Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

“Ivan S., rapist, soon to be Swiss” or when male migrants are pictured as a sexual danger

Migration, sexual violence and political parties

A few years ago, streets in Switzerland were plastered with a poster displaying Ivan — a bulky male migrant convicted of rape — as being on the verge of obtaining Swiss citizenship. The people behind this widely debated poster were mostly from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). At the time, the party pursued the aim to convince (what they succeeded in doing, in 2010) Swiss citizens to support a new law that would allow the sending back of migrants convicted of certain crimes to their country of origin. Such a use of representations of migrants as rapists by right-wing and conservative politicians are not rare. Recently for instance, in an early speech of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump conflated Mexican migrants and rapists.

In light of the events that recently shook Cologne and other cities (in Germany and beyond), it is quite likely that right-wing parties will increasingly refer to acts of sexual violence committed by men from foreign countries and cultures in their campaigns. Before dwelling on the consequences of such references, it is crucial to make clear that under no circumstances, do we defend sexual violence, nor do we suggest that what happened did not happen. Any form of assault, committed by anyone (female or male, migrant or non-migrant), must be firmly condemned and prosecuted. What was of interest to us in our paper (Sarrasin, Fasel, Green and Helbling, 2015) is how representations of male migrants as a sexual threat are used by political actors to bolster anti-migrant stances, and eventually, broaden the base of their voters.

Individuals’ sensitivity to sexual threat cues

It is not a new idea that threatening images of immigration, such as immigrants endangering the national economic welfare or culture, stirs up a large segment of society and allows the targeting of particular individuals. Research has indeed shown that some individuals are more sensitive to threat cues than others. For instance, presenting migration as an economic threat (e.g., migrants “stealing” jobs from the local population) had a greater impact on young people with low educational attainment, as they are more likely to compete with migrants for jobs in the future (see the recent paper by Schmuck and Matthes).

Applying this approach to sexual threat cues is however novel, and that is what we did. In two experiments we examined the characteristics rendering certain individuals especially sensitive to representations of a male migrant portrayed as a rapist. In the first (and Swiss) experiment, participants were exposed to either the Ivan poster or to another well-known SVP poster, showing white sheep (“the good Swiss”) kicking a black sheep (“the bad migrant”) out of Switzerland. In the second experiment — conducted in Germany where posters of this kind were unknown — we extended our examination to compare different types of crimes using posters we created ourselves: All presented a young (fictitious) male migrant presented as a rapist, a violent criminal or a drug dealer on the verge of obtaining German citizenship (note that we also had a control condition with no poster). In both experiments we measured whether the exposure to the posters resulted in a stronger willingness to expel criminal migrants from the country.

We assumed that two categories of people were likely to react to sexual threat cues: Those who believe that women are weaker than men and need protection (in technical terms, those who score high in “benevolent sexism”), and those who fear for security in general (e.g. people who think that vandalism has increased in their neighbourhood). The average willingness to expulse migrants did not differ after seeing any of the posters (or no poster at all in Germany). However and confirming our assumption, in both experiments (though only among women in Switzerland), we found that when faced to a “rapist” poster, the more strongly individuals endorsed benevolent sexism, the greater was their willingness to expel criminal migrants. When exposed to other representations of migration, benevolent sexism was not at all related to their attitudes towards migrants.

Interestingly, rapist representations did not activate the influence of individuals’ fear of violence in general. However, in the German experiment, we found that, when faced with a depiction of a migrant as a violent criminal, but not with respect to sexual violence, people’s fear of violence was related to their willingness to expel criminal migrants. The result pattern was the following: On the one hand, participants who did not fear for security expressed a lower willingness to expel migrants than those who saw no poster. This is usually called a “reactance” reaction (i.e., they did not accept the content of the message of the poster). On the other hand, those who feared for security tended to express a higher willingness, confirming that specific representations activate particular traits or dispositions in their perceivers, making these individuals more prone to threat messages than others.

Avoiding generalizations

To sum up, our study revealed that, while messages of male migrants as rapists may not stir exclusionary attitudes across all individuals, the case seems different for individuals sensitive to such threat cues, such as those believing that women need special protection. Benevolent sexism is a widespread ideology that often goes unnoticed, as unequal treatment of men and women is justified with “well-intended” measures related to the protection and treasuring of women. When combined with identifying migrants as sexual danger, however, such beliefs seem to have a strong effect on individuals’ reactions to migrants.

Framing political messages to protect and support the weak, in this case local women, are rarely criticized. Thus, media messages associating male migrants with sexual danger and simultaneously portraying their alleged victims as in need of protection are the type of messages most fruitful for political campaigns powered by anti-migrant sentiment. It is worrying if we think about the number of stories of male migrants or refugees assaulting women spreading through the media. While particular occurrences of such assaults happened and are despicable, the acts are by no means typical for male migrants and refugees, and sexual assaults are also committed by non-migrants, everywhere and on a daily basis. But this is rarely discussed. This bias (i.e., talking more about sexual violence when committed by men from minorities) shapes the political landscape in the long run (because right-wing parties may then rely, to increase their support, on the resulting representations of sexual violence individuals have in mind) and creates a climate of fear in which intergroup relations are severely hampered, and entire minority groups excluded.

About Oriane Sarrasin

Oriane Sarrasin

Oriane Sarrasin is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lausanne (Switzerland). Her research interests revolve around the individual and contextual antecedents of different social and political attitudes and behaviours (such as sexist beliefs, attitudes toward immigrants and pro-environment behaviours).

Oriane Sarrasin @ University of Lausanne, Switzerland

About Nicole Fasel

Nicole Fasel

Nicole Fasel is a postdoc fellow supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation at the Center for Research and Social Intervention, University Institute of Lisbon, ISCTE-IUL, Portugal. Her research interests include ideologies, norms and attitudes towards cultural diversity and age groups.

Nicole Fasel @ University Institute of Lisbon, ISCTE-IUL

About Eva Green

Eva Green

Eva G. T. Green is senior lecturer in social psychology at University of Lausanne, Switzerland. At the crossroads of social, cross-cultural and political psychology, her research interests focus on intergroup relations (e.g., prejudice, power relations, political identities) in multicultural societies. Her research is mainly informed by survey, experimental and mixed methods approaches.

Eva Green @ University of Lausanne, Switzerland

About Marc Helbling

Marc Helbling

Marc Helbling is a full professor of political sociology at the University of Bamberg and head of the Emmy Noether Research Group on Comparative Integration Policy at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin. His research on immigration and citizenship policies, nationalism, xenophobia/Islamophobia, as well as right-wing populism has appeared in Comparative Political Studies, European Journal of Political Research, Political Science Research and Methods, and Social Forces, amongst others.

Marc Helbling @
 

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