A new study on sexual harassment explores how the physical attractiveness of the victim and of the perpetrator affects the social perception of sexual harassment.
The study, by researchers at the University of Granada in Spain, also assessed how the ideology of the observer influences how they identify such incidents.
Researchers presented a hypothetical situation to 205 university students (19 percent male, 81 percent female). In this fictional scenario, Sergio was a worker at a company who was presented in two ways: physically attractive and not attractive.
Sergio sexually harassed a work colleague, Laura, who similarly was either attractive or unattractive. Specifically, Sergio subjected Laura to gender-based harassment, which is one of the most subtle forms.
After hearing the story of Sergio and Laura, the participants had to complete a questionnaire. Their answers were used to find out how they had perceived the harassment, who they attributed responsibility to for what happened, and what they thought the motivation of the harasser was.
The questionnaire also revealed information on the ideological variables around sexism and the acceptance of the myths surrounding sexual harassment.
“When they were presented with an incident of sexual harassment against an attractive woman, the participants were more likely to perceive it as sexual harassment than when the victim was not attractive,” said Dr. Antonio Herrera, a UGR researcher and co-author of the study published in the International Journal of Social Psychology.
When the harasser was attractive, the participants tended to think he did it to assert his dominance, rather than for a sexual motive.
“The results of this study show how certain features or characteristics of people involved in a case of sexual harassment acquire such importance that they mask other significant variables in the decision-making process. They have consequences for the harasser, for the victim and for the social perceiver,” Herrera said.
In cases where the harasser was not attractive but the victim was, the volunteers attributed more responsibility to him. This fits in with one of the great myths surrounding harassment: the belief that it is done to attractive people by those who are not.
Subjectivity also comes into play as researchers discovered the ideology of the observers also affected their perception.
The greater the acceptance of these myths around sexual harassment, the more responsibility is attributed to the victim.
In this case, these prejudices made them more likely to believe that sexual harassment could have been provoked by the woman for some kind of ‘malevolent’ end.
“This is especially important on a legal, police, work and social level, since it makes it essential to eliminate the preconceived ideas that surround this phenomenon and which are found in both men and women, as we have seen in this study,” researchers concluded.