Q&A: Why sexual harassers behave the way they do

It’s been about two months since allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein went public, and still, new allegations against prominent men continue to surface.

The Morning Call spoke to two Pennsylvania professors of psychology to try to find out why sexual harassers behave the way they do.

Both said that the answer varies on a case by case basis, and warned that there’s not a lot of data about what’s in harassers’ minds. But, they shed some light on the issue.

Below is a Q&A with Brenda Russell, a professor of psychology at Penn State University’s Berks campus who has expertise in domestic violence and abuse, which includes sexual harassment and sexual coercion, and Kenneth Michniewicz, an assistant professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown who does research and teaches in the field of gender and relationships and people on the basis of gender identity.

Some answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. Why do sexual harassers behave that way?

KM: From what we know about sexual harassment, typically the person who commits the gesture is male, and typically the recipient of the gesture is female, although that’s not always the case.

There’s kind of a pervasive norm for women not to have higher status positions in society. What we tend to see is when women do occupy these positions, some of the sexual harassment can actually be understood as a backlash toward those women or a mechanism to reinforce that women shouldn’t be in that position.

Typically, if it’s a context or employment area conventionally occupied by men, what happens implicitly— this is not true of any individual man— is that there’s a perceived threat by women’s presence, and so the reaction to that threat can be in the form of the harassment, which from what we understand is not necessarily about the sexual aspect of it. It’s about the power aspect of it.

BR: Wouldn’t we all like to know that?

There’s different theories behind this.

The socio-cultural theory: It’s a consequence of gender inequality and sexism that exist in our society today already, so sexual harassment serves to maintain the status quo within the organization.

Organizational climate: We have gendered occupations [such as female nurses or male welders], plus in every organization you have the power status, the hierarchy [like a CEO].

Sexual spillover: The belief is men are more goal-oriented and powerful and aggressive, and women are supposed to be passive and family-oriented. We take our gender roles, and spill them over into the organization.

Most would say it’s also power-driven. The real early research on harassers and what drives them was done by John Pryor, who created one of the few measures that looks at harassers and what makes them tick, and created a measure of likelihood to sexually harass….One of the biggest things is (men likely to harass) have this link to power and sex, or the belief that sex is power.

Q. Do sexual harassers know their behavior is wrong?

KM: My speculation is that they do, which is why it’s not overt, it’s not done publicly. Most of the news stories coming out are revelations of behavior that was concealed, and that would suggest that they do.

BR: Many harassers share characteristics such as narcissism and/or psychopathy, and my belief is that those who share these attributes most likely know harassment is not an acceptable (and even illegal) behavior, yet choose to engage in these behaviors because they may feel most of these laws don’t apply to them.

Keep in mind each harasser is different and may have different motivations. Many male and female harassers may still know what they’re doing is wrong.

Many harassers have been known to justify their own behavior by saying “that’s the way it was when I was growing up.”

They also might use words that minimize their behavior of the victimization…like “I just complimented her,” “if she wasn’t so emotional,” or [comedian Bill] Cosby called his [alleged] victimization a rendez-vous, (or might call it a date or little tryst), or they displace responsibility (like “she asked for it wearing that short skirt, or if she didn’t go out to that club” or saying well “everybody does it in the office” attributing it to outside influences).

To my knowledge, there is little to no research on those men/women who cross the line knowingly or unknowingly.

One or more of my studies find that a certain percentage of men/women admit they participated in coercive or even assaultive behaviors or have a proclivity to sexually harass, we don’t know if those men actually consider what they’re doing as “sexual harassment”.

Harassers may know that it’s wrong. I do think most people understand, at least when it comes to sexual assault, that they know they’ve certainly crossed a line.

The hard part is this: when you get quid pro quo sexual harassment, everybody knows there’s a line that can be crossed. When you’re physically abusing another person, you cross that line.

What they may not understand is hostile sexism, like “I used to tell Jane at the office she’s hot, and she liked it, she said thanks, and wow, she wanted to date me or something.”

Maybe they’re reinforced for that behavior, whereas other people if they hear that, they’re like “get away from me.”

Q. Are there complicating factors?

BR: Women don’t understand what behaviors constitute actual sexual harassment. Every person is different, and at the time they’re in the situation of being sexually harassed they may let it go because they’re not sure, maybe this isn’t sexual harassment. Or they may be afraid to say anything, so there’s no consequence to the guy’s behavior so they do it again.

The hostile work environment is a tough one. I don’t think it’s very well understood by men and women what behaviors constitute that type of harassment and that needs to be discussed early.

We see a lot of sexual aggression that goes on in teens and even bullying in middle school. To me those are extensions of sexual aggression, sexual coercion, bullying, all of those kinds of precursors to believe these things are OK.

Q. What behaviors would you say constitute sexual harassment?

BR: Persistent types of strange behaviors, let’s just say unwelcome staring and eye contact, touching, inappropriate touching, sexual language, pressure for dates, body comments.

Not, “you look nice today, Jane,” but "boy, you look really sexy and hot in that outfit.”

Also gender based harassment, which is a huge issue as well. Just saying “What are you doing here?” or "Why are you a nurse” or “Women shouldn’t be in construction.”

Q. Are all men compelled to behave this way? Do some just have better self control?

KM: There’s a sexual double standard in society where men are encouraged to behave sexually and women are discouraged from behaving sexually. From that sense there could be pressure for men to behave that way.

Research that speaks to motive doesn’t suggest it’s so much about sexuality in terms of men’s gratification from sexual behavior, it’s more about using that as a weapon or a tool to reinforce that women should not be in that environment.

BR: I wish I had the answer to that.

There is a biological theory that’s an expansion of the evolutional theory where men have a stronger sex drive and will be more sexually aggressive. I don’t know if I adhere to that theory.

One of the studies I told you about before — the likelihood to sexually harass, looking at proclivity to sexually harass. Those people who were more likely or had a higher proclivity to sexually harass had more of an automatic response to power and sex, to link them together.

Q. What was your reaction to all the allegations surfacing in the news?

KM: Disgust. I think the reaction that’s most troublesome to me is that when women come forward, people question their motives, for instance, “Why didn’t you come forward sooner?” There’s a lot of answers to that question, but I think the assumption underlying that question is that women are making it up. That’s dismissive of the reality of their experience sometimes.

BR: I can't say I’m surprised. It’s just like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’

My interest in sexual harassment started in 1991, when I was an undergrad during the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case.

I hope it doesn’t fall under the radar again for the next 20 years like it did before.

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mmerlin@mcall.com

Twitter @michellejmerlin

610-820-6533

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