The Attractiveness Factor

When is a man perceived as sexually harassing? A team of Arizona psychologists found it depends a lot on how good-looking--and how available--he is.

Conventional wisdom holds that sexual advances from people in positions of power have a coercive edge, and thus are felt as more harassing. But Virgil Sheets, Ph.D., and Sanford Braver, Ph.D., found that it has little to do with a man's position within the organization.

A critical component of a victim's perception of harassment is the undesirability of the sexual advance.

In their 1994 study, Sheets and Braver gave more than 200 college students--80 percent had part-time jobs, and about 30 percent reported encountering sexual harassment in the workplace--a vignette describing a workplace interaction between male and female coworkers in a law firm. The man was described as either a lawyer, research assistant, or courier, and as married or single. Photos of the men, prerated for attractiveness, were included with the story.

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The women were asked to rate the degree to which they felt sexually harassed.

Attractive, single men were least likely to be accused of sexual harassment. Although the team expected that people with higher status would be more desirable as a potential date or mate--and so less likely to be seen as harassing--social status didn't seem to affect the subjects' perceptions of harassment.

The victim's marital status may play a role, according to Braver. "If you're married, advances are seen as more harassing. And people involved in a committed relationship are even more likely than married people to find advances harassing. At this point, I can only speculate that's because they're in less committed, and less secure, relationships."

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