Sexual Harassment Dynamics Revealed in the McSally Case

The psychology of sexual harassment and Senator McSally's powerful testimony.

Posted Mar 08, 2019

“I thought I was strong, but I felt powerless…the perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways,” said Senator Martha McSally (R-Arizona), of her rape by a superior officer while she served in the US Air Force. McSally retired from the Air Force after 26 years of service and was the first woman to fly in combat and the first to command a fighter squadron. She recently testified before a Senate Armed Services Committee about her experience.

Sexual harassment (SH) occurs when people are targets of unwanted sexual comments, sexual gestures, or sexual actions because of their actual or perceived gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. The McSally case illustrates many key concepts from psychological research on sexual harassment.

McSally’s rape is the most egregious version of a type of sexual harassment (SH) known by psychologists as unwanted sexual attention. This form of SH includes making sexual comments about a person’s body; leering and catcalling; spreading sexual rumors about a person; unwanted sexual touching; blocking another’s path and following in a sexual way; unsolicited, unwelcome, and unreciprocated sexual advances; and attempted or completed rape. 

The accounts of survivors of SH, including rape, are often discounted or minimized when they continue to serve in jobs where the SH occurred or continue to work for perpetrators. However, career and employment considerations often explain why women stay. Some women need their paycheck too much to leave a job due to SH. Leaving may also negatively affect career progression due to the loss of seniority and organization-specific work skills, difficult-to-explain gaps in employment, and trouble obtaining references from managers and coworkers. McSally stayed in the Air Force despite sexual harassment and attained the rank of Colonel.

By US Air Force - public domain
Source: By US Air Force - public domain

As a gender minority in the military, it’s somewhat unsurprising that McSally experienced SH. SH is sometimes used to intimidate and discourage women in traditionally masculinized spaces, occupations, and industries. Women who threaten traditional masculine hierarchies of power are more likely to be targets of SH. Gender-nonconforming men and women are frequent SH targets. Hegemonic masculinity norms including power over women, dominance, and sexual conquest can also drive SH. The influence of these norms intensifies in male groups and masculine cultures where men may sexually harass to demonstrate their masculinity. 

From a feminist psychology perspective, organizational and societal tolerance of sexual harassment reflect male power and privilege and mean that sexual harassment is minimized; perpetrators are excused and rarely punished; victims are often blamed; victims hesitate to report; and complaints may be met with indifference, stigmatization, or retaliation. A 2014 Rand military workplace study found less than one-third of military sexual assaults are reported, and 52 percent of women who reported faced social or professional retaliation. McSally says that she didn’t report her sexual assault because she didn’t trust the system at the time. 

SH often involves an abuse of power and arises from a sense of entitlement felt by powerful people. Some harassers have the power to provide desired rewards to targets or to punish them; they use that power to ensure compliance from sexual harassment targets. The aforementioned Rand study found that in almost 60% of military cases, the perpetrators were supervisors or unit leaders

That McSally persisted despite experiencing SH is a testament to her strength and career dedication, but it’s also a testament to gender inequality in our military and in our workplaces. While men also experience workplace SH, the majority of victims are women, and the majority of perpetrators, men. A Rand research study found 22% of military women experienced SH while serving (compared to 7% of military men); and most perpetrators were male military members. 

SH is more likely when organizational cultures allow it. Said McSally, “I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.” Effective organizational sexual harassment training includes education about sexual harassment behaviors, procedures for reporting, the responsibilities of managers and supervisors, promoting respect for people from all groups, and prohibitions against retaliation. 

To be effective, however, strong support from leaders and managers must accompany policies and training. As McSally says about the military, “We must educate, select, and further educate commanders who want to do the right thing but who are naive to the realities of sexual assault. We must ensure all commanders are trained and empowered to take legal action, prosecute fairly, and rid perpetrators from our ranks. And if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duties, they must be removed and held harshly accountable.”


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