The Psychology of Sexual Harassment – It’s About Power

Ask any employment lawyer to speak about the sexual harassment cases they handle, and chances are good they’ll tell you most claims are filed by women against men. But if you’re the type of person who prefers the rigor of numbers and not mere anecdotal evidence, the statistics also show what most of us know already—women are all too commonly the targets of sexual harassment. While this is an unfortunate fact, and a sad reflection on our society at large, it also overshadows the issue of men, who sometimes also, experience sexual abuse.

A USA Today article published December 18, which looked at the issue of why men don’t file sexual harassment claims, cited federal statistics showing that slightly more than 16 percent of sexual harassment claims were filed by men. The overwhelming majority of claims, more than 80 percent, are filed by women. The reasons for this could be analyzed endlessly by social psychologists and other experts, but there are basic factors that offer some explanation.

The Psychology of Sexual Harassment

You’ve probably heard it said before that sexual harassment and assault has less to do with the act of sex and more with power. A quick look at the distribution of gender and power in the workplace might give some insight to one of the driving forces behind sexual harassment.

Speaking to USA Today about this issue, Abigail Saguy, a professor of sociology and gender studies at UCLA explained, “One of the reasons it is men who harass women, and sometimes other men, is that this is about power and overwhelmingly (workplace) upper management is male, so the positions of power are disproportionately occupied by men and the bottom is disproportionately occupied by women.”

When it comes to the type of person that harasses others, psychologist Ellen Hendriksen examined several years of research on the issue and pointed out several traits common in harassers. These include: Moral disengagement, working in a male-dominated field, hostile attitudes toward women, and a cluster of psychological characteristics known as the “dark triad.”

These involve an individual who is limited in his capacity for empathy and holds a strong need for the admiration of others. As Hendriksen point out in her article, when these traits combine in a person “you essentially get a gleeful enthusiasm for exploitation, deception, and manipulation combined with a callous blindness to the feelings of others, all tied together with a bow of grandiosity.” She adds, “In other words, a perfect recipe for sexual harassment.”

To learn more about a hostile work environment, as compared to sexual harassment, click on the appropriate link.

Women Are Frequent Targets, But Men Can Suffer as Well

While it’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that so many women are forced to file claims against their male coworkers, another unfortunate facet to the issue is that the men who genuinely deal with harassment of their own are often overlooked.  In many cases, a man who is harassed, be it by a female or male coworker, will just endure the behavior rather than report it. An employment attorney interviewed by USA Today pointed to the male ego as a possible hindrance to more men filing harassment claims.

“Pride gets in the way,” the attorney said. “Most good plaintiffs’ attorneys who handle discrimination and harassment claims take on female to male harassment and the same laws apply. It’s just a matter of whether the men who are victims want to come forward.”

Whatever Your Situation, Harassment is Wrong, Fight Back

Regardless of whether you are a man or woman, if you’ve experienced harassment, you have the right to file a claim against your harasser. This is best done with the aid and guidance of a qualified employment attorney. Harassment can include a wide range of behaviors including unwanted: comments, sexual advances, jokes, epithets, as well as comments about a person’s pregnancy status, sexual identity or orientation. Requests for sexual favors in return for career advancement also falls under the state’s harassment laws and is known as quid pro quo harassment.

In addition to protecting employees from these behaviors, state and federal laws also protect workers who speak out against harassment and standup for fellow employees. In other words, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who blows the whistle on sexual harassment in the workplace. Retaliation can include demotion, suspension, termination or other punishments.

Those who file claims against harassers might be eligible to recover lost wages, back pay, pain and suffering damages, and in some cases, punitive damages.

If you’ve experienced harassment, or retaliation stemming from harassment, contact a qualified employment attorney to help you explore your options. It could be well worth your time and effort to fight back.

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