Men who blame women for being sexually harassed are more likely to be harassers themselves, a new study of college students finds.
The findings are a confirmation of what social scientists had expected, said study researcher Colin Key, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Martin. But the results could help explain why some environments seem to foster sexual harassment, Key said.
"There are some toxic work environments where males dominate, and there is a culture that lets them engage in this action and then get away with it," Key to LiveScience. Hopefully, this just adds to the knowledge that we need to target the whole system sometimes and not just these men."
Key and his co-author Robert Ridge published the findings online April 1 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Harassers and victim-blamers
Previous studies have shown that people with traditional views of gender roles are more likely to blame the victim in cases of sexual harassment. This victim-blaming can involve judgments based on how the victim was dressed or how she was behaving. (In the majority of sexual harassment cases, the victim is a "she," according to the study scientists. However, the numbers vary depending on how sexual harassment is defined and the particular study.) Research has also shown that both unwanted sexual advances and derogatory gender-based comments are common in many workplaces. In some samples, nine out of 10 women report facing workplace sexism.
Even subtle sexual harassment can harm a woman's performance on the job. In one study, women who were ogled by men did worse on a math task.
Key wanted to understand not just why sexual harassment happens, but why many people are willing to excuse it. He turned to a psychological theory called "defensive attribution." In layman's terms, this theory suggests that people will try to protect themselves from blame in a given situation. If defensive attribution explains men's propensity to blame the victim, Key theorized, victim-blaming men should be the ones most likely to fear blame themselves — in other words, potential harassers.
To test the theory, Key and Ridge asked 119 college men, ranging in age from 18 to 28, to take a survey measuring how likely men are to sexually harass women. The survey doesn't ask men directly whether they harass women, but rather asks about attitudes associated with harassment, such as whether women use sex to their advantage or are flattered by sexual advances, Key said.
Next, the men read eight short vignettes about instances of sexual harassment. In one, a male restaurant server tells his female coworker that her tips would be higher if she'd show more skin. The study participants were then asked how likely it was that they would be in the shoes of the man in each vignette and how much the fictional men and their victims were to blame for the harassment.
Unsurprisingly, the men with a high proclivity toward sexual harassment, as rated from the initial survey, said they felt more similar to the fictional harassers. They were also less likely to blame the harasser for his behaviors and more likely to blame the victim. That fits with the self-protection theory, Key said.
The men's attitude seemed to be, "I might do that kind of thing and I don't want to get in trouble," Key said.
Only college students were studied, Key and Ridge wrote, so further research needs to be done to understand attitudes in other age groups. Future studies should also investigate harassment in contexts other than workplace, they wrote.
But the current research should provide some comfort — and an early warning — to women who have been sexually harassed and encountered victim-blaming, Key said.
"As a woman, when I get blamed, maybe I shouldn't give a crap about what that guy thinks," Key said. "Because maybe he's the kind of guy who would do this to me, too."
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.