PSR Interviews #9: Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment – an interview with Stephanie Stark

Candidate characteristics have an important impact on voter choice, and scandals are found to negatively impact a political campaign. Yet the literature, with its focus on scandals such as financial and (consensual) affairs, has failed to look into how allegations of sexual assault and harassment may impact electability” – claim Stephanie Stark and Sofía Collignon in their PSR article. Learn more about their research on sexual predators in the world of politics, in this research-based interview with one of the authors, Stephanie Stark.

A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in a PSR article: Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment by Stark and Collignon.

PSR: How would you precisely define a problem of SASH (sexual assault and sexual harassment) in relation to power and powerful institutions?

Stephanie Stark: SASH are expressions of abusing power: it is most common amongst acquaintances where there is a power imbalance. This is especially true in the context of this study. In each of the recent high-profile cases in elections that are used in the study as examples, the politicians are necessarily in a position of power, and their accusers are not. Because we know that SASH are expressions of an abuse of power within a personal relationship, consequently, the question as to how a propensity to abuse power can translate to how voters perceive an accused candidate for public office is existentially relatable. It is particularly relatable in the context of the #MeToo movement, and the 2016 election wherein 19 women officially accused then-candidate Donald Trump of SASH, and as of December 2019, wherein President Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for abusing the power of the office.

Donald J. Trump, a former US President, photo by Nathan Congleton (Flickr)

What were the “milestones” for an increased understanding of this problem? Can we say that the level of scepticism or disbelief towards claims of sexual abuse is continuously diminishing?

The understanding and perception of SASH in American public conversation has evolved throughout the last 70 years and it will likely continue to do so.

Women as property
For much of American history, women’s bodies were white men’s legal property, and sexual violence was legally actionable only for men when their property (wives, sisters, and daughters) was damaged.

Sexual Revolution
In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.” The increased awareness of SASH incited increased research.

However, the public’s understanding of sexual violence and women’s empowerment led to claims of sexual violence being regarded with increased skepticism in the 1970s (it had always had an air of mistrust because of the private nature of most encounters). The logic was that, because women were choosing to violate the norms of subordination to men, they also sacrificed their right to protection. Therefore, an empowered woman who claimed to be a victim of sexual violence generally was regarded as if she brought it upon herself because she had rejected men’s protection.

Anita Hill in the 1990s
The prevalence of sexual violence is evident nowadays with victims reporting in increasing numbers new and historical accounts of SASH. It is common for women to reveal stories of SASH with the encouragement or corroboration of other victims. In the 1990s, there was a surge in reporting called the “Anita Hill effect” after a former staffer for Justice Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, testified in the Justice’s confirmation hearings about his sexual harassment.

MeToo
The present-day surge in reporting can be tracked to the “#MeToo movement” that motivated women around the world to share their own experiences

Anita Hill
Anita Hill, source: Britannica

In your article, you mention a “rape myth acceptance” – could you elaborate on this category? Are there any other common beliefs or myths that can be considered contributing factors to cycles of harassment, misconduct, and abuse of women by men in power?

Rape myth acceptance explains the reaction to accusations of SASH, and I don’t know its relationship with a propensity to be a perpetrator. Rape myth acceptance is confirmed in the literature as the level of willingness a person may have to disbelieve a victim’s story, or “the amount of stereotypic ideas people have about rape, such as that women falsely accuse men of rape, rape is not harmful, women want or enjoy rape, or women cause or deserve
rape by inappropriate or risky behavior”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.”

You mention various politicians accused of sexual abuse in the US. Some of them were able to avoid any repercussions. What about Joe Biden? In March 2020, Tara Reade, a former staffer in Biden’s U.S. Senate office, alleged that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staff assistant in his office. President Biden denied these allegations, but what were public perceptions of this accusation?

This is a good question. What our research finds is that 1) Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH. This means that there were likely some people who chose not to vote for Biden because of the accusation. The research also finds that we need more women like Tara to speak out in order for us to be able to study this topic further. The #MeToo movement allowed women to feel more comfortable speaking out about SASH, which enables us to be able to study it at all. What I mean to say here is that it is worth studying more angles to the scenario. The Tara Reade accusation begs the question: What happens in the electorate when both candidates for office have been accused of SASH? I would imagine, some people may have chosen not to vote at all because both candidates had been accused, contributing to a weakening of our democratic systems and our trust and value in democracy.

You claim that scandals “have a markedly negative impact on voters’ judgment of the candidate”. Is that also the case in relation to sexual scandals? Are we able to determine how reactions differ among particular groups of electorates or particular political parties?

It’s important to note that this study measured SASH, and shouldn’t be put in the same category as sexual scandals, because the former is a crime, and the latter is a consensual experience.

There have been many studies about how scandals, including sex scandals, impact public perception. Those studies informed our research but our study was the first that made the distinction that they should be considered differently because after the #MeToo movement, we’re more aware of what SASH IS. Scandals like financial scandals and sex scandals and corruption scandals are found to negatively impact voters’ judgments, but their judgement is tied to how they see the scandal impacting the JOB of holding public office. So the significance there and relation there to our study is that when people see SASH as a character marker of someone who would abuse power, they relate it to that candidate’s ability to do the job with integrity.

MeeToo protest, photo by Mario A. P. (Flickr)

We looked at reactions based on age, gender, political affiliation, race and region of the US, and included in our results only the answers about age, gender and political affiliation. Democrats are more likely to change their mind about a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republicans. There is no difference when it comes to age: or in other words, we couldn’t find a trend saying young people care more than older people.

Surprisingly there was no significant difference between genders. I will elaborate on that more in the next question

What our research finds is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH.

You’ve conducted very important research on this topic. What are the most important findings?

Thank you. I had hypothesized that women would be more likely than men to change their opinion about a candidate for office that had been accused, but one of my most important findings was that there was not a significant difference between men’s and women’s reactions. In fact, Democratic men are more likely to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republican women. Democrats see an allegation of SASH as an abuse of power, and thus they relate it to a propensity to abuse the power of public office. Republicans, though, are more likely to not believe an accusation, and therefore they don’t relate it to a factor that should be considered in how they are judging the candidate.

Second, it bothers me to my core that people actually think that women make accusations about SASH to “get attention” as if the kind of attention they receive is desirable. I want people to understand that SASH accusations should be taken seriously because they show who that person is. We need to believe women. I want women to know that we need their stories in order to be able to research this more and that when we can research it more, we will be able to make more informed choices about who our leaders are based on their integrity.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

Our research opens the door to viewing SASH allegations as a legitimate act that is worth taking seriously as a barometer for the character. We contributed to the study of harassment and intimidation of women by showing that some sectors of the population are more likely to believe in allegations at face value than others. It requires courage to speak out about such incidents, particularly when they are oftentimes not believed and/or the perpetrator is allowed to continue to progress in their career. When this happens, it adds to a cycle of victimization and injustice.

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Article: S. Stark, S. Collignon (2021), Sexual Predators in Contest for Public Office: How the American Electorate Responds to News of Allegations of Candidates Committing Sexual Assault and Harassment, Political Studies Review

ABOUT

Stephanie Stark obtained her Master’s in Media, Power and Public Affairs from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London (2018). She is a digital communications strategist who has been advising on and creating digital media campaigns for non-profit organizations, political campaigns and elected officials in New York and London for a decade.

Dr Sofia Collignon is a Lecturer in Political Communication at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and Principal Investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Her main research focuses on include the study of candidates, elections and parties, in particular on the harassment and intimidation of political elites and violence against women in politics.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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