Sexual harassment is as rife as it is revolting. In recent weeks, revelations about sexual harassment and its devastating effects have flooded news and social media feeds. From Kevin Spacey to Harvey Weinstein and many others (and let’s not even get started on Uber), it’s clear and unfortunate that sexual harassment is common. But aside from a few legal-team-filtered statements, we don’t have an insight into the mentality of the accused harassers. What are they thinking when they commit these vile acts?
But before we get into the psychology of sexual harassment, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about. What exactly is sexual harassment?
A common myth is that sexual harassment is just a few notches down from sexual assault but it’s not that simple.
Sexual harassment is uniquely tied to power structures, often in employment and career advancement situations. The perpetrator holds the key to moving onwards and upwards, creating a dilemma for the victim: submit and be exploited or resist and be punished. The victim is placed in an intimidating lose-lose situation without any power or control.
Therefore, sexual harassment can and does run the gamut from demeaning comments to requests for sexual favors to unwanted sexual advances. In addition, it doesn’t always but certainly can include sexual assault, which is any non-consensual or coerced sexual act, including sexual touching.
Harassment is also different than unwanted sexual attention, which consists of unwelcome come-ons and comments that are not primarily designed to demean and intimidate. Think terrible pick-up lines: “I lost my teddy bear, will you sleep with me instead?” from a guy at the bar is unwanted sexual attention, but from your boss, it’s sexual harassment.
To be clear, it’s not only women as victims and men as perpetrators, even though that setup is the vast majority of cases. Of the 13,000 charges of sexual assault logged in 2016 by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (believed to be just the tip of the iceberg), 83 percent of them were filed by women.
And the women who face sexual harassment by bosses and supervisors aren’t just rising Hollywood starlets or, like Anita Hill, Yale-educated lawyers. They’re everyday people—restaurant workers, clerks, flight attendants, students, health care workers, programmers—whose bosses control scheduling, raises, future promotions, and references.
So who sexually harasses? I dug through the research and found four common characteristics of the (mostly) men who sexually harass (mostly) women.
The Four Characteristics of Sexual Harassers
Let's explore each a little further.
Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
The first two are probably familiar to you: narcissism is an inflated view of one’s own talents coupled with a lack of empathy and a deep urgency for approval. Narcissists don’t care if you like them, but they do need you to think they’re powerful and worthy of admiration.
Narcissists find a way to justify sexual harassment if they think they’ve been deprived of a sexual experience they “deserve.” They just can’t fathom that someone wouldn’t be interested in the opportunity to get attention from them.
Next, psychopathy revolves around two things: fearless dominance and aggressive impulsivity. In other words, psychopaths are audacious, manipulative exploiters. They too have no empathy but excel at mimicking the correct emotions to exploit their victims.
Psychopaths sexually harass for one reason—because they want to. If the opportunity presents itself (or they create the opportunity), they’ll take full advantage.
Finally, there’s Machiavellianism, named for the Italian Renaissance politician Niccolo Machiavelli. His masterwork, The Prince, describes an unscrupulous, deceitful political philosophy with an eye on long-term goals at any cost.
Combine these three traits and you’re met with a gleeful enthusiasm for exploitation, deception, and manipulation coupled with an indifferent blindness to the feelings of others, all wrapped up nicely with a bow of grandiosity. In other words, a perfect recipe for sexual harassment. Indeed, in a study of almost 2,000 everyday community members, researchers found, unsurprisingly, that each of the Dark Triad characteristics added to a tendency to sexually harass others.
Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
This is another whopper of a characteristic. Moral disengagement is a slippery slope; a cognitive process by which individuals justify their own corruption and create their own version of reality where moral principles don’t apply to them.
Moral disengagement was first proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura, who is often referred to as the greatest living psychologist. His theory, as applied to sexual harassment, has several parts:
1. First comes moral justification, or portraying harassment as an acceptable action. Think of Harvey Weinstein’s line, “I came of age in the '60s and '70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
2. Next is euphemistic labeling: Using sanitized terms for naming their behavior, like Bill Cosby’s characterization of his sexual assaults as “rendezvous.”
3. Third is displacement of responsibility, attributing the harassment to outside forces beyond their control, like Weinstein’s “that was the culture then.”
4. There's also advantageous comparison which is the insistence that their behavior could have been worse, and distortion of consequences, where individuals minimize the harm wrought by their actions on the victims.
5. And finally, there are dehumanization and attribution of blame, which respectively eliminate concern for the victim and blame her for the incident. Bill O’Reilly did both of these when he commented that a woman who was raped and killed was “moronic” because she was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top, and that “every predator in the world is gonna pick that up.”
The end result? Harassers have no trouble sleeping at night because, through moral disengagement, they rest assured they did nothing wrong, that their actions were normal and deserved, and that they didn’t cause any harm.
The mind is a tricky thing: we often choose behaviors that match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change those values to justify our behavior. This is how sexual harassers can maintain their view of themselves as decent, even morally upstanding people.
Characteristic #3: Employment in a male-dominated field
Sexual harassment is well-documented to be more prevalent in traditionally masculine fields, such as the military, the police force, surgery, finance, and more recently, high tech and the upper echelons of the entertainment industry.
This revelation is nothing new: an old 1989 study of 100 female factory workers found that women who worked as machinists—a male-dominated position—reported being harassed significantly more often than women who worked on the assembly line, which was more gender-equal.
Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women
Even though psychology is a science, it’s not a totally objective field, in most part because research is done by people, and people respond to and draw conclusions from their culture and the biases of a given place and time. Interestingly, while researching this episode, I found a study on sexual harassment from the early 1980s—almost a decade prior to Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings—that stated that most male sexual harassers had no idea that their advances were unwanted or inappropriate. The conclusion was that people who engaged in sexual harassment were simply clueless and infatuated, but now we know better.
The University of Bielefeld in Germany conducted a study in 2012 testing whether harassment was driven by what researchers called a “short term mating orientation,” basically an academic euphemism for love ‘em and leave ‘em—or was driven by something called hostile sexism, and therefore served less as a way to just get sex and more as a way to intimidate and coerce women.
The researchers asked 100 heterosexual male college students to chat online with “Julia,” an attractive 23-year-old woman. With each chat exchange, participants were asked to choose among three different pre-written messages to send to Julia.
The men were also told that this was a memory test and that Julia would later be tested on memory recall. To create an air of competition, they were told that previous studies had found gender differences in the ability to remember.
For each message, the men chose among a joke, a comment, and a neutral statement. Now, some of the exchanges were carefully calibrated to include opportunities to harass. For example, in one combination, the joke was a sexist joke about women in general: “What’s the difference between a woman having her period and a terrorist? With a terrorist, you can negotiate.” It also included a terrible pickup line: “You’re a sweet chocolate and I’ve got the filling for you.” Thankfully, there was also a simple neutral statement: “You seem like a cheerful person.” Participants chose one of the messages to send and then repeated this over 20 different trials.
The results found that the men who were more likely to send the bad pickup lines were also more likely to agree with statements like “sex without love is okay,” or “I would consider having sex with a stranger if it was safe and she was attractive.” Their attitudes mapped onto the “short-term mating orientation.”
Now, those who chose to send the sexist jokes also scored highly on the short-term sexual attitudes questionnaire. But there was more: they scored highly on a questionnaire of hostile sexism, endorsing items like, “Women are too easily offended,” and “The world would be a better place if women supported men more and criticized them less.”
In other words, purely sexual motives predicted unwanted sexual attention but belligerent motives anticipated both unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. Choosing to send the hostile joke wasn’t about sex at all; it was about creating a disparaging, inhospitable climate for Julia in the context of a competitive atmosphere.
A good litmus test for whether comments are sexist or just a joke is to ask, “Would I say this to a man?” It’s a way to highlight statements that might get defended by a harasser as “harmless fun,” or “What, I can’t even give a compliment?” For instance, a male supervisor wouldn’t tell a man he should smile more, make a pass about the attractiveness of his body, or say, “You don’t have to get all emotional about it.”
To sum it all up, harassment indicates a willingness to exploit and manipulate as a way to maintain or gain power. It demonstrates carelessness toward the victims and aims to “keep them in their place.”
There will likely always be psychopaths and moral disengagement, but hopefully, with all the recent attention given to sexual harassment, more victims and observers will speak up and speak out and sexual harassment will go the way of Harvey Weinstein’s career.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips titled Sexual Harassment: 4 Psychological Traits of Perpetrators.