Sex Crimes and Morality

Christina and another student presenting research




Professor of Psychology

Project Summary

Our project focused on why moral judgments of violent crimes with a sexual intent are harsher than judgments of violent crimes without a sexual intent, even when physical harm to the victim is the same in both scenarios. We hypothesized that this is because sexual crimes are perceived as causing more harm because of the potential additional fitness cost. We defined fitness as a measure of one’s ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment, and any cost to fitness would cause a disadvantage in an organism’s ability to do so. As a result, we predicted that people would assign greater punishment judgments to perpetrators that commit a violent crime with a sexual intent against a victim with high reproductive value, such as a woman of reproductive age, as opposed to a victim with lower reproductive value like a child or senior citizen. We tested this prediction using hypothetical vignettes to measure the amount of punishment that participants assigned to perpetrators that committed a violent crime either with or without a sexual intent. We did not observe a significant effect of victim age, and therefore could not support our hypothesis that punishment judgment of sexual crimes track fitness costs. We did, however, find that crimes with a sexual intent committed across all ages were punished more harshly than that same crime without a sexual intent even when physical harm to the victim remained constant.  

Although we did not find strong evidence of our first hypothesis, in our second study we continued to investigate what exactly about sexual crimes elicits such a harsh judgment for perpetrators compared to that of violent crimes. In our second study, we tested whether clear or obscured evidence of the intent of the perpetrator would impact punishment judgments. We manipulated this by presenting participants with scenarios in which the perpetrator committed a crime of commission in which his intentions were made clear, as opposed to a crime of omission where there was less clear evidence of the perpetrator’s intended outcome. We did not find an increase in punishment from the violent crime with an added sexual intent compared to the same violent crime without a sexual intent. In addition, the obscurity of the perpetrator’s intent in the condition that included a crime of omission also did not significantly affect participants’ punishment judgments.

The Millstein Family Undergraduate Research Grant funded an Amazon Mechanical Turk that enabled us to gather data from large groups of participants for both of our studies. Our research experience was incredibly rewarding and we were grateful for the opportunity to design and run two complete experiments in order to investigate our hypotheses.