Men and women differ in how they perceive sexual advances in the workplace, a study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science reports. The research also found that individual characteristics and the characteristics of the person making the advance influence how sexual advances are viewed.
The researchers propose that sexual advances are in part driven by mating goals that are different for men and women. From an evolutionary point of view, women increase their chances of having an offspring by finding a nurturing partner, who wants to care for the woman and the potential offspring, while men enhance those chances through a high number of successful short-term sexual relationships.
As mating goals differ there is an imbalance between women’s and men’s sexual interests, wishes, and goals leading to conflicts in social interactions and, therefore, to unwanted sexual advances that can manifest themselves in sexual harassment.
Whether an advance is perceived as oppression or opportunity depends on various factors. Apart from sex differences and strategies, characteristics like sociosexual orientation, a term describing people’s views on exclusiveness in sexual relations, may also play a role. Individuals restrictive in their sociosexual orientation need building of an attachment and closeness with a partner before any sexual interaction, whereas unrestrictiveness represents the enjoyment of sex without attachments and a higher number of partners.
Previous research has shown advances coming from more attractive individuals and those with higher status are less likely to be perceived as harassment, and authors of this study decided to test this while simultaneously taking into account the sociosexual orientation of the person receiving the advance.
In two studies, 1,516 people completed an online survey in which a scenario was presented to them. A co-worker, who was described as either good looking or ugly, and either high status (board member) or low status (secretary) was making a pass on them. Participants were required to imagine how they would react. They also gave information on their views on sexual relations which researchers used to analyze in the context of sociosexual orientation.
Results from both studies showed that in general men perceive sexual advances as less negative than women, especially when a physically attractive female is involved. Higher sociosexual orientation (more open to sexual relations without the need for commitment), as well as the attractiveness of the actor, led to perceiving sexual advances as less harmful. For women, attractiveness translated to social status and men were more influenced by physical attractiveness.
Although positive perceptions of sexual advances can lead to the start of a romantic relationship, some sexual advances might be unwanted and can be seen as sexual harassment, leading to compromised organizational functioning and reduced well being.
“These results clarify potential pathways to explain the perception of sexual advances as oppression or opportunity” and so might contribute to eliminating sexual harassment resulting from misunderstanding. The authors conclude the findings may clarify the understanding of the occurrence and processes of sexual harassment in the future.
The study, “Oppression or Opportunity? Sexual Strategies and the Perception of Sexual Advances”, was authored by Lisa Klümper and Sascha Schwarz.