New study examines attitudes towards rape and homicide across political divides

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A study published in Archives of Sexual Behaviour examined how individuals perceive the seriousness of rape in comparison to homicide, examining the roles of political ideology and moral foundations in shaping these perceptions.

Perception of crimes traditionally hinges on their perceived severity and the harm they cause, dictating the legal and cultural responses to these offenses. While homicide has historically been viewed as one of the most severe crimes due to its irreversible harm—death, rape is often debated in terms of its severity relative to homicide.

The public’s assessment not only influences legal outcomes but also reflects broader societal values concerning morality, gender issues, and ideological divides. This research taps into these perceptions, offering insights into how different groups within society—divided by political leanings and moral priorities—view the relative seriousness of rape compared to homicide.

Researchers Richard B. Felson and Eric Silver utilized data from a YouGov survey conducted in June 2021, which polled a nationally representative sample of 1,125 adults from across the United States. The data were weighted based on several demographic factors, including age, gender, race, education, and political affiliations, to enhance representativeness.

Participants responded to a range of questions related to their perceptions of crime and justice, including a specific query on whether they believed rape was as serious as homicide (response options ranging from “1 = rape is much less serious” to “4 = rape is more serious”). The survey also included measures designed to assess the respondents’ political ideologies, particularly progressive beliefs (e.g., “most people are racist, whether they know it or not”), and their moral foundations (i.e, harm orientation; e.g., “one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal”).

While 61% of respondents viewed rape and homicide as equally serious, 26% considered rape less serious than homicide, and 13% viewed rape as more serious. These perceptions varied significantly with political ideology. Social progressives were more likely to view rape as equally serious or more serious than homicide compared to social conservatives. The researchers found that progressive women were particularly likely to view rape as more serious than homicide, suggesting that gender plays a critical role in shaping these perceptions.

Further analysis showed that moral foundations, specifically sensitivity to harm, also influenced views on crime seriousness. Respondents with a high sensitivity to harm were less likely to view rape as more serious than homicide.

This study relied on a cross-sectional design, which limits causal inferences. The researchers suggest that future studies might explore these attitudes using longitudinal data to better understand attitudinal changes over time.

The study, “Rape or Homicide: Which Is Worse?”, was authored by Richard B. Felson and Eric Silver.

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