Social And Psychological Issues In Sexual Harassment Research Paper

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Sexual harassment is generally defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is either a condition of work or is severe and pervasive enough to interfere with work performance or to create a hostile, intimidating work environment. It may consist of words, gestures, touching, or the presence of sexual material in the work environment. It typically involves a pattern of behavior over a period of time, rather than a single event. We might think about the former as ‘an episode of sexual harassment.’ In perhaps 90 percent of the episodes, women are the recipients and men are the initiators, but both sexes can harass and both can be harassed by the same sex or the other sex. If sexual harassment meets certain criteria (e.g., unwelcome, severe, and pervasive), it is illegal in many countries, but not all behavior commonly considered sexual harassment violates the law.



1. A Short History Of Research On Sexual Harassment

It is no doubt safe to assume that sexual harassment has been around for a long time, but it has been labeled, studied, and legislated for only about 20 years. In 1978, journalist, Lin Farley wrote Sexual Shakedown to bring attention to the phenomenon. In 1979, legal scholar, Catharine MacKinnon wrote an influential book that would provide a legal framework for dealing with sexual harassment in the US. MacKinnon argued that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination (i.e., denies women equal opportunity in the workplace) and therefore Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex (among other social categories), should apply. A year after her book was published, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established guidelines on sexual harassment. Early empirical studies of sexual harassment in the workplace and academia started appearing in print about the same time. By 1982, at least one journal (Journal of Social Issues) had produced a whole issue devoted to scholarship on the topic. Today sexual harassment is studied by scholars in many countries who work in many fields, including law, psychology (clinical, forensic, organizational, social), sociology, management and human resources, history, anthropology, communication, and the humanities. Within the social sciences, sexual harassment is studied through quantitative techniques that focus on the measurement of constructs and determination of base rate statistics and qualitative case-study techniques focusing on specific occupations such as wait staff and female coal miners.

2. Measurement Of Sexual Harassment

In the early 1980s, researchers frequently used the term ‘social-sexual behaviors’ to distinguish a set of behaviors that might constitute sexual harassment from a legally defined measure of sexual harassment. These sets typically included behaviors unlikely to be considered sexual harassment either under the law or by a majority of the population. By including a broad range of behaviors, researchers could learn whether people’s views of specific behaviors differ over time (or across samples). It would also allow researchers to see if legal and illegal social-sexual behaviors have common antecedents and consequences.

More recently, however, sexual harassment is what researchers say they are measuring. This has caused some confusion because many people seem to interpret statistics on sexual harassment to indicate the percentage of the workforce that would have a strong legal claim of sexual harassment. This is not true. Researchers have not attempted to capture the legal definition of harassment because: (a) the legal definition changes as the law develops, so the legal definition is a moving target; (b) laws vary from country to country; (c) targets may experience negative consequences of sexual harassment without having the harassment rise to meet a legal definition; (d) there is no reason to believe that we can learn about sexual harassment only by measuring it to conform to its legal definition. Some scholars now make explicit the point that a lay definition of sexual harassment does not necessarily imply that a law has been broken.

A global item, say, ‘Have you ever been sexually harassed,’ is rarely used to measure sexual harassment because some researchers contend that it results in an under-reporting of the phenomenon. Workers seem reluctant to acknowledge that they have been sexually harassed. In addition, asking respondents if they have been sexually harassed places a great cognitive load on them, as they would have to determine first what constitutes sexual harassment and then determine if they had experienced any behavior that met those criteria. In many studies, a single question asking the respondent if she has been sexually harassed is used as an indicator of acknowledging or labeling sexual harassment rather than an indicator of sexual harassment, per se.

Most studies measure sexual harassment by asking respondents if they have experienced any of a list of behaviors that might be considered sexual harassment. These measures are generally (but not always) designed to be suitable for both sexes. In some cases, respondents are asked whether they have experienced a list of behaviors that might be considered sexual harassment, and later in the survey asked which of those behaviors they consider sexual harassment, allowing the researcher to determine which of a broad range of behaviors respondents have experienced that they consider sexual harassment.

Multi-item measures of sexual harassment are also based on a list of behaviors that people may have experienced. The best known of these measures is the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ) developed by Louise Fitzgerald and her colleagues. The SEQ has experienced many changes; the number of questions asked, the wording of questions, and the wording of responses have all been modified, and its refinement is ongoing. The number of subscales that emerge from it has also changed over time so it is important to keep in mind that all the studies using the SEQ are not necessarily using the same set of questions, scored the same way, and at this point it cannot be used to assess changes over time or differences across studies.

3. The Prevalence Of Sexual Harassment

A number of studies have relied on random sample surveys including studies of government workers, the military, specific geographical areas, and specific work organizations. Some of these have obtained quite high response rates, some studies have been conducted in Spanish as well as in English, and a few longitudinal analyses have been conducted.

In measuring prevalence, there is some debate about the timeframe that should be considered. Researchers typically inquire about experiences within the past year, the prior two years, or throughout the person’s entire work life, depending on the purpose of the study. While critics have cautioned that retrospective measures will introduce inaccuracy or bias, researchers active in the field are less concerned. It is difficult to know if one is currently being sexually harassed and qualitative studies provide convincing examples of events initially not labeled sexual harassment that came to be so labeled at a later date.

3.1 The Prevalence Of Sexual Harassment Of Women

The random-sample studies together suggest that from about 35 percent to 50 percent of women have been sexually harassed at some point in their working lives, where sexual harassment refers to behavior that most people consider sexual harassment. Estimates are higher among certain groups such as women who work in male-dominated occupations. The most commonly reported social-sexual behaviors are the less severe ones, involving sexist or sexual comments, undue attention or body language. Sexual coercion is, fortunately, much rarer, involving 1–3 percent of many samples of women. In contrast, a study of allegations in cases tried in court showed a much higher incidence of severe behaviors, with 22 percent involving physical assault, 58 percent nonviolent physical contact, and 18 percent violent physical contact.

The incidence of sexual harassment of women appears to be rather stable. Three US Merit Systems Protections Board studies spanning 14 years show that 42–44 percent of women in the federal workforce have experienced one or more of a list of potentially sexually harassing behaviors within the previous 24 months. In addition, the number of charges filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may be leveling off in the range of 15,000–16,000 per year (in a labor force of about 120 million people).

3.2 The Prevalence Of Sexual Harassment Of Men

Men have been included in studies of sexual harassment from the very beginning. In her study of a random sample of working men and women in Los Angeles County, Barbara Gutek found that some time during their working lives, from 9 percent to 35 percent of men (depending on definition of harassment) had experienced some behavior initiated by one or more women that they considered sexual harassment. The US Merit Systems Protection Board studies found that from 14 percent to 19 percent of men in the Federal workforce experienced at least one episode of a sexually harassing experience (initiated by either men or women) within the previous two years. These surveys revealed that about one-fifth of the harassed men were harassed by another man. Data from the 1988 US Department of Defense Survey of Sex Roles in the Active Duty Military revealed that about one-third of the men (but about 1 percent of the women) who experienced at least one of nine types of uninvited, unwanted sexual attention during the previous 12 months, reported that the initiator was the same sex. The harassment of men by other men tends to be of two types: lewd comments that were considered offensive and attempts to enforce male gender role behaviors. Harassment by women is somewhat different, consisting of negative remarks and/or unwanted sexual attention.

The available research on sexual harassment of men, admittedly much less than the research on women, suggests that many of the behaviors women might find offensive are not considered offensive to men when the initiators are women and/or they report few negative consequences. In addition, a disproportionate percentage of men’s most distressing experiences of sexual harassment come from other men. Presumably these are especially distressing because the recipient’s masculinity and/or sexual orientation are being called into question.

3.3 The Prevalence Of Sexual Harassment Among Other Groups

Relatively few studies have either focused on or found consistent differences in the experience of sexual harassment beyond the consistent differential rate of sexual harassment of women vs. men. It may be the case that younger and unmarried women are somewhat more likely targets of sexual harassment than older and married women. Lesbian women may be more likely to be sexually harassed than heterosexual women, or they may simply be more likely to label their experiences sexual harassment. Although several authors have suggested that in the US women of color (Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian) are more likely to be targets of sexual harassment than Caucasian women, the evidence is far from clear. Several random sample surveys found no clear link between ethnicity and the experience of sexual harassment but qualitative studies suggest that women of color experience sexual harassment frequently. Two kinds of arguments have been advanced for reasons why minority women might experience relatively more sexual harassment. A direct argument relies on stereotyping of minorities. Although the stereotypes of African-American women differ from stereotypes of Chicanas or Asian-American women, in each case the stereotype might place these women at greater risk. An indirect argument relies on concepts of power and marginality. As women of color are less powerful and more marginal by virtue of their ethnicity than white women, they may be more prone to sexual harassment.

4. Explanations For Sexual Harassment

Why sexual harassment exists has been of interest to social scientists since the phenomenon acquired a label. The various explanations can be subsumed into four categories: natural biological perspectives, organizational perspectives, sociocultural explanations, and individual differences perspectives. These explanations tend to be broad in scope, not easily testable in a laboratory.

4.1 Natural Biological Explanations

There are two natural biological perspectives: a hormonal model and an adaptive evolutionary explanation. While intriguing, neither is supported by available data.

4.2 Organizational Explanations

There are two organizational perspectives: sex-role spillover and organizational power. Sex-role spillover, defined as the carry over into the workplace of gender-based expectations that are irrelevant or inappropriate to work, occurs because gender role is more salient than work role and because under many circumstances, men and women fall back on sex role stereotypes to define how to behave and how to treat those of the other sex. Sex-role spillover tends to occur most often when the gender ratio is heavily skewed in either direction, i.e., when the job is held predominantly either by men or by women. In the first situation (predominantly male), nontraditionally employed women are treated differently than their more numerous male co-workers, are aware of that different treatment, report relatively frequent social-sexual behavior at work, and tend to see sexual harassment as a problem. In the second situation (predominantly female), female workers hold jobs that take on aspects of the female sex-role and where one of those aspects is sex object (e.g., cocktail waitress, some receptionists), women may become targets of unwanted sexual attention, but may attribute the way they are treated to their job, not their gender. Several studies find some support for this perspective.

The earliest writings on sexual harassment were about men abusing the power that comes from their positions in organizations to coerce or intimidate subordinate women. Some subsequent statements on the power perspective are gender neutral, suggesting that although men tend to harass women, in principle if women occupied more positions of power, they might harass men in equal measure. This interpretation of sexual harassment as an abuse of organizational power is contraindicated by research showing that about half or more of harassment comes from peers. In addition, both customers and subordinates are also sources of harassment. Sexual harassment by subordinates has been documented primarily in academic settings where, for example, studies find up to half of female faculty at universities had experienced one or more sexually harassing behaviors by male students.

While power cannot explain all sexual harassment, various kinds of power—formal organizational power and informal power stemming from ability to influence —remain potent explanations for at least some sexual harassment. For example, the fact that sexual harassment by customers is fairly common can be explained, at least in part, by the emphasis employers place on customer satisfaction and the notion that the ‘customer is always right.’

Some researchers focus less on broad theoretical perspectives and more on the types of organizational factors that need to be included in models of sexual harassment. Thus far, contact with the other sex and a unprofessional and/or sexualized work environment have been identified as correlates of sexual harassment.

4.3 Sociocultural Explanations

There are at least two ways of thinking of the broader sociocultural context. One is that behavior at work is merely an extension of male dominance that thrives in the larger society. Overall, there is general agreement in the literature about the characteristics of the sex stratification system and the socialization patterns that maintain it. The exaggeration of these roles can lead to sexual harassment. For example, men can sexually harass women when they are overly exuberant in pursuing sexual self-interest at work, or they feel entitled to treat women as sex-objects, or when they feel superior to women and express their superiority by berating and belittling the female sex.

The second way of thinking of the broader sociocultural context is to study the sociocultural system itself and examine how and why status is assigned. According to this view, sexual harassment is an organizing principle of our system of heterosexuality, rather than the consequence of systematic deviance.

4.4 Individual Difference Explanations

Although the data suggest that most sexual harassers are men, most men (and women) are not sexual harassers. This makes the study of personality characteristics particularly relevant. The search for individual-level characteristics of perpetrators does not negate any of the other explanations, but helps to determine, for example, which men in a male-dominated society or which men in powerful positions in organizations harass women when most men do not.

John Pryor developed a measure of the Likelihood to Sexually Harass (LSH) in men, consisting of 10 vignettes that place the respondent in a position to grant someone a job benefit in exchange for sexual favors. Currently the most widely known individual difference measure used in the study of sexual harassment, the LSH, has been validated in a number of studies. For example, undergraduate men who score relatively high on the LSH demonstrate more sexual behavior in a lab experiment and hold more negative attitudes toward women relative to those who report a lower likelihood to sexually harass.

Sexual harassment may be an attempt to immediately gratify the desire for discrimination, intimidation, or sexual pleasure and therefore those people with low self-control may also be more likely to sexually harass. Some research findings support this gender-neutral explanation.

5. Factors Affecting Judgments Of Sexual Harassment

The most widely published area of research on sexual harassment measures people’s perceptions about sexual harassment. One set of studies attempts to understand which specific behaviors (e.g., repeated requests for a date, sexual touching, stares or glances, a sexually oriented joke) respondents consider to be sexual harassment. The other set of studies attempts to understand factors that affect the way respondents perceive behavior that might be considered sexual harassment. Typically, respondents are asked to read a vignette in which factors are manipulated and then they are asked to make judgments about the behavior in the vignette. The factors that are manipulated include characteristics of the behavior (e.g., touching vs. comments), characteristics of the situation (e.g., the relationship between the initiator and recipient), and characteristics of the initiator and recipient (e.g., sex, age, attractiveness, occupation). In addition, characteristics of the rater (e.g., sex, age) are typically measured.

5.1 The Effects Of Rater Sex On Judgments Of Sexual Harassment

Sex is the most frequently studied feature in studies about perceptions of sexual harassment. In all, hundreds of studies have been done. These studies have been reviewed using traditional methods and meta-analyses. The conclusions of these reviews are two: (a) women consistently rate vignettes and specific behaviors more sexually harassing than men and (b) the average difference is small, raising questions about the practical significance of these results. Practical significance is important because in the United States it would appear that these studies have had an indirect influence on the Ninth Circuit’s 1991 decision, Ellison vs. Brady. In that case, the court adopted a new legal standard in hostile environment cases of sexual harassment, the reasonable woman standard, which replaces the traditional reasonable person standard in that Circuit. Juries are asked to evaluate the events from the perspective of a reasonable woman: taking into account all the facts, would a reasonable woman consider the plaintiff to be sexually harassed? The predominant claim is the new standard would force judges and juries to look at the case from the perspective of the complainant, who is typically a woman. This would presumably make it less difficult for a plaintiff to make a convincing claim of hostile work environment harassment. While some recent research suggests that a reasonable woman standard as currently implemented may not result in different judgments than the traditional reasonable person standard, the magnitude of the gender gap in perceptions about sexual harassment may not justify a change in standards, regardless of the effect of standard itself.

5.2 The Effects Of Other Rater Characteristics On Judgments Of Sexual Harassment

Although gender is far and away the most widely studied factor in the study of sexual harassment perceptions, other factors have been studied. For example, when the initiator is higher status than the recipient, judges generally respond more positively toward the recipient, more negatively toward the initiator, and perceive more harassment than when the initiator is not a supervisor. In addition, several studies that compare students with workers find that students have a broader, more lenient view of social-sexual behavior relative to samples of workers who are typically somewhat older and have more work experience.

6. Some Remaining Issues

While much is known, we lack a complete picture of sexual harassment. Must concern about sexual harassment eliminate any kind of dating flirtation at work? How responsible should employers be for the behavior of their employees? How should targets of harassing behavior respond in order to eliminate harassment without damaging their own career possibilities?


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