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Workplace Sexual Assault Psychological Perception

by Suleman


The topic of sexual assault typically provokes debate, partially because it may be viewed from a range of viewpoints. Some see sexual assault as a sign of male superiority, whereas others see it as a mode of contact that is usually undisruptive (Paludi, 1999). The concern is that the label has been used with such a spectrum of actions that it has largely limited its meaning and consequences. Courts also declared that sexual assault involving sex for work-related rights may be the following modes of conduct; lewd proposals; inappropriately indicative pictures or images; sexual jokes; derogatory language; non-sexual stalking behaviours; and forcible rape (Crouch, 2001).  

The variety of acts that may be characterised as sexual assault, conduct with a vast spectrum of reasons and results renders it difficult to construct an exhaustive list of its triggers and in essence, of its solutions. It is not appalling that the phenomenon of sexual assault ranges quite greatly (Crouch, 2001). The purpose of this paper is to include a general idea of the workplace psychology of sexual assault. A summary of the psychological research conducted to date will also be included in the debate and proposals will be provided to counter sexual assault in working environments.

Workplace Sexual Assault Psychological Perception

Overview of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

            Sexual harassment in the workplace is prevalent, with women more vulnerable to sexual victimization than men (Shrier, 1996). Barbara Gutek’s (1985 as cited in Paludi, 1999) study of women in the workplace reveals that roughly half of the female labor force is victims of sexual harassment. According to telephone interviews gathered through unsystematic digit dialing methods, Gutek’s findings indicated that more than half of previously working women had admitted one occasion they thought was sexual harassment, including humiliating and offending remarks, physical sexual contact, socializing supposed as part of the job obligation, and supposed sexual endeavor (Paludi, 1999).  

In the research on sexual assault, party gaps have been addressed. For example, Fitzgerald and her associates (1988, as quoted in Lenhart, 2004) showed that people working in a university community were more prone to sexual victimisation than women students in the same institution. Gold (1987 as quoted in Paludi, 1999) found that her study subjects, who were blue-collar tradeswomen, experienced considerably higher levels of all forms of sexual abuse than either pink-collar secretarial people or white-collar working women, such as seductive conduct, racial harassment, sexual corruption, sexual bullying, sexual stalking.

In their survey population of 160 woman members, all college graduates employed in male-dominated professions, such as technical employment, LaFontaine and Tredeau (1986 as cited in Ward, 1995) disclosed comparable findings (e.g. IT, engineering). Baker (1989 as quoted in Paludi & Barickman, 1991) analysed a sample of women employed in either non-traditional or traditional occupations, where the gender composition in the occupational group acknowledged ‘traditionality’. Baker (1989, as quoted in Paludi & Barickman, 1991) reported that there are substantial instances of sexual assault correlated with having a few women in the workforce. For example employees admitted that all forms of sexual abuse had a dramatically high frequency, whereas traditional blue-collar jobs admitted significantly low amounts. Secretarial women admitted incidences that were more comparable to those of the conventional blue-collar workers than the nonconventional blue-collar workers (Paludi & Barickman, 1991). Hence, these findings indicate that as women move toward numerical equality in different sectors of the labor force, sexual harassment may dwindle.    

            This point of view has also been introduced by Gutek (1985 as cited in Paludi, 1999), who claimed that sexual harassment is more probable to take place in occupations wherein ‘sex role spillover’ has taken place. The model of Gutek proposes that when occupations are governed by one gender or the other, the gender role of the governing gender affects the work role requirements for that occupation (Paludi, 1999). For instance, gender stereotypes suggest that men are supposed to be sexually forceful and women prepared and eager to be sex objects. Hence, sexual harassment may take place when these gender stereotypes spread out into the work venue (Paludi, 1999).

 When people respond to their thoughts or beliefs about men and women, they may take part in behaviors that are prejudiced. For instance, research indicates that women are assessed less positively than men for similar performance on a work-related task (Crouch, 2001). Moreover, men have a tendency to avoid women and to distance from them, contrary to their behavior or attitude toward men. In addition, men have greater hopes for the competence of other men than for the competence of women; hence, they attribute thriving performance of women on the job to good fortune, sexuality, deception, or the possibility that someone is fond of them (Crouch, 2001). The contributory attribution of incompetence, though, is exploited by men to explain the job performance of women that is anything less than faultless (Paludi, 1999).  

The work venue is not protected from gender stereotypes. For instance, women employees could be assessed by their colleagues and managers in terms of their sexual characteristics and their performance as sexual entities rather than their worth as a co-worker or manager (Paludi & Barickman, 1991). Gender stereotypes are connected to the extent of recognized power or authority one has in the work venue. Stereotypes are more frequently applied in explaining the behavior of people who are viewed as having less authority in the workplace and hence occupy low-grade and low-paid positions (Paludi & Barickman, 1991).   

The Psychology of Sexual Harassment

            Research reports that men are more prone to take part in sexual harassment than are women. Male sexual harassers are not discernible from their co-workers who are non-harassers with regard to age, occupation, marital status, or work-related position (Thacker & Gohmann, 1996). Male harassers do so repetitively to numerous women, particularly when they have not acquired any education and counseling about the effect of their conduct on others. And male harassers embrace outlooks toward women that are conventional, not democratic (Thacker & Gohmann, 1996).  

Pryor (1987 as cited in Lenhart, 2004) investigation reported that sexual harassment carries a theoretical resemblance to rape. He formulated a chain of theoretical scenarios of circumstances that furnished possibilities for sexual harassment if the man desired. Directions instructed men to envision themselves in these male roles and to think about what they would do in each scenario. Afterwards they were asked to envision that whatever their preferred response, no detrimental outcomes would come out from their preferences. Findings revealed that men who instigate serious sexually harassing conduct are prone to put emphasis on male sexual and social dominance and to show inconsideration to others (Lenhart, 2004). Moreover, men are less probable than women to describe sexual harassment as comprising taunts, teasing comments of a sexual hint, and unnecessary evocative gestures or looks (Lenhart, 2004). Men are also more probable than women to be in agreement with the following testimonials, adopted from Paludi’s (1993 as cited in Ward, 1995) study of “attitudes toward victim blame and victim responsibility” (as cited in Ward, 1995, 75):       

Women often claim sexual harassment to protect their reputations. Many women claim sexual harassment if they have consented to sexual relations but have changed their minds afterwards. Via sexual assault, sexually experienced people are not really affected. To be sexually assaulted, it will do some woman well. Women place themselves in positions where, when they have an innate urge to be assaulted, they are liable to be sexually harassed. In most cases when a woman is sexually harassed, she deserved it (Paludi & Brickman, 1991, 91).

Similar to incest, rough treatment, and rape, sexual harassment may be viewed as a serious performance of qualities that are viewed as exceptionally masculine in this culture: dominance, force, aggression, and power. Hence, male harassers show stereotypic attitudes typical of the male sex role in American culture (Bingham, 1994).     

            Lott and her associates (1993 as cited in Paludi, 1999) have discovered empirical evidence for a broadly recognized theory among scholars in sexual harassment: ‘that sexual harassment is part of a larger and more general dimension of hostility toward women and extreme stereotypes of women, including the mythical images of sexual harassment—that sexual harassment is a form of seduction, that women secretly need or want to be forced into sex’ (Paludi, 1999, 121). In her investigation on why men sexually harass women Paludi (1993 as cited in Ward, 1995) stressed that the focus should not be on the attitudes of the males toward females but rather on the attitudes of males toward other males, rivalry, and power. A high percentage of the males with whom Paludi (1993) as cited in Ward, 1995) has interviewed about sexual harassment usually behave out of intense aggressiveness and concern with ego or self-image or out of anxiety of losing their power or authority. They do not want to look less manly or even helpless in the eyes of other males, thus they participate in ‘scoping of girls’, teasing girls, stalking women, and making indirect or blatant threats (Ward, 1995). Women are the sport to make an impression on other men.  

            When males are being persuaded to be addictively competitive and obsessed with power, it is probable that sooner or later they will exercise aggressive means to achieve power (Shrier, 1996). Furthermore, Paludi (1999) emphasized that males are likely to be offensive verbally and threatening in their body language or gestures. ‘Deindividuation’ is fairly widespread among teenage boys who, during lunch break and class shifts, touch girls as they pass in the corridor (Crouch, 2001). These boys withdraw self-analysis and take on group behavior and norms. Under these situations, group members conduct themselves more forcefully or assertively than they would as individuals (Crouch, 2001).  

            The component of aggression that is profoundly entrenched in the masculine sex role is observed in sexual harassment. For numerous males, behaving aggressively is one of the primary means of showing their masculinity, particularly among males who feel some sense of weakness and incapacity in their lives (Paludi, 1999). The ‘male-as-aggressor’ or ‘male-as-dominant’ is an issue so integral to numerous males’ self-perception that it factually influences their interpersonal communications, particularly with female acquaintances (Paludi, 1999, 133):

Sexualizing a professional relationship may be the one area where the average man can still ‘prove’ his masculinity when few other areas can be found for him to prove himself in control, or the dominant one in a relationship. Thus, sexual harassment is not so much a deviant act as an over-conforming act to the masculine role in this culture.  

The interesting question is, can girls and women sexually harass? The empirical evidence thus far implies that throughout adolescence, girls may be likely to sexually harass boys, even though the boys may misunderstand their experiences (Lenhart, 2004). Female superiors are highly improbable to romantically engage with or sexually harass their subordinates (Lenhart, 2004).  

            As assumed by Fitzgerald and Weitzman (1990 as cited in Paludi, 1999), even though it is hypothetically likely for women to sexually harass men, it is in reality exceptionally unusual. The commonness of females’ sexually harassing other females is also rare. Many of males’ encounters with sexual harassment are with other males (Bingham, 1994). As a result, men may be hesitant to expose this information because of homophobic reasons. Studies in this domain of same-sex sexual harassment are continuing and will provide idea on this issue as well as recommendations for courses of action, training programs, and practices (Bingham, 1994).   

A Review of Psychological Studies on Sexual Harassment

            Most of the sexual assault study has been done oriented by a sequence of issues raised by a number of scholars. Such issues guide the data/information researchers examine and the conclusions they make (Paludi, 1999). Even though there are no right or wrong issues to investigate, there has been an excess of studies that is victim oriented, aiming to explain such issues as the following: the commonness of sexual harassment; traits of individuals who are harassed; refusal of students to report their sexual victimizations (Paludi, 1999). Research has therefore put emphasis on the so-called deficiencies of the sexually harassed employee. Even though this point of view has been questioned, it and other victim-blaming and victim-oriented views persist to influence research, the handling of sexual harassment in workplaces, and the settlement of sexual harassment cases in the workplace through the courts (Thacker & Gohmann, 1996).         

            Researchers should be attentive of the repercussions of the issues they are investigating and the core theories being formulated about the sexual harassment they are examining. Their study is used by lawyers and legislators, those who are sympathetic of women’s grievances and those attempting to dishonor them by mentioning their psychological deficiencies (Crouch, 2001).     

            One research assumption is that women who are sexually harassed suffer from defenselessness (Paludi & Barickman, 1991). Data outside the controlled setting of the laboratory indicates, though, that sexually harassed employees go to their family, friends, colleagues, and counselors for help, and when there are effectual and imposed investigatory procedures and policy statements, they resort to the work venue for help (Paludi & Barickman, 1991). Fitzgerald and Omerod (1993 as cited in Crouch, 2001) classified various coping mechanisms, external and internal. This evidence-based course of action adds to the likelihood of the re-victimization of women who do report their experience. Letting others know is necessary and should be drawn upon in any investigation as evidence about the effect of sexual victimization on the individual (Crouch, 2001).  

            Other studies indicate it is the reactions of others to individuals’ appeal for settlement of the sexual harassment complaints that are unsatisfactory. Instead of advancing to investigate the problems of sexually harassed employees, it may be more beneficial to tackle effective and efficient interventions, investigatory procedures, and training programs (Paludi, 1999). Furthermore, a great deal of the research on sexual harassment in the workplace has given little attention to the problems of construct validity. Researchers have not generally raised questions that sexually harassed employees may ask of themselves (Thacker & Gohmann, 1996). Researchers have not usually explored sexually harassed persons’ own perceptions of their experiences. Studies depend greatly on descriptive contexts as research motivations. For instance, employees are asked if they judge the account of an episode is sexual harassment and how they would react to the scenario provided. Thus far, there is no empirical evidence to prove that how employees react to descriptive circumstances in any way shows how they would react in a real circumstance (Thacker & Gohmann, 1996). Actually, there is proof that women are more likely to name episodes as sexual harassment when they are portraying others instead of themselves (Paludi, 1999).   

            In these studies, indefinite circumstances are generally presented to employees with no measures for resolving the incidence of sexual harassment. As a result, individuals make use of their own descriptions of sexual harassment in constructing their opinions or judgments. Would researchers get similar findings if they presented individuals with measures for resolving sexual harassment and less indefinite circumstances?

            Furthermore, the paper illustrations, majority of them very succinct, do not capture the intensity of interactions and emotions that emerge in an actual sexual harassment episode. The percentages revealed by researchers derived from the responses of employees to these paper illustrations inform nothing about the harshness or the commonness of the sexual harassment— vital issues, particularly for pursuing settlement of sexual harassment through the courts.       

            Nor is an interest being given to the responsiveness of the criteria employed. In the process of evaluating the judgments of employees about sexual harassment, employees could adjust their attitudes because of the intensified sensitization to concerns revolving around sexual harassment (Paludi & Barickman, 1991). Additionally, to date, there are no reports that have put emphasis on whether employees prefer to report or not to report as an outcome of what they are learning by becoming involved in a research study (Crouch, 2001).   

            This question, “Are the methodologies researchers are using inhibiting students from filing a complaint because they do not see any parallels between the situation described in their research study and what they have experienced in real life?” (Paludi, 1999, 138), is most relevant for studies that does not describe sexual harassment for employees but instructs them to depend on their own descriptions. Barak (1997 as cited in Paludi, 1999) emphasized that this methodological dilemma is especially obvious when attempting to compare frequencies of sexual harassment across societies: researchers have not applied the same description or the same evaluating tool in gathering frequency data.

            Employees may be capable of making use of conceptual idea in linking their own experiences and the experiences of some imaginary sexually harassed individual. Nevertheless, when in a sexual harassment condition, employees require tangible information (Paludi, 1999). The issue is too emotionally loaded to be viewed from the workplace perspective ordinarily illustrated in the paper-and-pencil criteria of sexual harassment.    


            The findings of various studies suggest that work venues can do much to lessen their legal responsibility concerning sexual harassment. As the findings of the studies indicate, types of aggressive environment harassment are less likely to result in detrimental psychological outcomes than when aggressive environment harassment is attended by either of the types ‘something for something’ harassment. Hence, organizations may desire to concentrate their training attempts on educating employees about the range of attitudes and behaviors that are classified as ‘something for something’ harassment and elaborating that these behaviors, together with types of aggressive environment harassment, are probable to have an incremental outcome, finally shoving someone across the line into conceptual assumptions that s/he is being sexually victimized.     

            The findings from various studies also indicate that organizations should offer more seminars and training for superiors. Superiors should be aware of the implication their social and sexual interest has on targets and the distinct influence of their authority position on the physical and psychological health of their employees. As exemplars, superiors should also be conscious of the prompts they send to employees about the appropriateness of social and sexual behavior and attitude in the workplace. Once superiors are equipped with such training and education, organizations should make sure that the work venue is freed of sexual harassment by superiors. As fragment of the enforcement process, each superior’s performance evaluations may take account of the number of confirmed sexual harassment accusations against him/her. 

            Furthermore, supplementary research is required on gender composition of the occupational group and psychological wellbeing of individuals who are sexually victimized. Organizations will apparently have problems eradicating other-gender interaction completely. Hence, the more suitable action would be to conduct research into the influence that interaction in sexualized workplaces has on psychological health, focusing on concerns of individual control. An emphasis of current research should be the restraining influence on psychological outcomes and views of individual control of people who are sexually harassed, due to the fact that the findings of recent studies raise issues about whether such variations are present.     

            Ultimately, causal studies would be useful, because a variety of the correlates of sexual harassment are interconnected. Future studies should explore the connection between length of the sexual harassment and psychological distress: the more prolonged sexual harassment is, in spite of desires that it end, the more likely people are to ascribe its incidence to events outside their control.

  • Bingham, S. G. (Ed.). (1994). Conceptualizing Sexual Harassment as Discursive Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  • Crouch, M. A. (2001). Thinking about Sexual Harassment: A Guide for the Perplexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lenhart, S. A. (2004). Clinical Aspects of Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination: Psychological Consequences and Treatment Interventions. New York: Routledge.
  • Paludi, M. A. (Ed.). (1999). The Psychology of Sexual Victimization: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Paludi, M.A. & Barickman, R.B. (1991). Academic and Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Resource Manual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Shrier, D. K. (Ed.). (1996). Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and Academia: Psychiatric Issues. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  • Thacker, R.A. & Gohmann, S.F. (1996). Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Sexual Harassment: a Descriptive Study. Journal of Psychology, 429.
  • Ward, C. (1995). Attitudes toward Rape: Feminist and Social Psychological Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

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