Sexual harassment in the workplace, unfortunately, is still a common occurrence, despite a large and ever-growing body of evidence that thoroughly demonstrates the many different negative consequences for victims of harassment, including anxiety, depression, loss of professional confidence, and disordered eating.
While popular opinion and even many traditional psychological and professional models and practices assume a male-harasser female-victim paradigm, between 16% and 17% of all reported complaints are filed by male victims. Thus, while the majority of workplace sexual harassment cases do indeed adhere to this assumption, a non-negligible number do not.
A recent study from Current Research in Behavioral Sciences seeks to explore the relation between victim sex, offender sex and type of sexual harassment, on the one hand, and attitudes about victims and perceptions of their behavior and the degree to which they suffer, on the other.
Two theories served to frame the author’s hypothesis that male victims would be generally received with less sympathy. Social Role Theory (SRT) describes how social forces indicate how men and women should behave according to traditional gender roles, and how they are rewarded (punished) with compliance (deviation).
Script Theory (ST) postulates that sexual behaviors follow a ‘normative script’ of social conventions and rules, and that men should seek out and enjoy sexual encounters. Deviation is seen unfavorably. Both SRT and ST thus suggest that male victims of sexual harassment are likely to be received with less sympathy.
To test this hypothesis, 837 participants (56% female; 80% white; 57% college-educated) were recruited and instructed to read a brief vignette describing a situation of sexual harassment between two coworkers (either harasser or victim could be male or female, resulting in 8 vignettes). Attitudes were assessed with a questionnaire.
The results confirm the hypothesis that male victims are generally regarded less favorably than female victims of sexual harassment. (Interestingly, male-male scenarios elicited the most favorable attitudes, and female-harasser-male-victim scenarios the least, underscoring the importance of heteronormativity in participants’ evaluations, although this is not explored.) In addition, male victims were believed to have suffered less and to require less time to recover.
A number of limitations are noted by the author, including the nature of participants’ employments, the emotionally superficial nature of written vignettes (compared to, for example, videos), and a largely college-educated, White female sample.
While male victims of sexual harassment may be fewer in number than female victims, there is still a need to treat all victims of sexual harassment with equal respect and cases with equal gravity. Studies like this are necessary for understanding the social complexities that may result in certain victims of sexual harassment struggling to find support, and addressing the social conventions, norms and assumptions at fault.