Sexual harassmentThe legal scholar Kingsley R. Browne explains the quid pro quo type of sexual harassment in terms of men’s evolved psychological mechanisms which incline them to pursue short-term sexual relationships by any means available to them, exacerbated by women’s tendency to understate their sexual interest in a particular man and say “no” when they mean “yes” or “maybe.”  How, then, can evolutionary psychology explain the hostile environment type of sexual harassment?

Browne explains the incidence of sexual harassment cases of the second variety (hostile environment) as a result of the sex differences in what men and women perceive as “overly sexual” or “hostile.”  While the courts in the United States often employ the standard of a fictitious “reasonable person” to determine whether a given workplace constitutes a hostile environment, Browne points out that there is no such thing as a “reasonable person”; there is only a reasonable man and a reasonable woman.  What a reasonable man and a reasonable woman perceive to be a hostile environment may be entirely different.  Browne questions the exclusive focus on the alleged victim’s perspective.

While many women legitimately complain that they have been subjected to abusive, intimidating, and degrading treatment by their male colleagues and employers, Browne points out that long before women entered the labor force, men subjected each other to such abusive, intimidating, and degrading treatment.  Abuse, intimidation, and degradation are all part of men’s unfortunate repertoire of tactics employed in competitive situations.  In other words, men are not harassing women in this fashion because they are treating women differently from men (which is the definition of discrimination under which sexual harassment legally falls), but the exact opposite.  Men harass women precisely because they are not discriminating between men and women.  Men harass women because they are not sexist.

Because of all the media attention and the soaring costs of litigation, most American firms and universities now have sexual harassment policies that categorically prohibit any sexual relations between and among their employees.  Browne makes a sharp observation in this connection.  Although sexual harassment surveys typically ask whether the respondent has ever been subjected to unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, they seldom if ever ask whether she has been subjected to welcome sexual advances.  The answer must commonly be in the affirmative, since a large number of workers find their romantic partners at work.

Men’s and women’s behavior that sometimes result in charges of sexual harassment is most often simply part of the normal repertoire of human mating strategies.  They work well most of the time (as when a large number of men and women find satisfactory long-term and short-term mates in their workplace) but occasionally result in miscommunication and misunderstanding due to the evolved differences between the sexes, which is then given the label “sexual harassment.”  While it might deter some legitimately abusive behavior, the current sexual harassment policy commonly practiced in many American organizations, which categorically prohibits any sexual relations between employees, is therefore likely to be detrimental to women’s sexual interests as much as men’s, because such prohibition eliminates welcome sexual attention and advances along with the unwelcome.

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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