By Mfonobong Okoko
A bias is a positive or negative belief about a thing, person, or group, compared with another. It could be explicit- when people are consciously aware that they have it; or implicit- when it subconsciously affects our decision-making and perceptions of people and situations. One’s perceptions are typically a reflection of how one sees the world. However, there are certain instances where they may not necessarily be aware of these ideas. Implicit bias occurs when the subconscious instinctively correlates one thing with another: in some cases, these associations may contradict one’s ideals. This can be extended to many things we routinely interact with. This article will focus on gender bias, especially in cases of sexual assault.
Gender is defined as the attributes, behaviours and expectations designated to people based on social beliefs and roles determined by society, e.g. feminine and masculine. Femininity tends to be associated with vulnerability and emotional transparency, while masculinity tends to be associated with a façade of invulnerability and concealed emotions. Gender roles and stereotypes can have several far-reaching effects; apart from deepening existing inequalities, they could also fuel gender bias. Gender bias is defined as preconceived tendencies to or prejudices against one gender in contrast with the other. Studies show that gender bias is learned through social media, entertainment, and even interactions with others.
In cases of sexual assault, gender bias is evident in different areas. The most prominent example is the perception of sexual assault as gendered. There is a tendency towards internalising stereotypes of an “ideal victim” and the “ideal perpetrator”. With the society-induced correlation of masculinity with aggression and femininity to innocence and virtue, perpetrators of sexual violence are often thought to be male. In contrast, victims of sexual violence are often considered to be female. Although there are more reported cases of sexual assault on women by men, it is essential to remind ourselves that sexual assault is not exclusive to any gender. Not all perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Women can be sex offenders, and men can be victims of sexual violence too.
Gender bias feeds on stereotypes consciously or unconsciously internalised by people. It could manifest in different forms- in jokes, teasing, mockery, or even reactions to survivor stories. No matter how harmless or egregious they may seem, these actions could affect the quality of response and support offered to survivors. In some cases, victims of sexual assault may receive no help because gender bias is not in their favour. All too often, men’s experiences of sexual assault are dismissed, especially when the perpetrator is a woman. Similarly, in cases of sexual assault on women, gender bias could show in the expectation for one to be distraught to make them “believable”. Women who exhibit personality traits perceived as masculine, e.g. concealing emotions, tend to be treated differently from those who exhibit character traits deemed feminine.
Gender bias results in advantages and disadvantages for victims or perpetrators based on their gender and could reflect anywhere before the sexual assault to the aftermath. It is crucial to implement a survivor centred approach in each case to ensure the best possible response for survivors of sexual violence. We ought to work through neutralising gender bias, especially in sexual assault response. The most important step is to recognise the existence of these biases and work towards unlearning assumptions about victims of sexual assault. Survivors must be treated with respect and must always be offered the best quality of support without discrimination. All institutions that aid response- investigation and support services must be informed on these biases and encourage personal and institutional accountability in their actions. Ultimately, society will benefit from equal legal protections, empower victims of sexual assault to speak and seek help, and a culture where one’s gender would not be a disadvantage to them.
- IACP. (n.d.). Addressing and Preventing Gender Bias Responses to Reports of Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Stalking. Retrieved from https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/all/f-h/GB%20Flyer%20Final%20with%20Citations.pdf
- Huhtanen, H. (2020). Gender Bias in Sexual Assault Response and Investigation. Part 1: Implicit Gender Bias. End Violence Against Women International
- UN Women Training Centre (2016). Self-Learning Booklet: Understanding Masculinities and Violence Against Women and Girls. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: UN Women Training Centre