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Conservatives and Highly Religious Folks Are More Likely to Endorse Rape Myths

Recent research sheds light on why so many supporters are making excuses for Roy Moore.
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Roy Moore speaks on November 11th, 2017, in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

Roy Moore speaks on November 11th, 2017, in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

Arguably as disquieting as the allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are the justifications that have been offered for his actions. Many of his fellow Republicans have downplayed the allegations that he engaged in sexual activity with teenage girls, insisting it didn't happen—or, if it did, it isn't that bad.

To be sure, this party-above-principle equation reflects the tribalism of today's political culture. Increasingly, if a candidate is on "our" side, we'll support him, no matter what.

But if that's all that is happening, why have Democrats not rallied around major donor Harvey Weinstein? Recently published research suggests this dichotomy reflects the different moral attitudes held by liberals and conservatives.

It confirms the long-established principle that, compared to liberals, conservatives are more accepting of "rape myths"—excuses along the lines of "She asked for it," "It wasn't really rape," or "She lied."

Moreover, it ties this to the fact that those on the left place a greater emphasis on such moral foundations as fairness and preventing harm, while those on the right are more driven by respect for authority and in-group loyalty.

Those "binding" foundations "emphasize the importance of social hierarchy and structure," write psychologists Michael Barnett of the University of North Texas and Emily Hilz of the University of Texas–Austin. That mindset has been linked to the acceptance of rape myths.

This timely new research, published in the journal Violence Against Women, is based on Jonathan Haidt's well-known moral foundations theory. Haidt argues that liberals and conservatives resonate to different dimensions of morality, and this divergence drives our increasingly polarized politics.

Barnett and Hilz describe two studies, the first of which featured 981 university undergraduates. Using separate one-to-seven scales (very liberal to very conservative), they rated their political leanings regarding economic and social issues.

They then filled out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, in which they read 30 statements and evaluated each in terms of how relevant it was in determining right vs. wrong. These ranged from "Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue" to "I am proud of my country's history."

Finally, they completed a survey designed to determine their acceptance of rape-related myths. In it, they expressed their level of agreement with 19 items, including "If a woman doesn't physically fight back, you can't really say that it was rape," and "Rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men."

Barnett and Hilz found people who were highly conservative were also more likely to believe rape myths, and this was fully explained by which moral foundations they embraced. Importantly, this applied to economic as well as social conservatives, both of whom were more likely than liberals to espouse values related to loyalty and hierarchy.

These results were confirmed by a second, similar study featuring 565 undergraduates. That one also had participants respond to a series of statements about date rape; they noted how acceptable or unacceptable they found such assertions as forced sexual intercourse is OK "if he had spent a lot of money on her," and "if he was so sexually excited he couldn't stop."

The results: Compared to liberals, both social and economic conservatives were more inclined to accept various excuses for date rape (as well as to believe in the aforementioned rape myths). As in the first study, these attitudes could be directly traced to "differences in moral decision-making," the researchers write.

Where does religion enter the picture? Well, an earlier Michael Barnett study published last year found that, even after taking into account political conservatism, "religiosity was positively associated with date rape acceptance."

He and his colleagues speculate that highly religious people, "due to their greater attendance and involvement in church activities, are exposed more often to patriarchal teachings." Of course, traditional religions tend to be based on hierarchy and structure—and church is where many people's moral compasses are set.

So if you were raised to believe that deference to authority and social stability are more important than personal rights, you are probably inclined to dismiss claims of inappropriate sexual behavior. That's especially true if they are aimed at a prominent public figure, such as a candidate for the United States Senate.