By Elena Meth
I, like much of the country, spent the better part of the week of September 4, 2018 huddled in front of various screens, watching a man who had been multiply accused of sexual assault be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. A year prior, America was caught up in the newly popularized MeToo movement and was seemingly on an upward trend in favor of supporting survivors, even when their assailants are the wealthy, powerful men of Hollywood or American politics. Still, Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing showed me that many Americans are hesitant to believe survivors of sexual assault, especially in cases against prominent societal figures. I finished the week feeling disheartened, disappointed, and in search of answers. Exactly how distrustful are Americans of survivors of sexual assault and what role does partisanship play in whether we believe survivors? Most importantly, what does the future of survivor support look like as Americans increasingly politically polarize?
So, I decided to dedicate my semester in Senior Seminar to trying to answer these questions. I quickly found the research on political attitudes and survivor support is abysmal. Police departments were not federally required to keep records on sexual violence until the 1990s, and America is still largely focused on grasping the whole picture of sexual violence, not necessarily what leads people to perpetrate violence in the first place. And a 2018 PRRI survey found that 56% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats would still consider voting for a candidate who had been accused of sexual harassment, suggesting there is a partisan divide over believing that sexual harassment is a serious issue.
Due to the lack of existing data on perceptual effects of sexual assault, let alone on politics, I ran a localized experiment in the October 2018 Denison Political Science survey. I randomly presented allegation scenarios patterned on Sen. Franken’s assault allegations. Respondents were all given the same basic scenario but half were told the congressman was a Democrat and the rest were told he was a Republican. For each scenario, respondents were asked the extent to which they believed the allegations as well as the extent to which they believed the outcome of the allegations were fair to the congressman.
Figure 1 shows the relationship between partisan identity and whether they believe the accuser. Overall, Denison students had high levels of belief in the allegations and felt the outcomes of the allegations were fair; only 5.3% of students answered that they did not believe the allegations and 8% felt the outcomes were unfair. This is good news.
Strong Republicans were less likely to believe the allegations against Republican Senator Mark Goodman and more readily condemned Sen. Franken. The average belief of a strong Republican was 2.5, or between “No, Somewhat” and “Unsure.” On average, liberal students either somewhat or entirely believed the allegations against both Sen. Goodman and Sen. Franken, though Goodman more than Franken. Responses were similar if not slightly more in belief of the fairness of allegations and outcome. Basically, I found two things happening. First, partisans are more likely to disbelieve the accusations against their own candidate (note the gaps on the left and right sides). Second, Republicans are a lot more likely to disbelieve accusers (note the negative slope of the lines).
Republicans at Denison seem not to be as socially conservative as the GOP is as a whole. Anecdotally, I can attest to the social liberalism of Denison Republicans, especially regarding their views on sexual assault. Actually, that’s partially what drove me to do this research. After Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, I reached out to the Denison Democrats and College Republicans, the two largest political bodies on campus, to see if they would like to engage in a campus dialogue on how we as Denison students can better support survivors through a non-partisan lens. Both groups readily agreed, and though the room echoed tensions over Justice Kavanaugh’s allegations, all agreed sexual assault is a problem and that students need to better support their peers who are survivors.
I was curious, then, do partisans view President Trump through a lens of sexual assault? The figure below plots warmth toward President Trump for each category in a 7-point partisanship scale running from strong Democrat (“SD”) to strong Republican (“SR”) given their belief in the accuser in the sexual assault experiment. Partisanship matches approval of President Trump; i.e., strong Republicans feel the warmest toward the President and strong Democrats are the coolest. The individuals who entirely believed the allegations to be true had lower levels of warmth toward President Trump than the others in their partisan group, perhaps suggesting an incompatibility between approving of President Trump and believing survivors of sexual assault.
Figure 3 again shows that few students responded that they entirely did not believe the allegations as evidenced by zero strong Democrats through those who lean Republican providing that response (there were just 4 Democrats who took that view). The most variation comes from independents leaning Republican (“IR”) and Republicans (“R”) who saw a 35%-50% decrease in Trump approval from those who entirely did not believe the allegations to those who did entirely believe the allegations. Denison strong Republicans who also support President Trump and perceive sexual assault as a problem seem not to experience the cognitive dissonance one might expect from supporting a President who has been accused of over a dozen instances of assault. In fact, they support him a bit more.
Prior research from Denison student body surveys has supported the view that Denison students, not just Republicans, may differ from the general population in meaningful ways. Though roughly as sympathetic, Denison students may be more open to experiences and more critical than the average American, suggesting students may have a greater capacity to believe the validity of experiences others may find difficult to believe. Denison students did overwhelmingly believe the allegations against both Senators and believed that they got the punishments they deserved, but we still have a long way to go before we can pat ourselves on the backs for being a 100% survivor-centric campus. We are seeing positive movement, though. These responses were echoed in our campus’s recent Sexual Respect Dinners. Students from various greek and athletic organizations, Democrats and Republicans alike, came together to acknowledge our failings, learn from each other’s experiences, and to propose a better, future Denison.
Elena Meth is a senior avoiding thinking about graduation by taking naps, drinking coffee, and occasionally doing political science.
1. The scenario was based off of accusations against former Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) in 2017 accusations. We listed the Democratic senator as Sen. Al Franken and made up Sen. Mark Goodman (R-AL) because no similarly publicized allegations of similar severity have been made against Republican congressmen in the last five years. We recognize reactions may have been skewed if respondents were familiar with Sen. Franken’s story.
2. These are the experimental treatments with questions:
“In November of 2017, [Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) or Senator Mark Goodman (R-Alabama)] was accused by eight women of inappropriate and unwanted touching, groping, and sexual harassment. Four of the allegations were made anonymously, but all were deemed to be credible. Sen. Franken underwent an ethics investigation during which he denied the allegations. Prior to his forced resignation, [Franken/Goodman] often served as the pivotal vote in Senate Judiciary hearings.”
“To what extent do you believe the allegations against [Sen. Franken/Sen. Goodman?]”
“To what extent do you believe it was fair for [Sen. Franken/Sen. Goodman] to lose his job over the allegations?”