A series of six studies identifies social sexual identity — or seeing oneself as a person who leverages sex appeal in pursuit of personally valued gains — as a key predictor of both sexual behavior in the workplace and sexual harassment behavior. The study was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Sexual behavior in the workplace is a complex social phenomenon that is often experienced as sexual harassment by its targets. A taboo topic in many places, workplace sexual behavior and workplace sexual harassment came into public focus after the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017, with many women speaking out about experiences of sexual harassment they endured during their careers.
To this date, most research on social sexual behavior has focused on sexual harassment, the most nefarious, but also the least common form of social sexual behavior. These studies framed sexual harassment as an ethical issue and a mechanism through which men maintain power and dominance over women. However, social sexual behavior is a much broader phenomenon than sexual harassment and none of the existing concepts offered insights into how a harasser sees himself when engaging in social sexual behavior.
To fill this knowledge gap, Laura J. Kray and her colleagues proposed the concept of social sexual identity.
“We were interested in the topic for two reasons: First, we thought that women were mischaracterized as more flirtatious than men, when we expected the opposite to be true,” explained Kray, the Ned & Carol Spieker Professor of Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley.
“We wanted to develop a way to measure flirtatiousness in the self-concept and to test for gender differences along it. Second, we wanted to better specify the role of power in producing potentially offensive flirtation. It wasn’t clear if it was power level or desire for power that would produce more offensive flirtation, and we wanted to conduct a rigorous experiment to find out.”
The researchers conducted a series of six studies designed to establish the relationship between the social sexual identity and social sexual behavior. They wanted to test whether the inclusion of social sexual identity as a new psychological concept adds new insights into the psychological mechanisms of social sexual behavior and sexual harassment over the already known factors. Participants in the studies were Prolific Academic and MTurk workers and undergraduate business students, a total of 2,598 of them across all studies.
Kray and her colleagues created an assessment of social sexual identity in the scope of which a respondent rates how traits like “”big flirt,” “sex appeal,” “charming,” “enjoys flirting with others,” “playful with members of the opposite sex,” “often flirts to persuade others to see their point of view,” “knows how to use body language to their advantage,” and “know how to be irresistible when they want something from someone” describe him/her.”
Across the six studies, the researchers used several variations of this assessment as well as assessments of numerous other psychological factors including social sexual behavioral intentions, moral identity, sexual harassment behavior, narcissism, flirt style, hostile and benevolent sexism, self-transcendence and self-enhancement motive and others. Gender was also included in the analysis.
Some of the studies included experimental manipulation of key variables. In study 1b, one group of participants was asked to write about themselves using sexual identity related words in order to increase the salience of their social sexual identity. In study 3, experimenters gave participants instructions to imagine themselves being acquainted with a coworker of the opposite gender, but divided them into groups each tasked with planning the interaction based on a different motive. Studies 4 and 5 varied social power of participants in the experiment.
Results confirmed the expectation that social sexual identity predicts social sexual behavior, including sexual harassment. It uniquely contributed to the prediction of social sexual behavior even after many known predictors were taken into account. Being stronger in men, social sexual identity was found to explain to a large extent the differences between genders in social sexual behavior.
Men’s social sexual behavior increased when they wanted to project a powerful image and generally when pursuing self-enhancement goals. In simpler terms, results showed that men tend to imagine themselves as flirts when they want to be seen as powerful. This was not the case for women. Self-transcendence goals i.e., goals that involve the pursuit of outcomes that are intrinsically worthy, reduced the gender differences in social sexual behaviors.
“One key conclusion is that desire for power leads men but not women to engage in more sexual behavior in task settings,” Kray told PsyPost. “When people aim to connect with others and they hold high power roles, the genders act identically. Motives matter for producing gender differences in potentially offensive sexual behaviors in task settings.”
Men in lower-power positions were particularly likely to initiate social sexual behavior to appear more powerful. “We were surprised that subordinate men engaged in more offensive flirtation than high power men,” Kray said. “This seems at odds with what we saw in #MeToo, but it suggests those men were motivated by desire for more power (even though they already had a lot of it).”
Taken together, this series of studies illustrates the central role of the self-concept in explaining social sexual behavior and gender differences in this behavior. Future studies should address additional factors relevant for this type of behavior such as the sexual orientation of the person initiating social sexual behavior and social norms and cultural backgrounds of the people involved.
“We have documented that some people identify more strongly as a flirt than others,” Kray said. “It’s an open question what conditions lead this identity to form. It’s also unknown what other situations strengthen it, besides desire for power.”
“We are excited to have identified two factors that help to eliminate gender differences of this type (affiliative motives, and high power when it activates feelings of responsibility rather than opportunism),” she added. “We are optimistic that future research, especially by studying the self-concept, can continue to identify when these differences emerge and disappear.”
The paper “Who do they think they are?: A social-cognitive account of gender differences in social sexual identity and behavior at work” was authored by Laura J. Kray, Jessica A. Kennedy, and Michael Rosenblum.