some studies to see OK, does this play out in these particular behaviors and in this particular type of identity? And so what I found, I did an experiment, I did a survey, and I looked to see what were the relationships between identity, either being Republican or Democrat and I did look at independents as well, but I'm going to focus on the Democrat-Republican piece is, does your identity, your political party affiliation, does it pose a bias and how you perceive allegations made against political leaders who are or are not part of your party? And I found that just as was hypothesized that you are more likely to believe the allegations made against a political candidate that is the opposing party, whereas you're less likely to believe them when they're of your party, and that the more you identify with your political affiliation, so the more that I feel that being a Republican or Democrat is a part of my identity, and the more that I report feeling kind of defensive when somebody from that party is accused of something, the more likely I'm also to engage in what's called rape myth acceptance. And rape myth acceptance is this idea that I'm willing to put, at least part of it is I'm willing to put blame or at least partial responsibility on the victim. I'm questioning these allegations. And I'm thinking, well maybe that victim shouldn't have done this thing, or maybe that person shouldn't have been there or that person egged them on. It's a way of misdirecting the responsibility on to the victim. What I found is that the more that people identify with their party, the more willing they are to do that.

Levulis: You know one of the most interesting aspects of this study that I found was that, as it relates to the sexual assault perceptions, an individual's attitude tends to align more closely with their political affiliation even than their own gender identity. That was particularly surprising to me. Any insight as to why, you know, the political draw kind of overrules the gender identity there?

Ortiz: Yeah, what you're speaking to is political party, no pun intended, trump's gender identity in this case. Now, I think there's a lot of complex things or maybe not complex, but a lot of things going on. So what I found is, in terms of this rape myth acceptance, this willingness to place responsibility on the victim, it is highest among Republican men, followed by Republican women, then Democratic men and then Democratic women. So Democratic women are least likely to engage in these beliefs, whereas Republican men are most likely. So men are more likely to have these beliefs than women. But that we generally see that Republican women and men align closer together and Democratic women and men align closer together. And so what we're seeing is that political party plays a more powerful role here, in that – what is happening is sexual assault and beliefs around sexual assault is aligning more ideologically with your political identity than it is with your gender. Even though we still see that men are more likely to believe in these beliefs than women, we're seeing that there's something ideologically about how people align with their political party that plays a role in how they see sexual assault victims. I can't say for certain, I think there's still a lot more that needs to be explored about why this is, but we see a lot of gender role attitude differences between Republicans and Democrats, in that we've seen and we see the Democratic Party doing a lot more advocating for gender equality and women's rights and reproductive health and these kinds of things. So it sort of makes sense that they would be more aligning with supporting the victim and not blaming the victim. So I think we're seeing some of that align. But it was kind of surprising to a certain degree, that political party played such a stronger impact than gender did.

Levulis: And I want to get your insight on some other numbers. A poll conducted by Marist College hours after the Attorney General's report on Governor Andrew Cuomo came out, found 59% of New Yorkers said they believe the governor should step down, including 52% of Democrats. 44% of participants believe the governor did something illegal, and only 7% said he did nothing wrong. What do those numbers say to you in regards to your previous research?

Ortiz: So if we look at the Democratic numbers, specifically, so registered Democrats, I think it was about 52%. It said that they want him to resign, which is really about 50-50. So we're looking at a good portion of Democrats who are still not sure that he should resign. They're still arguably on his side, despite this independent report coming out, giving some pretty credible information that he did in fact do these things that he is denying to have done. So even though 52% is like, wow, there's a lot of Democrats who are calling for his resignation. You could also look at on the other side, and see there's a lot that are not. And then you compare that number to the registered Republicans, which I think it was like it was in the 70s, who are saying that he should resign, that's not surprising, right to see such a higher number among Republicans and Democrats. So I found it really interesting that there actually are still a number of Democrats who are supporting him and not calling for him to resign. And then I'm also not surprised to see that there are so many more Republicans than Democrats calling for that resignation. I think that aligns a bit with what I found.

Levulis: And do you think in the case of Governor Cuomo that the existence of a legal report coming from an office led by a fellow Democrat is leading to, you know, more or less alignment between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the accusations?

Ortiz: Well, that's you know that's a great point. And that's what makes this so complex. So if I'm a Democrat, and I'm looking to other Democrats in power to help me make decisions about this, I have one who's been accused of sexual harassment. And then I have many other who were saying he needs to resign. So who do I align with? Who in power in my group in my identity group, who do I listen to? And I think that's why you're seeing possibly this sort of 50-50 split of registered Democrats is, I'm not sure who that is representing my group I should listen to and there's probably a lot of cognitive dissonance happening among Democrats right now in thinking, well, I want to support my party, I believe, you know in continuing many of the policies and work that's being done in the Democratic Party, but who do I actually listen to? So I think that's actually been a really tough struggle to the Democratic Party has had around sexual assault allegations made, especially under the #MeToo movement. We saw this with Al Franken, there was kind of sort of a group of people who, Democratic politicians, and then, you know, Democratic voters. We’re seeing that there is sort of this, we want to support, you know, we're advocates for victims, and we believe in the importance of supporting victims. But when it's one of our own who's accused of this, where do we draw the line? There's just a lot of kind of meeting in the middle, like trying to figure out well, who do you support? And I think we're seeing that again, here. Like, do I support the governor who is my leader? Or do I support the other Democratic politicians who are calling for his resignation?

Levulis: And I wonder if you've noticed in your research or other research out there, that if there's any sort of other loyalties that would be similar to political party in this instance. You know, say, a member of your favorite team, your favorite actor? Is there anything that, you know, compares to this political loyalty trend that we're seeing in regards to sexual assault perception?

Ortiz: Well, what's fascinating is you can find almost anything. Anything that is an important part of your identity could be activated in this case. And actually, that's where I want to continue this research is to explore not just political affiliation and gender to a certain degree as well. But also looking at you know, contextually, how does this change if the person being accused is female, and the victim is male? These kinds of things, but I think you can place a lot of different identities in that space. And you would likely see some of the same results. So like you said, if it's somebody who is an athlete for my favorite team, or a religious leader, you know we've seen that somewhat anecdotally to that if it's somebody of a religion that my identity is really connected to, it's hard, it's difficult to, to kind of keep both of those ideas in my head that here's somebody in power that represents something that's really dear to me, how do I how do I navigate that? So you can place a lot of different things in that space? And I think you would in the research before this would suggest as well that you would see some similar results as I found in my studies.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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