Intended responses to rape as functions of attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions


Intended responses to rape as functions of attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions

-By Jacque Buck

We’ve all heard the stories – Brock Turner, Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cosby. Sexual assault or rape cases covered and picked apart by the media that caused outrage throughout the nation. In response to publicized cases like these, it appears that more and more women are speaking out about these injustices (thank you feminism), including women in college. A generation of strong women with fire in their bellies, ambition to continue to pave the way for equality, and reject the misogynistic, garbage narrative is something that I can get behind. Our responses to rape matter, including both speaking out against rape and showing support for individual survivors of rape. But, we know that there’s a lot of variability in people’s responses. Some people speak out against rape and some people don’t; some people offer social support to survivors of rape and some people don’t. Can we get a more precise idea of why people respond to rape in different ways? How do their attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions matter in these responses? To answer that question, I turned to Drs. Valerie Earnshaw, Eileen Pitpitan, and Stephenie Chaudoir’s article.

Wait – what do you mean by attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions?

Attitudes are how a person thinks or feels about a particular subject and, in this study, are participants’ feelings about feminism and beliefs about rape. Feminism and rape myth acceptance likely impacted student responses to rape including likelihood of speaking out and/or taking action.

Attributions to fault are the people, norms, or other things that participants blame for rape and are likely related to how they responded to rape, as well. College students in the U.S. may blame society, the perpetrator, and/or the survivor.

Emotions are feelings that play a role in student responses to rape. The main emotions examined in the study were fear, anger and pity. Feeling fear is a common response to people’s increased awareness of rape culture, whereas feeling anger is a response to realizing someone’s personal freedom and privacy have been invaded. Pity is not felt for rape itself, but for the survivor of rape as his or her physical, psychological, and emotional well-being has been damaged for reasons out of their control.

Got it, so what happened in this study?

This study examined college students’ perceptions of and reactions to a description of a female student’s rape experience. All participants were pre-screened, read a scenario online about a female college student’s rape experience, and answered questions about their reactions, including their attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions. 105 female and 74 male college students participated. Many of these types of studies are divided by gender, but this one included both males and females simultaneously because in the real world we aren’t awkwardly standing around on opposites sides of the gym like 6th graders at a school dance.

The Bottom Line

Women held more positive attitudes toward feminism and disagreed more with rape myth acceptance attitudes than men. Women also attributed more blame to society than men did, but women and men attributed similar amounts of fault to the survivor. Women experienced greater fear and anger than men after reading about the scenario, and women and men experienced similar amounts of pity. Women agreed more strongly than men that they would engage in anti-rape action, but women and men agreed that they would help survivors of rape to a similar extent.

Participants who had more positive attitudes toward feminism, disagreed with rape myth acceptance attitudes, attributed fault for rape to society, and felt fear after reading the scenario agreed more strongly that they would engage in anti-rape action. Participants who disagreed with rape myth acceptance attitudes, attributed fault for rape to the male perpetrator, and felt anger after reading the scenario agreed more strongly that they would help the survivor of rape. These associations were similar for women and men.

So interestingly, college students’ attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions played different roles in predicting engagement in anti-rape action and responding to an individual survivor of rape. Attitudes, including attitudes towards feminism and rape myth acceptance attitudes, were more strongly associated with engagement in anti-rape action but were not associated with helping individual survivors. Attributions of fault to society were associated with breaking down society and rape culture itself, whereas attributions of fault to men were associated with likelihood of helping an individual survivor. As far as emotional reactions go, feelings of anger were related to reported likelihood of helping a survivor but fear was more consistent with intent to engage in anti-rape action. Pity ended up being unrelated to responses to rape in this study.

Any Limitations?

Yes, and these are good to keep in mind when thinking about how these results might matter in the real world. There were a few:

  1. The rape scenario that participants read is not the same as every rape case that’s ever occurred – they’re all different, ya feel? So, students could have responded in a different way if they were given a different situation to read.
  2. This study measures intended behavior and we don’t know if these participants would actually engage in anti-rape action or help a survivor.
  3. The sample of students used for this study were mainly white kids in New England and, it turns out, not everyone is white and from New England. The results may not generalizable to everyone, but may still be useful and a reason for further research.


The awesome thing about this study is that it’s about rape on college campuses and, as I hope you know, that’s a huge problem. If you haven’t watched The Hunting Ground, go watch it right now. Also, if we can get a stronger understanding of predictors of college students’ desire to help and take action, efforts to stop rape on campus in the long run have a higher likelihood of being improved. Just imagine not feeling weird about walking home alone one day. Crazy, right? Dream big. Peace out.

Reference: Earnshaw, V. A., Pitpitan, E. V., & Chaudoir, S. R. (2011). Intended responses to rape as functions of attitudes, attributions of fault, and emotions. Sex Roles, 64, 382-393.