Individual Differences & Sexual HarassmentPublished 18 October, 2012
The first thing we have to do is decide if a good way to try to remedy the problem of sexual harassment is to study it, including looking for properties that correlate with being a victim or perpetrator of harassment. It seems to me that this is not an unreasonable line of research into this social problem. This is not to say that if one finds such correlates that this in any way excuses the behavior in question. Nor is it to say that if such a correlate is found, then potential victims have some sort of obligation to change their behavior in light of it. If, say, it were found that men or women wearing blue were more likely to be the victims of harassment, such a finding does not imply that it’s morally acceptable to harass someone who is wearing blue, or that it is potential victims’ responsibility to sport non-blue outfits.
So, with that disclaimer, since there are those who might read more into the paper I’ll be writing about here, on to the discussion itself. A paper in the most recent issue of Evolution and Human Behavior by Kennair and Bendixen (hereafter K&B), “Sociosexuality as predictor of sexual harassment and coercion in female and male high school students,” looks at one possible predictor of sexual harassment, sociosexuality (SOI), an individual difference measure that roughly corresponds to degree of interest in more casual, short-term sexual encounters. (Higher SOI scores correspond to greater interest.)
KB consider the relationship between SOI and harassment in light of two possible motives underlying sexual harassment. One possible motive is to dominate, to express power over the victim of harassment. They also propose an alternative motive, having to do with gathering information as opposed to the expression of power. They write:
We posit that behavior described as sexual harassment is primarily behavior that intends to investigate whether the initial perception of an unrestricted sociosexuality is correct, and whether “hooking up” or other short-term sexual relations are possible.
They suggest that these two possible motives lead to different predictions about the relationship between SOI and harassment. They argue that because sexual harassment is unwanted sexually oriented behavior, individuals with higher SOI will find fewer such behaviors offensive because high SOI individuals are potentially interested in the short term sexual activity implied or offered by such behaviors. So, K&B reason:
If the intention is to dominate or suppress, a perpetrator of sexual harassment ought to target individuals with restricted sociosexuality—as those individuals would be most upset by the behavior. We believe that the main intention is to solicit sex, and thus targeting individuals that advertise their unrestricted sociosexuality is the most effective strategy.
To investigate which, if either, of these two possible patterns of data hold, they were able to get 1,199 high school students to complete a web-based questionnaire which included measures of sociosexuality, both in terms of behavior (for instance, number of one night stands) and attitudes (e.g., views toward casual sex), as well as measures of instances of sexual harassment and coercion. They also obtained a number of potential mediating variables (e.g., exposure to pornography). (Bringing the study into the digital age, they included various forms of electronic harassment.)
Controlling for other variables, as the authors predicted, female subjects’ reports of being harassed was positively correlated with their self-reported measure of sociosexuality, with a greater relationship with the behavioral component. Measurements of sociosexuality accounted for a little over 10% of the variation in self-reported harassment. The same overall relationship held for male subjects, though the size of the effect was slightly smaller. Their dataset also allowed them to look at variables that predicted sexually harassing others; the effect was in the same direction. Higher sociosexuality scores predicted harassing others, in addition to being harassed.
K&B take these patterns of data to fit poorly with the idea that sexual harassment is motivated by the desire of males to dominate females. They also report some additional findings which they suggest pull in the same direction. For instance, they find non-trivial amounts of females sexually harassing males, as well as a fair amount of within-sex harassment. This makes sexual harassment, at least in this sample, seem to require an explanation that goes beyond men’s desire to dominate women.
By the same token, within-sex harassment sits uneasily with the proposal that harassment is aimed at detecting interest in casual sex, as the authors acknowledge. At least for heterosexuals, sexually harassing a member of the same sex wouldn’t seem to be plausibly taking their temperature regarding the possibility of a short term sexual liaison. And then there are the usual caveats. There are obviously methodological limitations to studying sexual harassment, and researchers must often rely on self-report data. On the positive side, although Norway is similar in many respects to commonly-studied populations – students in the West – the country has the virtue of being highly egalitarian.
My experience is that in some circles, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, suggesting that sexual harassment might be motivated by interest in sex is viewed with a certain amount of distaste. Certainly when I used to teach my class on human sexuality, I tread lightly on this topic, and still met with a certain amount of resistance to any explanation other than the idea that sexual harassment and sexual coercion are, in their words, “about male power.”
Another question this raises is that it seems to me that harassment is a slightly odd way to get information about interest in casual sex. The data regarding same-sex harassment points to this problem, and it also seems a somewhat risk way to go about things. Are there other ways that high school students might get at another students’ interest without engaging in the sort of behaviors that will potentially invite censure or punishment? Are there other reasons for engaging in such behaviors that go beyond asking about the possibility of a short-term sexual encounter? More work is needed to clarify the motives that underlie these behaviors, which persist even in the face of increasing awareness of it, and attempts to reduce its frequency.
Kennair, L. E. O., & Bendixen, M. (2012). Sociosexuality as predictor of sexual harassment and coercion in female and male high school students. Evolution & Human Behavior, 33, 479-490.