Race-Based Sexual Stereotypes Influence Ratings of Child Victims in Sexual Abuse Cases
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Children’s rights to personal safety and their rights to justice when that safety has been violated should be applied universally, irrespective of a child victim’s race. Yet when children disclose sexual abuse, racial prejudice could affect adults’ judgments of child victims. The present study examined how endorsement of the Jezebel stereotype (that Black females are lascivious and hypersexual) and exposure to sexualized videos influence perceptions of Black female child sexual abuse (CSA) victims. Undergraduates (N = 213) completed a Jezebel stereotype questionnaire and were randomly assigned (within gender/race) to experimental condition based on a 2 (victim age: 6 vs. 10 years) × 2 (victim race: Black, White) × 3 (priming condition: Black sexual video, White sexual video, no video) factorial design. Participants viewed one of the videos, read a CSA case, and then provided ratings about the case. Results suggest bias against Black girls even as young as 6 years old. For example, Black (compared to White) girls were perceived as less traumatized by their victimization. Participants who viewed the Black video and judged a Black victim rated the victim as less credible than those who viewed the Black video and judged a White victim. A number of participant gender differences in ratings of the child victims were also uncovered. The findings expand research on stereotyping and child victims. Implications for CSA case adjudication and children’s rights are discussed.
KeywordsChild sexual abuse Jezebel stereotype Victim blaming Race and law Racial bias Child witnesses
Societal views of children can affect their safety and security, including in cases of alleged child sexual abuse (CSA). Societal views of CSA allegations, when combined with racial and gender stereotypes as often reflected in media, potentially affect perceptions of victims when allegations of CSA arise. Given that many children who experience sexual abuse are young Black girls (Wyatt 1985), there is a need to know how media depictions and stereotypes of African American females might influence perceptions of Black child victims (APA 2010).
Media exert powerful influence on how people develop and maintain stereotypes, including stereotypes regarding Black female sexuality (APA 2010; Littlefield 2008). Across all mainstream media platforms, Black females are frequently depicted as promiscuous, a representation that likely reinforces the “Jezebel stereotype,” the notion that Black women are lascivious and hypersexual (Collins 2009; Harris-Perry 2011; Pilgrim 2002). The Jezebel stereotype may have wide-reaching negative effects on the Black female community, and one context where it may be particularly harmful is in cases of alleged child sexual assault.
Despite children’s inherent rights to safety and security, CSA is woefully common (e.g., Epstein and Bottoms 1998; Finkelhor and Baron 1986; Tzeng and Schwarzin 1990; Wyatt 1985). When children disclose CSA, judgments of the children’s credibility can potentially be influenced by racial bias: Black CSA victims as young as 8 years old are perceived as more responsible for their own abuse than comparable White victims (Alley 2009). The goal of the present research was to elucidate whether racially biased judgments of Black CSA victims are driven by the Jezebel stereotype; if so, the findings can inform researchers and policy-makers about how these biases may influence CSA cases and therefore influence Black children’s rights. To those ends, the present experiment investigated whether explicit endorsement of the Jezebel stereotype and proximal exposure to sexually provocative media predict perceptions of young Black (compared to White), female victims in a CSA mock trial.
Black Female Stereotyping
Scholars have identified a number of stereotypes that are associated with Black females, including the Jezebel stereotype, specifically, the notion that Black females are promiscuous, lascivious, and hypersexual (e.g., Collins 2009; Harris-Perry 2011; Pilgrim 2002; Stephens and Phillips 2003). When the Jezebel stereotype is activated, adults are especially likely to judge Black women more harshly than White women (e.g., Gan et al. 1997; Givens and Monahan 2005; Johnson et al. 2009).
One situation in which the Jezebel stereotype might be particularly influential is in cases of CSA involving Black girls (Wyatt 1990). An adult’s generalization of the Jezebel stereotype to a young Black girl (consciously or not) could result in the child’s allegation being taken less seriously than one made by a White girl (Bottoms et al. 2004). For example, the adult may presume that the sexual contact was more likely to have been consensual and therefore less harmful, or find the Black victims less credible, resulting in fewer prosecutions and fewer guilty verdicts compared to CSA allegations concerning White victims.
Psychological theory suggests several reasons to suspect that, in many people, the Jezebel stereotype is automatically activated and applied when considering CSA allegations involving Black girls. First, CSA cases tend to lack physical evidence and corroborating eyewitnesses (e.g., Myers et al. 1999), making CSA allegations ambiguous in nature. Individuals are more likely to apply stereotyped group dispositions to a target person under conditions of contextual ambiguity (e.g., Kunda and Sherman-Williams 1993). Thus, the frequent lack of concrete facts in the average CSA case may lead individuals to rely on stereotypes when making judgments about victims (e.g., Bottoms et al. 2004; Collings 2002; Devine 1989; Sagar and Schofield 1980; Srull and Wyer Jr. 1979).
Second, due to the media’s longstanding biased representations of Black women, most Americans likely have well-rehearsed and easily activated mental associations between Black women and negative sexuality (Gan et al. 1997; Monahan et al. 2005). Media can be powerful priming agents and activate mental constructs that subsequently influence social judgments (e.g., Dixon 2008; Ford 1997; Givens and Monahan 2005). Media depictions can reinforce associations between social categories and stereotype content by prompting frequent activation in memory. Although stereotypes can be activated by the content of a sexual abuse trial itself, individuals primed (vs. not primed) with media content are even more likely to have those knowledge structures activated, and then use that content in subsequent information processing (Hansen and Hansen 1988). Thus, media’s stereotypical depictions of Black women as hypersexual may result in automatic activation of the Jezebel stereotype in many Americans when they are exposed to a Black female target.
The Jezebel Stereotype and Person Perception
There is a paucity of empirical research on perceptions of Black females (Cole 2009; Sesko and Biernat 2010); however, a handful of researchers have attempted to study how negative sexual stereotypes may bias evaluations of adult Black female targets (e.g., Gan et al. 1997; Givens and Monahan 2005; Johnson et al. 2009). For example, Gan et al. (1997) found that adults who viewed sexually explicit video (compared to the devoted love or no music conditions) rated Black female targets higher on bad traits and lower on good traits. White targets, however, were not disadvantaged in any video condition.
Without a comparable White sexual video, Gan et al. (1997) were unable to determine if their results were due to conceptualizations of Black female sexuality rather than negative reactions to female sexuality in general (which may have then only been mapped onto the Black targets because those targets were consistent with the prime imagery; Higgins et al. 1977). It is also possible that, if most people do not have a stable mental representation that would qualify as a Jezebel stereotype, the mental associations between Black females and negative sexuality were created for the first time upon exposure to salacious Black videos. However, questionnaire data collected by Alley (2009) suggest individual differences in participants’ endorsement of Jezebel stereotype-consistent statements. The fact that many people evinced Jezebel stereotype-consistent views with only minimal prompting could indicate that the Jezebel stereotype is a stable construct in many people’s minds, lying in wait to be activated by relevant stimuli. These studies add to the growing empirical evidence suggesting the powerful role that the media play in perpetuating negative racial stereotypes (Littlefield 2008).
Victim Race and CSA Cases
A paucity of research exists on adults’ perceptions of Black CSA victims (Foley and Chamblin 1982). Fortunately, Bottoms et al. (2004, Exp. 1) varied victim age (12 vs. 16 years old) and race (Black, Latina, or White) in a study of mock jurors’ judgments of a trial scenario and found that Black and Latina (compared to White) child victims were rated as more responsible for their sexual abuse, regardless of victim age. To test if the effect was the result of racial prejudice, a subset of the study (e.g., Black vs. White child victims) was repeated, with participants completing the Modern Racism Scale (MRS; McConahay 1986). Once again the Black victim was held more responsible for the alleged abuse than the White victim. Defendant guilt and participant MRS scores were not predictive of racially biased judgments.
One possible reason for this null MRS finding is that it measures people’s political views (e.g., conservative vs. liberal) regarding social programs that benefit Blacks, rather than measuring general negative attitudes or specific stereotypes about Blacks (Sears et al. 2000). Therefore, if belief in the Jezebel stereotype moderated the effects between Black victim race and responsibility ratings, the MRS might not detect such influences. To that end, the Belief in Stereotype Scale (BSS; Alley 2009) was developed and used in the present study to measure participants’ explicit endorsement of the Jezebel stereotype.
The Present Study
To our knowledge, no published studies have directly examined the Jezebel stereotype in the CSA context. In that context, the present study conformed to a 2 (victim race: Black, White) × 2 (victim age: 6, 10) × 3 (video priming condition: Black sexual video, White sexual video, no video) between-subjects factorial design. Each participant also completed the BSS to assess individual differences in Jezebel stereotype endorsement. Several dependent variables assessed participant perceptions of the victim. They were ratings of victim credibility, harm, trauma, and culpability, the latter indexed by combined ratings of victim blame, victim responsibility, victim as the CSA cause, and victim’s want for the sexual contact to happen. The ages chosen (6 and 10) stem from Bottoms and Goodman (1994)’s findings that (with no race specified) a 6- but not a 12-year-old was viewed as lacking the sexual knowledge to make explicit allegations. This pattern was proposed to explain why, in CSA cases, teenage children were rated as less credible victims than younger children. For the present study, 10 years old was selected as the older child victim age level, because it approached but does not reach the cutoff of 12 years of age. Alley (2009) found that 8-year-old Black CSA victims were judged just as culpable for sexual contact as 14-year-old Black victims, and White children of both ages were judged significantly less culpable than the Black children. This pattern suggests that the loss of sexual naiveté is perceived by some individuals to occur at younger ages for Black compared to White children. Thus, the victim age and victim race manipulations in the present study permit detection of victim age differences as a function of victim race that may be the result of adults’ differential perceptions of Black versus White children’s loss of sexual naiveté.
Based on the above, several hypotheses were advanced: First, harsher ratings were expected for Black (vs. White), 6- and 10-year-old victims. In addition, ratings for 10-year-old Black victims were expected to be significantly harsher (e.g., less credibility attributed) than those for 6-year-old Black victims, given that 10-year-olds are closer in age to the cutoff for sufficient sexual knowledge to fabricate false CSA reports. Second, participants in the Black sexual prime condition (compared to White sexual and no prime conditions) were anticipated to rate Black CSA victims particularly harshly because of participants’ increased application of the Jezebel stereotype. In contrast, exposure to Jezebel stereotype-related content was not expected to adversely influence ratings of White victims (e.g., Johnson et al. 2009). Thus, a significant Victim Race X Priming Condition interaction was anticipated.
Third, in measuring explicit Jezebel stereotype endorsement, participants who scored higher (vs. lower) on the BSS would rate Black victims more harshly overall. In addition, higher BSS scores were expected to interact with stereotype priming via the Black sexual video, resulting in harsher ratings of Black victims compared to White victims regardless of victim age. Thus, a significant Victim Race X Priming Condition X BSS Score interaction was predicted.
Two hundred thirteen undergraduates (155 females) participated in exchange for partial course credit. Their ages ranged from 18 to 30 years (M = 19.6, SD = 1.85). The sample was predominately female, and included White (34%), Asian (37%), and Latinx/“other” (29%) participants. The students were randomly assigned to experimental conditions with the restriction that gender and race/ethnicity were equalized as possible.
A standard demographic instrument was used.
Belief in Stereotype Scale (Alley 2009)
The BSS assesses endorsement of four statements directly related to the Jezebel stereotype (i.e., “Black females start having sex when they’re really young”; “In general, Black females have sex with a lot of different guys”; “In general, Black females have more sexual partners than White females”; “In general, Black females will do anything sexual guys ask them to do”). Items for the BSS are embedded within other statements regarding opinions about sex (e.g., “Young people should not have sex before marriage”; “Birth control should not be given to adolescents without parental permission”). Agreement ratings are made on a 6-point scale (1 = do not agree to 6 = completely agree). The BSS has good reliability as indicated by a Cronbach’s alpha of .92.
CSA Trial Scenario
The trial scenario was modeled after Bottoms et al.’s (2004) in which the defendant is on trial for criminal sexual assault. The victim claims that her teacher, the defendant, assaulted her on several occasions after school at his apartment. The defendant claims that there is no evidence except the victim’s statements, that the abuse was suggested by the victim’s mother, and that the victim fabricated the story to get back at him for starting to date a woman and spending less time with her. Several witnesses testify in the case—the mother, victim, teacher’s aide, and school principal. The between-subjects experimental manipulation of victim race (Black and White) and victim age (6 and 10) resulted in four conditions. No race information was provided for the defendant, teacher’s aide, and principal. The scenario was pretested without victim race and victim age information to ensure that it was not biased for or against the defendant. Similar to Bottoms’s (1993) results, defendant conviction rates were approximately 50%.
Trial Rating Questionnaire
This questionnaire is primarily composed of 6-point Likert-type scales measuring victim credibility, victim harm, victim trauma, and four questions measuring victim culpability (blame, responsibility, cause, want) for her own abuse. Victim credibility is rated in terms of believing the victim (1 = completely unbelievable to 6 = completely believable). The harm, trauma, and culpability items are presented as statements about which participants report their agreement (e.g., “Assuming the sexual contact occurred Jessica Jones was harmed by the sexual contact”; “Assuming the sexual contact occurred, Jessica Jones was traumatized by the sexual contact”; 1 = completely do not agree to 6 = completely agree). Using the same agreement scale, participants also report how much they agree that the sexual contact occurred (“Regardless of whether you found Donald Johnson guilty or not guilty of criminal child sexual assault, do you agree that the sexual contact occurred between the defendant and Jessica Jones?”). Participants also complete credibility and culpability ratings for the defendant that are comparable to the victim-focused ones (e.g., “Assuming the sexual contact occurred Donald Johnson caused it to happen.”). Participants are instructed to assume that the sexual assault occurred when making culpability (blame, responsibility, cause, want), harm, and trauma ratings. Additionally, participants report their determination of defendant guilt (guilty, not guilty) and confidence in guilt (1 = not at all confident to 6 = completely confident). Determinations of guilt and confidence in guilt can be combined to create a 12-point “guilt scale,” ranging from 1 = not guilty and completely confident to 12 = guilty and completely confident. Using such a scale that combines guilt and confidence is common in the psycholegal literature (e.g., Ask and Landström 2010; Bottoms et al. 2004).
Two videos were constructed from clips taken from music videos commonly shown on television music channels and/or featured on websites such as YouTube. For the Jezebel stereotype-consistent video, clips were taken from videos featuring Black female artists performing in a sexual and provocative manner (Black sexual video). These performers included Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim. A second video was constructed featuring White female performers (White sexual video). These performers included Brittney Spears, Fergie, and Gwen Stefani, again all performing in a sexual and provocative manner. Each video was exactly 1 min in length, both accompanied by the same copyright-free instrumental music.
To help ensure that the two videos content was perceived as equally sexual in nature, 46 undergraduates (28 females and 18 males) participated in video pretesting for partial course credit. Participants viewed both videos with order of presentation counterbalanced. The videos were rated on sexualness and explicitness using 8-point scales (1 = extremely non-sexual/non-explicit to 8 = extremely sexual/explicit). The sexualness and explicitness scores were combined to create a single Sexuality score. A paired-samples t test was conducted on the sexuality scores which showed that the Black video’s (M = 7.04, SD = .788) and White video’s (M = 7.23, SD = .593) sexuality ratings were not statistically different from each other, t(45) = − 1.79, p > .05. Although it is difficult to match sexualness across video ethnicity, no significant participant gender or participant ethnicity differences in ratings for the videos emerged, ps > .05.
Eligibility to participate was dependent on participants’ prior completion of the psychology department’s online prescreening process. The prescreening consisted of numerous questionnaires and individual difference measures including the BSS. The BSS was included in the prescreening process as opposed to our main study to obscure the relation between it and the experimental manipulations and reduce the likelihood of demand characteristics. After completing the prescreening measures, participants enrolled in our experiment through the psychology department’s online experiment management program. The study itself was also conducted online, using Ensemble, a web-based experiment management program (Tomic and Janata 2007; web-based experiments have been shown to produce findings similar to those of paper and pencil studies [Gosling et al. 2004]). After participants enrolled, e-mails were sent to them containing a link to a web address corresponding to one of the 12 randomly assigned conditions.
Prior to starting the experiment, online informed consent was obtained. As is common in psychology studies, it was necessary to obscure the true nature of the study. To that end, the informed consent explained that the researchers were interested in people’s perceptions of public policy and legal issues that were currently being debated in the public arena. Participants were informed that they would be randomly assigned to provide their perceptions of five of the following possible issues: Medicare reform, offshore drilling, tobacco advertisements, age discrimination, drinking water safety, government bailouts, children as witnesses in CSA cases, gun control, and television and internet censorship (in actuality, all participants read the same five issues). Further, they were informed that they might view sexually explicit videos and/or read about sexual acts and could withdraw from the study at any time without loss of credit. No participants declined to consent or failed to complete the study.
Three issues were used as filler tasks: offshore drilling, drinking water safety, and age discrimination. Television and internet censorship served as the issue for the presentation of the Black and White sexual videos, and children as witnesses served as the issue for the mock trial and trial judgments. Issue presentation order was the same for all participants (offshore drilling followed by drinking water safety, television and Internet censorship, children as witnesses, and age discrimination) to ensure that the CSA mock trial always directly followed the videos.
For each issue, participants read a short introductory summary and then answered a series of questions. For the television and internet censorship issue (i.e., Black or White sexual video task), participants read about the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) role in the regulation of television content and a proposal for the FCC to also regulate internet content. Next, participants in the Black and White video conditions were informed that they would view a short video clip compiled from content taken from television and/or websites. After viewing either the 1-minute Black or White video, participants provided their perceptions of the FCC’s role in regulating such content. For the no video condition, participants read the summary, answered general questions regarding the issue (e.g., “Do you agree that television stations frequently violate FCC rules?”; “Do you agree that the FCC should be allowed to censor internet content?”), and then were instructed to spend approximately one minute providing their personal opinions about the government’s role in regulating television and internet content.
Participants were next introduced to the issue of children as witnesses (the target task). After reading the trial summary, participants provided their judgments of the victim and defendant in the case. After completing the age discrimination filler task, participants completed the demographic questionnaire. As a manipulation/attention check, participants were asked to provide as much information as they could remember about the defendant and victim. Additionally, they were instructed to describe the content of the video, if applicable. No participants were dropped due to failing the attention/manipulation checks. All participants were probed for suspicion regarding the true nature of the study, and no one indicated that the video and target tasks were associated or indicated that the study was about racial stereotypes. To further ensure that the real purpose of the study was not revealed during data collection, participants were partially debriefed at the conclusion of their experimental session; full debriefing was made via e-mail after all data were collected and analyzed.
Variable Construction and Preliminary Analyses
The four items representing victim and defendant culpability, respectively, were summed and averaged to create separate victim and defendant culpability scores (Cronbach’s alphas .92 and .91, respectively). To facilitate analysis of variance (ANOVA), a median split of BSS scores was performed to create two groups—a high and a low BSS group.
Preliminary analyses revealed participant gender as an important consideration. To examine hypotheses in the context of gender effects while maintaining adequate cell sizes, separate between-subjects ANOVAs including gender were performed for each combination of key variables (e.g., victim age × victim race × participant gender, victim race × priming × participant gender, victim race × BSS group × participant gender) per dependent measure. Analyses of other relations are described as appropriate. Predicted interactions were further analyzed into simple effects. When significant findings were duplicative, they are presented only once. Skewness and kurtosis fell within acceptable levels. All significant findings are reported.
Three participant race groups (Asians, Whites, and Others [mainly Latinos]) were created (n’s = 78, 72, and 63, respectively). Preliminary analyses revealed that for victim culpability and victim traumatization ratings, significant participant race main effects emerged, Fs(2, 195) > 4.81, p< .009, ηp2s> .05. Compared to Whites (M = 1.42, SD = .78; M = 5.55, SD = .82) and Others (M = 1.65, SD = .78; M = 5.31, SD. = 1.23), Asians (M = 2.26, SD = 1.07; M = 4.96, SD = 1.01) judged victims as more culpable and less traumatized, respectively (ps < .05, post hoc tests). Because there were no significant interactions, participant race was not examined further.
A 2 (victim age) × 3 (priming condition) × 2 (participant gender) ANOVA revealed a significant main effect for gender, F(1, 201) = 29.12, p < .001, ηp2 = .11, that was qualified by a significant victim age × gender interaction, F(1, 201) = 4.76, p = .03, ηp2 = .03. Women (M = 4.50, SD = .92) compared to men (M = 3.31, SD = 1.40) rated the 10-year-old victim as more credible, F(1, 103) = 26.11, p < .001, ηp2 = .20; there was no significant gender difference for the 6-year-old victim (women, M = 4.38, SD = .98; men, M = 3.86, SD = .92).
From a 2 (victim race) × 3 (priming condition) × 2 (participant gender) ANOVA , the victim race × priming condition interaction was significant, F(2, 201) = 3.41, p = .04, ηp2 = .03. In the Black sexual prime condition, the Black victim (M = 3.89, SD = 1.23) was judged as less credible than the White victim (M = 4.56, SD = 1.00), F(1, 69) = 6.21, p = .015, ηp2 = .08. There were no significant effects involving the no prime condition (White victim, M = 3.94, SD = 1.09; Black victim, M = 4.33, SD = .99) or the White sexual prime condition (White victim, M = 4.34, SD = 1.11; Black victim, M = 4.17, SD = 1.00). Thus, only in the Black sexual priming condition were Black compared to White victims perceived as less credible.
Means (standard deviations) for victim credibility ratings by participant gender, BSS group, and victim race collapsed across victim age and priming condition
Victim Culpability Ratings
Means (standard deviations) for victim culpability ratings by victim age, victim race, and priming condition
An ANOVA with BSS group, victim race, and priming condition revealed a significant main effect for BSS group, F(1, 196) = 5.71, p = .02, ηp2 = .03, which was qualified by a significant BSS Group x Priming Condition interaction, F(2, 196) = 3.59, p = .03, ηp2 = .04. Futher analyses revealed a significant main effect for BSS group in the no prime condition (Low BSS, M = 1.62, SD = .98; High BSS, M = 2.21, SD = 1.10), F(1, 65) = 5.40, p = .02, ηp2 = .07, and Black sexual prime condition (Low BSS, M = 1.52, SD = .80; High BSS, M = 2.09, SD = .99), F(1, 69) = 6.98, p = .01, ηp2 = .09. There were no significant effects for the White sexual prime condition (Low BSS, M = 1.72, SD = .00; High BSS, M = 1.52, SD = .80). Participants in the high (vs. low) BSS group rated the victim, regardless of victim race, as more culpable in the no prime and Black prime conditions (vs. White prime condition).
Victim Harmed Ratings
Means (standard deviations) for victim harmed ratings by BSS group, victim race, and priming condition collapsed across victim age
ANOVA on victim harmed ratings, collapsed across victim age, yielded the hypothesized three-way interaction in which Black victims were expected to be judged more harshly by participants with higher BSS scores in the Black sexual prime condition, F(2, 196) = 3.71, p = .03, ηp2 = .04. Further analyses yielded a significant victim race × priming condition interaction for the high BSS group, F(2, 84) = 3.07, p = .05, ηp2 = .07. A significant simple effect emerged for victim race in the Black sexual prime condition, F(1, 36) = 4.59, p = .04, ηp2 = .11, such that Black victims were judged less harmed than White victims by participants with higher BSS scores. Thus, the hypothesis was fully supported for victim harmed ratings.
Victim Traumatized Ratings
ANOVA of victim age, priming condition, and gender revealed significant main effects for priming condition, F(2, 200) = 5.67, p = .004, ηp2 = .05, and gender, F(1, 200) = 7.59, p = .006, ηp2 = .04, that were subsumed by a significant priming condition × gender interaction, F(2, 200) = 3.49, p = .03, ηp2 = .03. In the Black sexual prime condition, F(1, 69) = 10.55, p = .002, ηp2 = .13, men (M = 4.29, SD = 1.61) compared to women (M = 5.31, SD = .98) rated the victim less traumatized after viewing the Black sexual prime. There were no significant gender differences in the other priming conditions (no video: women, M = 5.45, SD = .90; men, M = 5.15, SD = 1.09; White sexual prime: women, M = 5.43, SD = .90; men, M = 5.41, SD = .87).
When gender was replaced with victim race in the preceding ANOVA, significant main effects of victim race, F(1, 200) = 4.65, p = .03, ηp2 = .02, and priming condition, F(2, 200) = 3.52, p = .03, ηp2 = .03, emerged. Black victims (M = 5.11, SD = 1.20) were rated less traumatized than White victims (M = 5.37, SD = .97) regardless of victim age. For the priming condition, pairwise comparisons showed a trend (p = .05) for the victim to be rated as less traumatized in the Black sexual priming condition (M = 5.00, SD = 1.23) than in the White sexual priming condition (M = 5.42, SD = .89) or the no prime condition (M = 5.37, SD = .96). There were no significant effects when BSS group was considered, ps > .05.
Belief that Sex Occurred
ANOVA revealed significant main effects for victim race, F(1, 200) = 4.56, p = .03, ηp2 = .02, and gender, F(1, 200) = 23.53, p < .001, ηp2 = .11, that were subsumed by a significant victim race × gender interaction, F(1, 200) = 4.15, p = .04, ηp2 = .02. Compared to women, men were more likely to believe that sex occurred when the victim was Black (M = 3.90, SD = 1.30) than White (M = 3.14, SD = 1.53), but the difference was not significant for women (Black, M = 4.45, SD = 1.01; White, M = 4.44, SD = 1.08; simple effects).
Logistic regression predicting likelihood of finding the defendant guilty
95% CI for odds ratio
The only effect to reach significance in ANOVA was gender, F(1, 203) = 4.30, p = .04, ηp2 = .21. Men rated the defendant more credible (M = 3.38, SD = 1.15) than did women (M = 3.04, SD = 1.04).
ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of priming condition, F(2, 200) = 3.85, p = .02, ηp2 = .04, that was qualified by a significant priming condition × gender interaction, F(2, 200) = 4.57, p = .01, ηp2 = .04. In the Black sexual priming condition, men (M = 4.62, SD = 1.22) rated the defendant as less culpable than did women (M = 5.36, SD = .85); simple effect, F(1, 68) = 8.43, p = .005, ηp2 = .11. There were no other significant gender differences for prime conditions (no video: women, M = 5.14, SD = .94; men, M = 5.38, SD = .76; White sexual: women, M = 5.44, SD = .87; men, M = 5.49, SD = .65).
Modern media continue to reinforce the Jezebel stereotype by portraying Black females as hypersexual, promiscuous, and lascivious (e.g., Collins 2009; Few and Stephens 2009; Harris-Perry 2011). Unfortunately, little empirical research exists on Black females (Cole 2009; Sesko and Biernat 2010), and even less has focused on the Jezebel stereotype. It is likely that the Jezebel stereotype contributes to racial disparities identified in the CSA literature; for example, that young Black (vs. White) female CSA victims are judged more harshly (e.g., Bottoms et al. 2004). To examine how the Jezebel stereotype and proximal exposure to sexual media content influence adults’ perceptions of young CSA victims, the present study varied victim age, victim race, and video priming condition, and assessed Jezebel stereotype endorsement. Noteworthy racial bias was detected, with Black (vs. White) girls perceived as less traumatized by their victimization and as less credible after participants viewed the Black sexual (vs. the White sexual or no) video. Also, men who were more (vs. less) endorsing of the Jezebel stereotype found a Black child less credible than a White child, and men who viewed a Black (vs. White or no) sexual prime video rated both Black and White child victims as less traumatized and less harmed. Additionally, Black victims were judged less harmed than White victims by the high (vs. low) Jezebel stereotype participants who viewed the Black (vs. White or no) sexual video.
Our results replicate prior work showing harsher attitudes towards Black versus White female CSA victims (e.g., Bottoms et al. 2004), and also shed light on how a negative sexual stereotype that is generally associated with Black adult females may be generalized to young Black girls (Thiem et al. 2019). Our findings suggest that racial bias and the Jezebel stereotype have potential to taint perceptions of alleged CSA victims and thus adversely affect their rights to an impartial justice system. The bias by some adults to perceive sexual contact as being less damaging to Black (vs. White) CSA victims and to attribute less credibility to Black (vs. White) child victims could result in Black child victims being treated unfairly at multiple stages of CSA investigations, starting with abuse disclosure and going forward to a court trial (Wyatt 1990). Our society has an ethical obligation to view every potential victim equally under the law, especially vulnerable young children, but the present research suggests that racial bias and sexual stereotyping may be impeding that egalitarian mandate.
Victim Age and Race
Prior work suggests that, in CSA cases, adults view teenagers (vs. younger children) as less credible victims in part because the adults view children as losing their sexual naiveté, and thus become capable of instigating lies about sexual abuse, at around 12 years old (Bottoms and Goodman 1994). For the present study, we predicted that, if a lower cutoff age of sexual naiveté was used for Black (vs. White) children, 10-year-old Black children would be viewed as less credible than 10-year-old White children or (regardless of race) 6-year-old children.
Overall, this sexual naiveté hypothesis was partially supported. Although victim age and race did not interact to affect credibility ratings, a significant victim age × gender interaction emerged for victim credibility judgments. Specifically, compared to females, males rated the 10-year-old child victims as less credible; there was no significant gender difference for ratings of the 6-year-old victims. Our findings suggest that men compared to women may presume girls lose sexual naiveté at a younger age (e.g., by 10 years of age).
Lending further support to our sexual naiveté hypothesis is that only when participants were primed with the Jezebel stereotype-consistent Black video (vs. the White or no video) were Black (vs. White) victims judged to be less credible witnesses. This finding suggests that priming the Jezebel stereotype influenced participants to judge Black (vs. White ) girls in general as less credible. Our results may reflect that even 6-year-old Black girls are perceived as less credible (and perhaps more sexual) than 6-year-old White girls when the Jezebel stereotype is activated.
The Influence of Victim Race, Priming Condition, and BSS Group on Victim Ratings
Individuals in the Black sexual prime condition who more strongly endorsed the Jezebel stereotype (high BSS group) were expected to rate both 6- and 10-year-old Black victims more harshly than White victims. The hypothesis was fully supported for victim harmed ratings. In the Black sexual prime condition, high (vs. low) BSS group members rated Black victims as less harmed by the sexual assault. This finding is in line with theoretical and empirical work suggesting that stereotypes frequently activated by media consumption become chronically accessible in memory resulting in stronger associations between the stereotype and the social category (Ford 1997; Givens and Monahan 2005; Hansen and Hansen 1988). A strong a priori belief in the stereotype, coupled with a recent activation of it, and not having a personal standard to avoid appearing prejudiced, should lead to robust application of the stereotype. This appears to be the case for victim harmed ratings. Having a belief in the Jezebel stereotype and being primed with the stereotype did not adversely affect White victim harmed ratings; victim harmed ratings were surprisingly similar between low and high BSS group members for all other conditions. Thus, the activated stereotype appears to have been applied only to judgments of Black victims by those more strongly believing in the stereotype’s validity.
For victim traumatized ratings, Black victims were viewed as less traumatized by the sexual assault than White victims. However, contrary to stereotype applicability (e.g., Higgins et al., 1977), participants primed with the Jezebel stereotype rated both Black and White victims less traumatized by the sexual assault. The same result was not observed in the White sexual and no prime conditions. This suggests that, compared to the White sexual prime, the Black sexual prime may have triggered a broad stereotype of women-as-promiscuous, and thus less likely to be emotionally hurt by sexual contact, with “trickle down” to girls in CSA cases.
Studies have shown that activating a sex-based stereotype affects participants’ ratings of other women: For instance, Ferguson et al. (2005) asked men and women to view clips from a popular daytime talk show that frequently featured guests discussing explicit sex themes. To prime the women-as-promiscuous stereotype, the clips featured women discussing their sex lives or describing various sex acts initiated by them (promiscuous condition), whereas the non-promiscuous condition featured clips of women discussing non-sexual topics such as eating disorders. Participants next read about a female sexual harassment victim’s claim against her male supervisor. Participants in the promiscuous (vs. non-promiscuous) condition rated the victim as less traumatized and more culpable for the event. It is possible that in the present study, despite null differences on “sexuality” ratings in pilot testing, women in the Black sexual video were perceived as more promiscuous than women in the White sexual video, which activated participants’ general “women-as-promiscuous” mental content, which in turn influenced perceptions of both Black and White victims.
For victim culpability ratings, victims, regardless of race, were rated as more culpable by high BSS group members in the Black sexual prime and no video conditions. Again, this finding runs counter to theoretical and empirical work demonstrating that activated stereotypes are generally applied to appropriate targets (e.g., Higgins et al. 1977) and is similar to the victim traumatized ratings results since both Black and White victims were disadvantaged in the Black sexual prime condition. In contrast, in the White sexual prime condition, high BSS group members judged both White and Black victims as less culpable. High BSS group members may have had a default tendency to judge women in general as more promiscuous, but the images of sexualized White women activated cognitions that reduced victim blaming across the board (Herr 1986); for example, viewing sexualized White women may have prompted more compassionate thoughts about women being exploited as sex objects, which then caused more sympathy for child victims. In contrast, images of Black women may have just reinforced existing notions of negative sexuality.
The Pervasive Influence of Participant Gender on Victim Ratings
Men (vs. women) who more strongly endorsed the Jezebel stereotype rated Black (vs. White) victims as less credible, regardless of victim age. Although gender effects are common in the child credibility literature (Bottoms et al., 2009), ours is among the first to demonstrate differential victim ratings as a function of participant gender, victim race, and stereotype endorsement. This finding suggests that, for some men, endorsing the Jezebel stereotype is related to their judgments of the veracity of CSA allegations made by Black females.
Gender effects were also observed for victim harmed and victim traumatized ratings. Men (vs. women) rated Black and White victims as less harmed and less traumatized by the sexual assault after viewing the sexually explicit Black video. This finding suggests that men generalized the activated Jezebel stereotype-related content to both Black and White victims when forming impressions of the victims’ likelihood of being harmed and traumatized after being sexually assaulted by their teacher. Thus, Jezebel stereotype-related media affected male participants’ ratings regardless of victim race.
Of interest, the White sexual prime did not result in men rating victims less traumatized and less harmed. If the effect was based on activating a general sexual schema regarding women, one would expect similar results in the White sexual prime condition. To the extent that the two priming videos were matched for “sexuality,” it is difficult to explain why the Jezebel prime would exert a powerful effect on judgments of both Black and White victims. One possibility is that, specifically for the men in our sample, the Black sexual prime activated other concepts and/or attitudes related to negative sexuality that were not measured by our sexuality score. Moreover, although the Black and White females performed similar actions, participants may have filtered those actions through their biased attitudes, resulting in negative attributions and impressions towards the Black females but not White females.
It should also be noted that men were more likely to believe the sex occurred when the victim was Black, which could reflect belief in the Jezebel stereotype. However, there are other plausible explanations (e.g., Black girls viewed as easier targets), and it is also not clear whether that suggests that men in the White victim condition thought victims were lying about being abused. Future work should address this uncertainty by asking participants why they thought the abuse happened and directly asking whether they believe the victim is telling the truth.
Factors Influencing Defendant Ratings
Although the main focus of the present study was to examine the effects of explicit stereotypes on CSA victim ratings, it was also important to investigate any potential influences on defendant ratings. Defendant guilt judgments were not affected by victim race, BSS group, or priming condition. Participant gender was the most important factor in whether the defendant was found guilty or not guilty, with women being more likely to convict than men. From a legal standpoint, it is important that defendants are not disadvantaged by bias stemming from victims’ race. However, given that defendant race was unspecified in this study, it is possible that racially biased verdicts might be evident when defendant race is manipulated (Eberhardt et al. 2004; Sommers and Ellsworth 2000). Future research should explore the effects of the Jezebel stereotype on adults’ guilt and sentencing judgments of Black versus White defendants in CSA cases, and continue to investigate effects of victim race on these legal judgments.
Participants’ perceptions of defendants’ credibility also differed as a function of participant gender, with men compared to women finding defendants more credible. Additionally, when defendant culpability scores were analyzed, men compared to women in the Black sexual prime condition were more likely to perceive the defendant as less culpable for the sexual assault regardless of victim age or victim race. As previously discussed, one possible explanation for this finding is that viewing sexually provocative Black women triggered a stereotype of females, in general, as being more promiscuous, and thus more culpable for sexual encounters. Future studies should examine whether priming just the category “Black woman” would yield similar results.
The gender differences in defendant ratings in this study and others involving teacher/ student sex (e.g., Bottoms et al. 2004; Fromuth and Holt 2008) could possibly be explained by women (vs. men) perceiving more acutely the unequal power differences between teachers and students. To safeguard young children and help support their rights to safety and security, efforts should be made to inform all individuals about young children’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation by authority figures (Weiss 2002).
Taken together, the present study’s findings suggest that although Black CSA victims at trial may be assigned some blame and be viewed as less credible witnesses, verdicts are not necessarily influenced by victim race or a belief in the Jezebel stereotype. Thus, from a legal standpoint, victim race and BSS scores may not have a significant effect on whether a defendant is convicted for assaulting a young girl.
Despite no significant effects of victim race on guilt judgments in the present study, the potential for an effect appears to exist. Our study reveals the potential for Black CSA victims to be especially vulnerable to a negative bias if individuals have been primed with Jezebel stereotype-consistent imagery and/or strongly endorse the Jezebel stereotype. Our results also suggest that men may evince such racial bias more than women; but important racial bias effects were revealed for both genders: Recall that Black victims were rated by both men and women as less traumatized by the sexual assault than White victims. It is easy to imagine a Black child’s CSA allegations not being taken as seriously as those of a White victim if an individual believes that the child was not particularly harmed or traumatized by the assault. Studies have demonstrated implicit racial stereotyping/bias in mental health professionals (Abreu 1999), police officers (Graham and Lowery 2004), and medical personnel (Bodenhausen 2005; Green et al. 2007; Moskowitz et al. 2012) leading to differential treatment of Black and White targets. Therefore, the possibility exists for Black CSA victims to be judged unfairly by those who determine a defendant’s freedom and those entrusted to help and protect children.
Fortunately, results from studies such as the present one could be used to educate jurors, as well as mandated reporters, child protective services personnel, police investigators, and others possibly involved in CSA investigations, of the potential hazard of stereotypes influencing judgments about crimes. Further, during jury selection, uncovering potential bias against Black females could prevent possible differences in sentencing of defendants convicted of assaulting Black (vs. White) girls.
Limitations and Future Directions
The present study has several limitations. As is common in experiments, the participants were university students, and the findings may not generalize to the larger population. However, in several reviews, scholars have compared results from mock trial research that focused on college student samples to ones that focused on community samples and found few differences (Bornstein 1999; Bornstein et al. 2017). If there are significant differences, though, it is highly probable that they skew our study towards being a conservative test of our hypotheses. Because our student sample is likely left-leaning and perhaps particularly attuned to social justice issues, any biases found in our student sample may be even larger in a community sample.
The videos used in the present study also warrant mention. First, it is possible that participants had preexisting associations with some of the celebrities in the videos and those associations drove subsequent decision-making rather than broader conceptions of Black or White females. Second, what exactly the videos “primed” remains unclear. Whereas “common sense” indicates that they would prime cognitive networks related to negative female sexuality, it is also possible that, for example, the images in the Black video activated cognitions related to rap music or “video vixen” culture (despite no rap audio in the videos; and see Johnson et al. 2009 in which only the sexual rap audio prime and not the non-sexual rap audio prime influenced non-support of a Black woman). Additionally, the videos could have prompted activation and application of other stereotypes (e.g., “welfare queen”; Monahan et al. 2005). Future researchers who choose to take a priming approach to studying the Jezebel stereotype could adapt more controlled priming techniques from the social cognition field to better isolate activation and application of specific Jezebel stereotype-related cognitions. Moreover, it is possible that racial biases affected the pretest ratings of the videos, such that, for example, the Black video was actually less sexual than the White video objectively, or would have been deemed different than the White video on other relevant metrics that were not assessed (e.g., socio-economic status). More objective pretesting should be considered in future research.
Finally, written scenarios were used; therefore, our participants’ ratings may not generalize to those of jurors in real CSA cases. Also, effects of jury deliberations and group-level decision-making were not investigated. Hence, a more ecologically sound design may yield different results. It should be noted, however, that the goal of the present study was not only to generalize the findings to trials. As previously discussed, the results reveal the potential for biased decisions to be made against Black female CSA victims at various stages in legal cases.
Given that so little empirical work exists on perceptions of Black females (Cole 2009; Sesko and Biernat 2010), we urge other researchers to study this topic with the downstream goal of improving the treatment of Black females in society. Future investigations specifically on the Jezebel stereotype and CSA victims could utilize implicit (i.e., indirect) measures to investigate “implicit bias,” use more controlled primes, test interactive effects between victim and defendant race, and also expand the age ranges of CSA victims to investigate the boundaries of our age findings. Such research can begin to correct for the “invisibility of Black women” in academic research to ensure psychological theories on stereotyping and bias are more inclusive than they are currently (Cole 2009; Sesko and Biernat 2010). Future researchers with interest in the legal context should focus on the ecological validity of their studies.
Studies of Black male stereotyping are abundant, and it is clear that Black males in the USA are subject to negative stereotypes (e.g., Correll et al. 2007; Fiske and Tablante 2015). Far less studied is how stereotyping affects adults’ judgments of Black females (Cole 2009; Sesko and Biernat 2010). The present research addresses this gap by demonstrating the biasing influences of the Jezebel stereotype and exposure to sexual videos on judgments concerning Black (vs. White) CSA victims. The results suggest that even very young Black child victims of sexual abuse are viewed in more negative light than comparable White victims, which is in line with the historical characterization of Black female sexuality (e.g., Pilgrim 2002).
Our findings add to the growing research on stereotypes of Black females and contribute to the stereotyping literature generally. This study also expands the child victim/witness literature by demonstrating that victim race and observer factors like Jezebel stereotype endorsement may be noteworthy extra-legal influences that impinge on children’s legal rights, specifically Black CSA victims’ rights to equal treatment. Therefore, educating those involved in CSA cases on the effects of stereotyping may be an essential first step to ensuring that all CSA victims are treated fairly and respectfully, and given just treatment and equal protection under the law. Future studies should assess a broader array of participants’ sexuality- and promiscuity-related reactions to the prime videos, and also participants’ general attitudes towards the featured women, to determine whether the Black women are characterized differentially than the White women.
Support for this research came in part from the National Academies of Science, Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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