In recent weeks, revelations about sexual harassment and its devastating effects have flooded the news and social media. But aside from a few legal-team-filtered statements, we don’t have an insight into the mindset of the accused harassers. So what are they thinking? How could they think this was a good idea? What makes someone prone to harass others?
Before we get into the psychology of sexual harassment, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about.
What is sexual harassment?
A common myth is that sexual harassment is just a few steps down the continuum from sexual assault. But it’s not that simple.
What specifies sexual harassment is that it is tied to power structures in employment and career advancement. The harasser holds the keys and creates a catch-22 for the victim: either submit and be exploited or resist and be punished. It’s a no-win situation of power, control, and intimidation.
Therefore, sexual harassment can and does include demeaning comments, requests for sexual favors, unwanted sexual advances, but importantly, can also include sexual assault, which is any non-consensual or coerced sexual act, including sexual touching.
Harassment is also different than unwanted sexual attention, which consists of unwelcome come-ons and comments that are not primarily designed to demean and intimidate. Think terrible pick-up lines. Therefore, “Do you work at Subway? Because you just gave me a foot-long!” from a guy at the bar is unwanted sexual attention, but from your boss, it’s sexual harassment.
To be sure, it’s not always women as victims and men as perpetrators, even though that is the vast majority of the cases. In 2016, of the almost 13,000 charges of sexual harassment logged by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (widely regarded as the tip of the iceberg), 83% of them were filed by women.
And women who face sexual harassment by bosses and supervisors aren’t just rising Hollywood starlets or Yale-educated lawyers who once worked for Supreme Court nominees. They’re restaurant workers, clerks, flight attendants, students, health care workers, programmers, and any of millions of other everyday workers whose bosses control scheduling, raises, promotions, and references.
So who are these bosses? Who sexually harasses? I dug through the research and found four common characteristics of the (mostly) men who sexually harass (mostly) women. Here they are.
The 4 Characteristics of Sexual Harassers
- Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
- Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
- Characteristic #3: Working in a male-dominated field
- Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women
Let’s explore each a little further.
Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
With a name like “the Dark Triad,” you can bet this is a doozy of a personality trait. Actually, it’s three in one: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
You’ve definitely heard of the first two: narcissism is a grandiose view of one’s own talents coupled with a lack of empathy and a deep need for admiration. Narcissists don’t care if you like them, but they do need you to think they’re powerful and impressive.
Narcissists might justify sexual harassment if they think they’ve been deprived of a sexual experience they “deserve.” They can’t fathom that someone just isn’t that into them.
Next, psychopathy revolves around two things: fearless dominance and aggressive impulsivity. In other words, psychopaths are bold, manipulative exploiters. They also have no empathy, but are good at mimicking it in order to exploit their victims.
Psychopaths sexually harass simply because they want to. If the opportunity presents itself (or they create the opportunity), they’ll take full advantage.
Finally, there’s Machiavellianism, named for the Italian Renaissance politician Niccolo Machiavelli. His masterwork, The Prince, describes an unscrupulous, deceptive political philosophy with an eye on long-term goals at any cost.
Put it all together and 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. In other words, a perfect recipe for sexual harassment.
Indeed, in a study of almost 2,000 everyday community members, researchers found that—unsurprisingly—each of the three Dark Triad characteristics added to a tendency to sexually harass others.
Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
This is another doozy. Moral disengagement is a slippery slope by which people justify their own corruption. It’s a cognitive process by which individuals create their own version of reality where moral principles don’t apply to them.
The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior.
Moral disengagement was first proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura, who is often called the greatest living psychologist. His theory, as applied to sexual harassment, has several parts:
- First comes moral justification, or portraying harassment as acceptable. Think Harvey Weinstein’s line, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
- Next is euphemistic labeling, or using sanitized substitutions for naming their behavior, like Bill Cosby’s characterization of his sexual assaults as “rendezvous.”
- Third is displacement of responsibility, which attributes the harassment to outside forces (like Weinstein’s “that was the culture then.”)
- There’s also advantageous comparison, which is the assertion that their behavior could have been worse, and distortion of consequences, where individuals minimize the harm wrought by their actions.
- And finally, there are dehumanization and attribution of blame, which respectively eliminate concern for the victim and blame her for the incident. Bill O’Reilly did this when he commented that a woman who was raped and killed was “moronic” because she was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top, and that ”every predator in the world is gonna pick that up.”
The end result? Harassers sleep well at night because, through moral disengagement, they rest assured that what they did was within the realm of normalcy, deserved, and didn’t cause any harm.
The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior. This is how sexual harassers can maintain their view of themselves as decent, even morally upstanding, people.
Characteristic #3: Working in a male-dominated field
Sexual harassment is well-documented to be more prevalent in traditionally masculine fields, like the military, the police, surgery, finance, and more recently, high tech and the upper echelons of the entertainment industry.
This goes back decades: a classic 1989 study of 100 female factory workers found that women who worked as machinists, a position dominated by men, reported being harassed significantly more often than women who worked on the assembly line, which was more gender-equal.
Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women
Even though psychology is a science, it’s not a totally objective field, in most part because research is done by people, and people are a product of their culture and the biases of a given place and time. Interestingly, while researching this episode I found a study on sexual harassment from the early 1980s—almost a decade prior to Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings—that stated that most male sexual harassers had no idea that their advances were unwanted. The conclusion was that people who engaged in sexual harassment were simply clueless and lovelorn. But now we know better
A 2012 study out of the University of Bielefeld in Germany tested whether harassment was driven by what the researchers called a “short term mating orientation,” which is basically an academic euphemism for love ‘em and leave ‘em, or was driven by something called hostile sexism, and therefore served less as a way to get sex and more as a way to intimidate women.
The researchers asked 100 heterosexual male college students to chat online with “Julia,” an attractive 23-year-old woman. With each chat exchange, participants were asked to choose among three different pre-written messages to send to Julia.
The men were also told that this was a memory test, that Julia would later be quizzed on recalling the messages they sent to her, and that previous studies had found gender differences in memory performance, thus creating an atmosphere of competition.
For each message, the men chose among a joke, a personal comment, and a neutral statement. Now, some of the exchanges were carefully calibrated to include opportunities to harass. For example, in one combination, the choice included a sexist joke not specifically about Julia: “What’s the difference between a woman having her period and a terrorist? With a terrorist you can negotiate.” It also included a sexist remark directed specifically toward Julia—one of those terrible pickup lines: “You’re a sweet chocolate and I’ve got the filling for you.” Thankfully, there was also a neutral statement, simply: “You seem like a cheerful person.” Participants chose one of the messages to send, and then repeated this over 20 different trials.
The results found that the choice to send the pickup lines hung together with approving attitudes about short-term sexual encounters. The men who were more likely to send the bad pickup lines were also more likely to agree with statements like “sex without love is OK,” or “I would consider having sex with a stranger if it was safe and she was attractive.”
The guys who chose to send sexist jokes also scored highly on the short-term sexual attitudes questionnaire. But there was something else: they scored highly on a questionnaire of hostile sexism, endorsing items like, “Women are too easily offended,” and “The world would be a better place if women supported men more and criticized them less.”
In other words, sexual motives predicted unwanted sexual attention but hostile motives predicted both unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. The researchers concluded that choosing to send the jokes wasn’t about sex at all; instead, it was about creating a disparaging, hostile climate for Julia in the context of a competitive atmosphere.
A good litmus test for whether comments are sexist or just a joke is to ask, “Would I say this to a man?” This is a good test for statements that might get defended by a harasser as “harmless fun,” or “What, I can’t even give a compliment?” For instance, a male supervisor wouldn’t tell a man he should smile more, comment on the attractiveness of his body, or say, “You don’t have to get all emotional about it.”
To sum it all up, harassment indicates a willingness to exploit and manipulate as a way to maintain or gain power. It indicates callousness toward the victims and aims to “keep them in their place.” Hopefully, with all the attention given to sexual harassment, more victims and more bystanders will speak up and speak out, and someday, the place for sexual harassment will be exactly nowhere.