The Role of Sex Work Stigma in Victim Blaming and Empathy of Sexual Assault Survivors

Sex workers have reported a history of stigma associated with their identity and labor, which has resulted in numerous barriers to justice, social services, and healthcare. The current study aimed to experimentally investigate the effects of sex work stigma on observers’ victim blame and empathy toward sexual assault survivors. The participants included 197 undergraduate students from the Midwestern US who were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article reporting a sexual assault in which the victim’s identity was manipulated as a sex worker or a non-sex worker between the conditions. Results indicated participants assigned to the article describing the rape of a sex worker responded to the article with statistically less victim empathy and more victim blame than participants who read an article describing the rape of a non-sex worker. Integrating stigma theory and qualitative research on sex work stigma, the implications of the results demonstrate a significant barrier sex workers may face within the criminal justice system when reporting acts of violence against them. Recommendations for sex work decriminalization, changing the conversation of academic discourse on sex work, and educational initiatives are proposed to reduce the stigma of this marginalized population.

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