A Systematic Review of Attitudes Contributing to a Social Climate that Tolerates Sexual Violence

About the project

Sexual violence refers to non-consensual acts grounded in power disparities and the gender roles assigned by society to men and women. Events in recent years have shone a spotlight on society’s tolerance for such acts and for those who commit them. Research has also emphasized the importance of certain attitudes in explaining the existence of a social climate that tolerates sexual violence.

The objectives of this study’s systematic literature review were twofold:

  1. identifying, describing and classifying attitudes that contribute to tolerance for sexual violence, and
  2. determining the influence of these attitudes on measurable aspects of tolerance for sexual violence. For the systematic literature review, we followed the guidelines of Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (Moher et al., 2009) and surveyed two digital platforms (PsycArticles and ProQuest) to find articles published between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2022. Of the 1,783 references we examined, 26 articles covering 34 independent studies satisfied the inclusion criteria.

Key findings

Objective 1: Identifying, describing and classifying attitudes that contribute to tolerance for sexual violence

  • Most attitudes identified can be placed into one of three major categories:
    1. Belief in rape myths. The primary function of these attitudes is to justify or normalize the use of coercion to obtain sexual relations. These beliefs contribute to diminishing the responsibility of those who commit these acts, to attributing to the victims the responsibility for the acts suffered, or to minimizing the seriousness of sexual violence and its repercussions.
    2. Belief in gender hierarchy. These attitudes refer to the idea that women have an inferior social status to men, who have been given a position of power and the role of protecting or providing for women. Believing in gender hierarchy can lead men to expect that they should be in charge of women or protect them, or to take an explicitly reductive, hostile, degrading or contemptuous attitude toward women.
    3. Belief in gendered social norms. These attitudes refer to the idea that men and women have uniquely gendered characteristics, interests and behaviours, and that respect for these norms is essential to proper interpersonal relationships. These gendered expectations promote inequality and contribute not only to violence against women, but also to discrimination against people who fall outside of the norms, such as sexual and gender minorities.

Objective 2: Determining the influence of these attitudes on measurable aspects of tolerance for sexual violence

  • For both men and women, the more a person believes in rape myths, gender hierarchy and gendered social norms:
    • The more blame they assign to victims of sexual violence
    • The less blame they assign to the people who commit acts of sexual violence
    • The less they see victims of sexual violence as credible
    • The less severe and illegal acts of sexual violence and the consequences for victims seem to them
    • The fewer penalties they believe people who commit acts of sexual violence should face
    • The less empathy they feel for victims of sexual violence
    • The less support they wish to give to victims of sexual violence

Policy implications

A policy of reducing social tolerance for sexual violence must not only target a belief in rape myths, but also be part of broader initiatives to deconstruct gender stereotypes and promote equal gender relations. To accomplish this, we recommend:

  • Prioritizing raising awareness and educating people in close contact with children about sexual and sexist biases and stereotypes to encourage society to adopt inclusive and egalitarian approaches to parenting and education
  • Promoting educational programs that enable children, from an early age, to be exposed in an equivalent way and independently of their gender to different games, activities and academic subjects, , as well as providing them with education that helps them gradually take a critical look at sexual and sexist norms and stereotypes
  • Supporting healthy sex education that helps deconstruct gender expectations, as well as myths and stereotypes about intimacy and sexuality, and that encourages inclusion, diversity and equal relations
  • Providing better oversight of the production of television, advertising and digital content and supporting the development of content that helps deconstruct gender expectations as well as myths and stereotypes about intimacy and sexuality and that promotes inclusion, diversity and equal relations
  • Supporting continuing education for people in the justice system on concepts related to gender biases and stereotypes, tolerant attitudes regarding sexual violence, and diversity and inclusivity to ensure better support for victims, the accused, and witnesses, and to eliminate inequality from the judicial process

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Dominique Trottier, psychologist and professor, Department of psychoeducation and psychology, Université du Québec en Outaouais, and director of the Laboratoire de recherche sur les violences sexuelles et sexistes: dominique.trottier@uqo.ca

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