UW News

June 2, 1999

Women, men view and judge childhood sexual abuse cases differently

Viewers of “Ally McBeal” know that the male and female attorneys depicted on the popular television “dramedy” often want to try cases quite differently. While some of the legal arguments employed on the show are far-fetched, the idea that men and women can view cases from opposite viewpoints isn’t.

A new study by University of Washington researchers, to be presented later this week at the American Psychological Society’s annual meeting in Denver, indicates that men and women view sexual abuse cases differently and could be poles apart in rendering an actual verdict. In addition, a woman’s familiarity with sexual and physical abuse and repressed memories of such abuse influences how she might judge a case. The same knowledge is not predictive for men.

The study, headed by Amy Tsai, an attorney and UW psychology doctoral student, will be presented at a poster session beginning at noon Saturday in Adam’s Mark Hotel Denver. Tsai’s collaborators were Sarah Morsbach, a research assistant, and Elizabeth Loftus, a UW psychology professor and adjunct professor of law. The study also is noteworthy because it is among the first to examine repressed memory in a case involving a crime other than sexual abuse.

“Men and women have different attitudes toward sexual abuse, but seem to have the same attitude about physical abuse,” said Tsai. “The sexual nature of the crime is influencing verdicts.”

In this mock juror study, 85 subjects were asked to weigh the evidence and render a verdict in either a childhood physical or sexual abuse case based on an actual civil complaint. Evidence was presented in concise, neutral summaries of statements made by a female plaintiff and male defendant. The summaries of the two cases were identical except for two points. In one version the defendant was accused of physical abuse while in the other the defendant was being tried for sexual abuse. Also in half of each version the plaintiff claimed to have repressed the memory of the childhood abuse, while the other half did not mention repression.

After reading a case summary, subjects were given a questionnaire asking them for their verdicts. In addition, they were questioned about such things as the credibility of the defendant and plaintiff, their empathy for each, whose testimony influenced them the most and whether they thought either party was lying. A second questionnaire examined their beliefs about whether memories can be repressed, their general familiarity with physical and sexual abuse cases, and where they obtained such information. They also were asked how the credibility of the plaintiff or defendant would have been affected if sexual rather than physical abuse had been alleged, or vice versa.

Overall women tended to favor the plaintiff, while men favored the defendant. Women supported the plaintiff 50 percent of the time, the defendant 35 percent and were undecided 15 percent. Men favored the defendant 55 percent of the time, the plaintiff 28 percent and couldn’t decide 17 percent.

The researchers were surprised that 75 percent of the subjects agreed that people can repress memories of traumatic events while only 17 percent disagreed with the idea. However, the majority did not support this when rendering a verdict. In cases that mentioned repression, subjects voted for the defendant nearly twice as often, 59 percent to 30 percent. In non-repression cases, subjects favored the defendant 30 percent of the time and the plaintiff 50 percent.

Verdicts were similarly split, depending on whether sexual or physical childhood abuse was alleged. In the case of physical abuse, the defendant was favored 53 percent of time and the plaintiff just 28 percent. But when the charge was sexual, just 37 percent were for the defendant while 51 percent favored the plaintiff.

Tsai and Morsbach said that women and men both were generally familiar with sexual and physical abuse cases and with the topic of repressed memory. Questionnaire responses indicated that the more women were familiar with these topics the more likely they were to favor the plaintiff. Men’s decisions, however, were not influenced by their knowledge of such cases.

“If you were an attorney going to try such a case it would be important to know men and women have pre-existing and different attitudes toward childhood sexual abuse and repression going in,” said Tsai. “Women’s familiarity with repression, physical and sexual abuse and cases involving these issues is significantly related to how they judge cases. Men’s familiarity with these topics is less predictive and there was little relationship between that familiarity and how they were judging a case.”

For more information, contact Tsai at (206) 685-8278 or amytsai@u.washington.edu. She can be reached June 4-5 at Adam’s Mark Hotel Denver at (303) 893-3333. Morsbach may be reached at morsbach@u.washington and in Denver June 5 at (303) 893-3333.