Why Do Certain Men Resort to Sexual Harassment?

New research on masculinity, power, and the roots of aggression.

Posted Jul 16, 2018

     "So many people who deal with sexual harassment don't have the means to file lawsuits or to get legal representation or legal advice." Tarana Burke

     "To end the pervasive culture of sexual harassment, it can no longer be the norm that men look the other way. It only ends when men actively participate in ending it." J. B. Pritzker

Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

In the post-Harvey Weinstein era, collective awareness of sexual harassment is finally hitting a tipping point. The outrage and motivation to bring about fundamental change feels stronger than ever before, perhaps at least in part because the current POTUS, accused of sexual harassment and more, seems beyond justice. Having someone so supremely powerful publicly getting away with proverbial murder starkly underlines the need to take action. And perhaps some of the frustration that Trump has evaded justice gets channeled into seeking justice for those who are currently within reach.

Understanding the factors which precipitate sexual harassment, on individual and systemic levels, is required in order to identify high-risk situations and prevent sexual harassment. According to a recent survey, women are generally almost twice as likely to be sexually harassed as men (with an 80 percent lifetime incidence for women versus 43 percent for men), and are much more likely to experience specific forms of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be harassed by men, who perpetrate 80 percent of incidents, versus other women, which happens in 3 percent of cases. 

Why is this?

While seeking sexual gratification in combination with power has been shown to predict sexual harassment (Kunstman and Maner, 2011), it is not the only factor. When sexual harassment is used to demand sexual favors in return for a material benefit (e.g., sexual favors in exchange for getting a promotion), sexual gratification may be a stronger factor. However, in many cases, sexual desire is relatively insignificant, as power motives, personality, and aggression play a larger role. In fact, sexual desire may be wholly absent, in spite of the sexual element, when sex is used solely for the purposes of humiliation and abuse. Likewise, while being male is a major risk factor for perpetration of sexual harassment, most men do not harass or otherwise abuse people. Research is needed to better understand how sexual harassment happens.

What psychological factors trigger sexual harassment?

In order to look more deeply into the roots of sexual harassment, particularly as perpetrated by men against women, researchers Halper and Rios (2018) conducted three sequential studies delving in the relationships among gender, power dynamics, and insecurity. Based on prior work (reviewed below) showing that fears of incompetence lead to abuse of subordinates, presumably in order to restore social status and alleviate negative, highly unpleasant, and even unacceptable self-perceptions, the study authors hypothesized that insecure men in positions of power would be more likely to engage in sexually harassing behaviors.

According to Halper and Rios’ review of the literature on power, power is “an individual’s ability to influence or produce an effect from other individuals and to control another person’s resources and/or outcomes." Power is rewarding, more to some folks than others, and those in power seek to maintain their high-status, influential position. The authors review the research literature explaining why people in power would be predisposed to harass others. People with greater power:

  • Are more likely to take an active stance, approaching issues of concern, whereas those with lower power are more likely to inhibit their behavior
  • Are more willing to take risks and see those risks as less dangerous than others would, on average
  • Are more likely to use stereotypes and less able to see things from others’ points of view

Halper and Rios also reviewed personality related factors which contribute to sexual harassment. An obvious factor is narcissism. More narcissistic men have been shown in research studies to be more likely to sexually harass women. While this may be related to a lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement, it may also be because narcissistic people harbor the hidden, shameful suspicion that they are not as good as others. Feeling incompetent, or believing others see them as incompetent, may lead narcissistic people to try to compensate by harassing others to make themselves feel superior — though this is a short-lived emotional fix, which often ends an escalating cycle of repeat perpetration. In addition to assuaging their negative feelings, harassers may also be attempting to coerce others into silence to avoid being exposed as incompetent to maintain status (ironically feeding fears of exposure and reinforcing feelings of inferiority).

In prior research, irrespective of gender, people asked to recall a time when they felt powerful and incompetent (versus powerless and incompetent) later on were more generally aggressive toward others. However, research has shown that — particularly when in a position of power — sexually aggressive men are more prone to approach female co-workers. Those same men tend to interpret a woman's behavior as sexual when it isn't, an effect which is magnified when female co-workers are single or otherwise romantically available.

Men are also more likely to harass women who buck the hierarchy, in an effort to re-assert higher status via domination. For example, when men believe female competitors have out-performed them on a knowledge test of stereotypically male areas of interest, during a mock job interview, those men are more likely to be sexually inappropriate with female job applicants.

Taken together, these findings highlight the twin motives of seeking sexual gratification and maintaining status for men in positions of power who harass women. In spite of the above, however, to date researchers have not tested whether it holds true that higher power and feelings of inferiority selectively increase the odds that men will sexually harass women.

The current research

In order to test this hypothesis, Halper and Rios conducted three studies looking at the relationships among power, gender, inferiority, narcissism, and the tendency toward sexual harassment.

Study 1 included only male participants, using an online survey in which they imagined themselves in a position of power, interviewing a woman for a job. The 273 participants in Study 1 were an average of 35 years old, ranging in age from 18 to 79 years. They completed the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale (a reflection of how much they felt inferior in the eyes of others), the Narcissism scale, and the Self-esteem scale.

After providing these measures, participants then completed the Likelihood to Sexually Harass test, in which participants are given 10 scenarios in which they have power over a woman and have an opportunity to request sexual favors in exchange for helping her out. The results showed that Fear of Negative Evaluation made it significantly more likely that male participants in power said they’d engage in sexual harassment if given the opportunity without risk of getting caught. This was true even after controlling for narcissism and self-esteem.

In Study 2, researchers used live participants (rather than online survey) to look at whether differences in power (high power versus low power) interacted with gender (male versus female) to predict sexual harassment likelihood as a function of feelings of inferiority. A total of 144 undergraduates (59 percent women) completed rating scales, including the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale, the Self-Esteem scale, and the Narcissism scale. Then, in what they believed was an unrelated experiment, they were asked to remember and write about a time when either they held power over someone else, or when someone else had power over them. This "primes" participants for low or high power, putting them in the right mental state for the next step.

After being primed for high or low power, they were asked to pick five articles to send to a woman (“Anna K.”) in another room, whom they believed was part of the experiment. The articles were drawn from a pool of 10 articles, half of which were neutral, and half of which contained sexual content. This approach, using articles with sexual versus non-sexual content as an assay of sexual harassment, had been carefully tested to confirm that it simulated the effect of offensive sexual behavior, reminiscent of a man who makes inappropriate sexual references or jokes in the workplace in terms of causing offense and discomfort, especially from men toward women.

Researchers found that men in positions of power with higher Fears of Negative Evaluation were more likely to engage in sexually harassing behavior. In addition, regardless of gender, participants higher on narcissism and lower on self-esteem sent more harassing articles to Anna K.

Study 3 was designed to cover potential gaps in the first two studies by rating self-efficacy to get at whether a person’s actual assessment of their functional competence (self-efficacy) was significantly different from the broader concept of self-esteem in predicting harassment vis-a-vis fears of being seen as incompetent by others as contrasted with seeing oneself as lacking self-efficacy (or both). In addition to looking at whether men were more likely to sexually harass women, study three also looked at whether women in a powerful position were more likely to harass subordinate men, as the early studies did not look at this possibility.

The 197 participants in Study 3 averaged 35 years old, ranging in age from 19 to 73 years. Similar to Study 1, they imagined themselves to be in a high-power role and completed the same assessments, except instead of a broad self-esteem scale, they completed the Generalized Self-Efficacy scale, an estimate of how well people report that they handle various real-world challenges. In prior studies, higher self-efficacy has been linked to better performance, independent of self-esteem alone. The results showed that lower self-efficacy predicted greater odds of sexually harassing others. Women were significantly less likely to harass male subordinates than men were to harass female subordinates. For men only, increasing fears of negative evaluation from others increased the chances they would sexually harass female subordinates. Fears of negative evaluation from others predicted greater sexual harassment only for men in a powerful position, even after accounting for the effects of narcissism and self-efficacy.

Changing the rules

This research is important, because it extends our understanding of how men end up sexually harassing women. Beyond seeking sexual gratification and the general tendency for insecure people in power to behave aggressively, Halper and Rios convincingly demonstrate that for men only, being in power and fearing that others see oneself as incompetent and inferior uniquely come together to precipitate sexual harassment of female subordinates. (This effect, summarized here, has been shown to extend to subordinate males, and is increased with ethnic minorities, people who are gay/queer, and those with disabilities).

While deeply troubling, especially because of how persistent abuse is in spite of being so obvious, the findings of Halper and Rios will not surprise those who already understand that sex-linked factors interact with power and insecurity to result in bullying, harassing, and assaultive behavior.

However, in addition to being the first research to look specifically at the relationships among these factors, these findings are useful for advocacy and training. Future research can also build on this study, both to replicate (or negate/nuance) their findings and to extend the work to broader populations (including understand whether women abuse people for different reasons from men) and more diverse circumstances. It would be interesting, for instance, to find out whether a tendency to use externalizing defenses (versus internalizing), or attachment style predisposes someone to the perpetration of sexual harassment. It is also essential to go beyond correlation to sort out what factors actually cause sexual harassment, and would be good targets for intervention to prevent the abuse of power.

The need for better education and intervention is clear. Evidently, it is easy to identify who is more likely to resort to sexual harassment based on key characteristics, such as narcissism, fear of negative evaluation from others, being in power (especially if coming from a less powerful role and/or having recently lost status), being male, having narcissistic traits, and being motivated by seeking sexual gratification. It’s often an open secret who such high-risk individuals are, but tools could be developed to screen in the workplace for early detection, training, and prevention.

Aside from the somewhat controversial prospect of identifying specific high-risk individuals and providing remediation (which presents problems in terms of profiling), general workplace education for men and women, incorporating the results of this and similar research, will help to address systemic problems, such as complicity, which permit harassment to flourish as an open secret. It is essential to create an environment in which we no longer hide abusive behavior and instead proactively work toward better ways to deal with the hazards of power, insecurity, biology and evolution, and culturally ingrained gender relations.

When a man in power is unable to deal with feelings of insecurity in his own eyes and the eyes of others — and he is presented with the opportunity to aggress against a woman in a subordinate position, when he believes he can do so without being caught — the conditions exist for sexual harassment to flourish, because that man can discharge unacceptable feelings while re-establishing a fragile identity of strength in so doing.  

The risk is increased by narcissistic personality traits and possibly the presence of an immediate need for sexual gratification — though sexuality itself may have no role in sexual harassment — and individual, cultural, and systemic factors fostering deadly silence and the mistreatment of subjugated groups make it too easy for certain people to commit crimes without being called to justice.

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Kunstman, J. W., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Sexual overperception: Power, mating motives, and biases in social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 282–294.

Halper LR & Rios K. (2018). Feeling powerful but incompetent: Fear of negative evaluation predicts men's sexual harassment of subordinates. Sex Roles. published online first https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0938-0