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Sexual Harassment Is in the Eye of the Beholder

We do not always "know it when we see it"

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

As we move toward April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we examine one of the notorious precursors to sexual assault--sexual harassment.

Some believe that sexual harassment is like United States Supreme Court Justice Stewart´s infamous description of pornography. While hard to define, we “know it when we see it.” Yet interestingly, research demonstrates that sexual harassment looks different to different people. Surprisingly, when it comes to witness observation, harassment may be in the eye of the beholder.

Sexual Harassment is in the Eye of the Beholder[1]

A study aptly entitled “Is the beautiful always so good?” researchers examined how physical attractiveness impacts perceptions of harassment. They discovered that to an outside observer reading a scenario where a male employee harassed a female employee, the scenario was more likely to be viewed as sexual harassment when the female employee was attractive.[2]

The study also noted that as a result of “beautiful is good” stereotypical thinking, behavior is less likely to be viewed as sexual harassment when committed by an attractive perpetrator, due to the predisposition to view attractive people as having positive qualities. [3]

Adding to these stereotypes is the finding that harassers themselves may overperceive victim receptivity, injecting an additional subjective component into what is commonly (mistakenly) thought to be an objective analysis.

The Psychology of Overperception

Sexual harassment may be misperceived in the eye of the perpetrator. As a result, although hard to believe, some harassers are unaware of the inappropriateness of their conduct. Comments made in response to complaints include “Don’t women like to know they are attractive?” and “Who isn’t interested in dating the boss?”

What causes this flawed perspective? Some people in power direct sexual behavior toward subordinates because they overperceive receptivity.[4] This overperception is one way in which power can lead to sexual harassment.[5] Under such conditions, a victim’s discomfort might not be as obvious to the perpetrator as it would be to an outside (objective) observer.

Receptivity overperception is compounded within a sexually charged culture of tolerance.

Boardroom Eyes: Visual and Verbal Harassment

The boardroom is not the locker room. Yet some executives, both men and women, have become desensitized to their own inappropriate language, which they let flow freely during board meetings and other company functions, to the dismay and discomfort of anyone within earshot. Such brazen misbehavior is not confined to in-person interaction, as perpetrators let such language fly online as well—which creates the evidence a victim can collect if he or she wishes to file a claim.

Visual harassment is a problem as well, with leering, staring, and other nonverbal communication disrupting what should be professional meetings and briefings.

Do sexual harassers realize how inappropriate their behavior is? Not if they are surrounded with like-minded peers or subordinates afraid to stand up to the boss. These cowardly bystanders encourage and empower the harasser, who in turn perceives his or her harassment as acceptable. Some harassers view their behavior as a game, seeing how far they can push the envelope, armed with ready to go denials or explanations should they be called out. (“That is not what I meant.” “He is way too sensitive.” “I was not looking at him.” “I touched her accidentally.”)

The Invincible Nature of Power

Sexual harassment is often an exploitation of power imbalance. Such harassment is not motivated by sexual interest, but by the desire to intimidate, humiliate, or degrade. The famous observation that “power tends to corrupt"[6] is bolstered within an atmosphere of tolerance or complacency when it comes to denouncing inappropriate behavior.

In addition, power may actually prompt goal-driven behavior in the power holder, who is aware of the influence they have by virtue of their control over valuable resources.[7] This behavior is enabled by the fact that despite their sexual advances toward others, many offenders view themselves (ironically) as untouchable, having avoided consequences for sexually harassing behavior in the past. Too often, power and punishment operate as an inverse proportion, with higher power linked to a decreased likelihood of punishment.[8]

How to Stop Sexual Harassment

In pursuit of ways to stop sexual harassers, training can be both illustrative and instructive. Yet one thing many harassers have in common is a lack of respect for rules and regulations—which explains why sexual harassment training does not always improve behavior. Serial harassers know the rules; they just don´t care.

For these perpetrators, a better way of stopping sexual harassment is by making the punishment fit the crime, and enforcing every violation. A prompt, rapid investigation and prosecution if appropriate, sends a message to other offenders, that behavior has penalties. Even perpetrators who lack a conscience are motivated to avoid consequences. Establish your zero tolerance policy today.

About the Author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert who spent years prosecuting sex offenders. She lectures frequently on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment. She is a former co-chair of the California District Attorneys Association Sexually Violent Predator Committee and Human Trafficking Committee. She received the SART Response with a Heart Award from the Sexual Assault Response Team based on her significant contribution to the field of sexual assault prosecution. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

[1] Some of the research and examples in this column are taken from my latest book, Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).

[2] Antonio Herrera, M. Carmen Herrera, and Francisca Exposito, ”Is the beautiful always so good? Influence of physical attractiveness on the social perception of sexual harassment,” International Journal of Social Psychology Vol. 31, No. 2 (2016): 224-253.

[3] Herrera et al.,”Is the beautiful always so good?” 226.

[4]. Jonathan W. Kunstman and Jon K. Maner, “Sexual Overperception: Power, Mating Motives, and Biases in Social Judgment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, no. 2 (2010): 282–94 (282), doi: 10.1037/a0021135.

[5]. Kunstman and Maner, “Sexual Overperception,” 282.

[6] Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887.

[7]. Kunstman and Maner, “Sexual Overperception,” 282.

[8]. Kunstman and Maner, “Sexual Overperception,” 282.