Sexual Interest or Sexual Harassment?

How things can change depending on gender, alcohol, and attitudes.

Posted Dec 29, 2020

Source: geralt/pixabay

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to be one of the more recent high-profile men to be embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, but he certainly isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last. In a post-Harvey Weinstein, but not quite post-#metoo environment, legions of women (and sometimes men) are publicly sharing the stories of their own sexual harassment, at the hands of both high and low-profile men (and sometimes women).

You would probably have to talk to quite a few people before you found someone that honestly suggests that sexual harassment is not at all problematic, or isn’t even really a thing. As we approach 2021, the overwhelming majority of at least somewhat informed people understand that sexual harassment is a big issue, especially in the workplace. We hear statistics such as:

·         1 in 5 Americans have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace

·         4 in 5 sexual harassment victims are women

·         1 in 4 victims of workplace sexual harassment do not report the relevant incidents to human resources or management

·         2 in 3 women experience sexual harassment in public spaces

. The hugely complex and deep-seated issue of sexual harassment is reduced down and distilled into digestible soundbites so frequently that we are almost fatigued by media summaries. Similar to the way that news about Covid-19 was setting the world alight 9 months ago, but isn’t anymore, it’s not surprising that the ‘novelty’ of news stories surrounding sexual harassment stories has worn off slightly.

The amount of research into sexual harassment is considerable, and although there are still quite a few unanswered questions (literature typically focuses on male-female sexual harassment- we know far less about same-sex sexual harassment for instance), we have uncovered quite a few reasonably robust findings. For example, a lot of research suggests that men typically interpret an individual’s behaviours more sexually than do women. This especially true when men are interpreting the behaviour of woman toward them.

Messages are often masked by uncertainty and men and women use a complex interchange of verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate and explore their sexual interest in one another. Although most people probably have some intuitive feeling, little is known (definitively) about what happens when we add the presence of alcohol, and vary the relationship between the 2 people in question.

Through the Graduate Diploma of Psychology-Advanced (GDPA) program at Monash University, Australia, my colleague Isabelle Terrett and I conducted a study to look at how the perception of sexual harassment changed depending on: whether or not alcohol was involved, the gender of the person doing the perceiving, and the relationship between the man and woman involved.

We had 600 participants (both men and women) view a short interaction/conversation between a man and a woman, with no sound. The key manipulations where whether or not alcohol was present (both were sipping either an alcoholic beverage or water), and what the relationship between the man and the woman was (they were described as either 1) friends; 2) on a casual date; or 3) in a long-term relationship). After watching the 30-second video-clip participants were asked about the sexual interest of the man toward the woman and vice versa.

Finally, participants answered a number of questions about their attitudes toward traditional gender roles (e.g. “It looks worse for a woman to be drunk than a man to be drunk”) and about rape myth acceptance (e.g. “When men rape, it is because of their strong desire for sex”).

After controlling for these scores we found that female participants actually perceived more sexual interest from the actors shown in the video-clips than men did. However, both male and female participants perceived the woman in the video-clip to be more sexually interested than the man in the video-clip. This may seem a bit surprising but it’s important to remember that we statistically controlled for attitudes toward traditional gender roles and the acceptances of myths about rape, so the opinions of rampant misogynists were effectively tempered a bit.

As you might guess, more sexual interest was perceived (by both male and female participants) when the two were described as ‘dating’ than when they were described as ‘friends’, and even more still when they were described as ‘in a steady relationship’. In all of these conditions the woman was perceived to be more sexually interested than the man.

What was a bit surprising was that presence of alcohol made no difference to perceptions of sexual interest. It’s tempting to imagine that when alcohol is involved both parties are more sexually interested, but our findings suggest that that isn’t the case.

Some of these results were a bit unexpected, given what we know about sexual harassment. Some of them a bit less so. As mentioned earlier, we may have gotten some of the results we got simply because we statistically controlled for attitudes concerning gender and sexual harassment. This is a technique which isn’t commonly performed but we decided to use it as it gives us a more complete picture of what’s happening, and the more informed we are the better.

Our study did shed a bit of light onto this very important phenomenon, but obviously a lot more research in this area is needed. A good starting point would seem to be fully understanding how sexual harassment proceeds in same-sex interactions, and more generally, with varying gender identities and sexual orientations.