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Sexual Harassment: 4 Psychological Traits of Perpetrators

From Clarence Thomas to basically all of Uber to Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment is as rampant as it is repugnant. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen examines the psychology of sexual harassment.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
October 20, 2017
Episode #174

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sexual harassment at work

In recent weeks, revelations about sexual harassment and its devastating effects have flooded the news and social media. But aside from a few legal-team-filtered statements, we don’t have an insight into the mindset of the accused harassers. So what are they thinking? How could they think this was a good idea? What makes someone prone to harass others?

Before we get into the psychology of sexual harassment, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about.

What is sexual harassment?

A common myth is that sexual harassment is just a few steps down the continuum from sexual assault. But it’s not that simple.

What specifies sexual harassment is that it is tied to power structures in employment and career advancement. The harasser holds the keys and creates a catch-22 for the victim: either submit and be exploited or resist and be punished. It’s a no-win situation of power, control, and intimidation.

Therefore, sexual harassment can and does include demeaning comments, requests for sexual favors, unwanted sexual advances, but importantly, can also include sexual assault, which is any non-consensual or coerced sexual act, including sexual touching.

Harassment is also different than unwanted sexual attention, which consists of unwelcome come-ons and comments that are not primarily designed to demean and intimidate. Think terrible pick-up lines. Therefore, “Do you work at Subway? Because you just gave me a foot-long!” from a guy at the bar is unwanted sexual attention, but from your boss, it’s sexual harassment.

To be sure, it’s not always women as victims and men as perpetrators, even though that is the vast majority of the cases. In 2016, of the almost 13,000 charges of sexual harassment logged by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (widely regarded as the tip of the iceberg), 83% of them were filed by women.

And women who face sexual harassment by bosses and supervisors aren’t just rising Hollywood starlets or Yale-educated lawyers who once worked for Supreme Court nominees. They’re restaurant workers, clerks, flight attendants, students, health care workers, programmers, and any of millions of other everyday workers whose bosses control scheduling, raises, promotions, and references.

So who are these bosses? Who sexually harasses? I dug through the research and found four common characteristics of the (mostly) men who sexually harass (mostly) women. Here they are.

The 4 Characteristics of Sexual Harassers

  1. Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad
  2. Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement
  3. Characteristic #3: Working in a male-dominated field
  4. Characteristic #4: Hostile attitudes towards women

Let's explore each a little further. 

Characteristic #1: The Dark Triad

With a name like “the Dark Triad,” you can bet this is a doozy of a personality trait. Actually, it’s three in one: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

You’ve definitely heard of the first two: narcissism is a grandiose view of one’s own talents coupled with a lack of empathy and a deep need for admiration. Narcissists don’t care if you like them, but they do need you to think they’re powerful and impressive.

Narcissists might justify sexual harassment if they think they’ve been deprived of a sexual experience they “deserve.” They can’t fathom that someone just isn’t that into them.

Next, psychopathy revolves around two things: fearless dominance and aggressive impulsivity. In other words, psychopaths are bold, manipulative exploiters. They also have no empathy, but are good at mimicking it in order to exploit their victims.

Psychopaths sexually harass simply because they want to. If the opportunity presents itself (or they create the opportunity), they’ll take full advantage.

Finally, there’s Machiavellianism, named for the Italian Renaissance politician Niccolo Machiavelli. His masterwork, The Prince, describes an unscrupulous, deceptive political philosophy with an eye on long-term goals at any cost.

Put it all together and you essentially get a gleeful enthusiasm for exploitation, deception, and manipulation combined with a callous blindness to the feelings of others, all tied together with a bow of grandiosity. In other words, a perfect recipe for sexual harassment.

Indeed, in a study of almost 2,000 everyday community members, researchers found that—unsurprisingly—each of the three Dark Triad characteristics added to a tendency to sexually harass others.       

Characteristic #2: Moral disengagement

This is another doozy. Moral disengagement is a slippery slope by which people justify their own corruption. It’s a cognitive process by which individuals create their own version of reality where moral principles don’t apply to them.

The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior.

Moral disengagement was first proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura, who is often called the greatest living psychologist. His theory, as applied to sexual harassment, has several parts:

  1. First comes moral justification, or portraying harassment as acceptable. Think Harvey Weinstein’s line, “I came of age in the '60s and '70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
  2. Next is euphemistic labeling, or using sanitized substitutions for naming their behavior, like Bill Cosby’s characterization of his sexual assaults as “rendezvous.”
  3. Third is displacement of responsibility, which attributes the harassment to outside forces (like Weinstein’s “that was the culture then.”)
  4. There's also advantageous comparison, which is the assertion that their behavior could have been worse, and distortion of consequences, where individuals minimize the harm wrought by their actions.
  5. And finally, there are dehumanization and attribution of blame, which respectively eliminate concern for the victim and blame her for the incident. Bill O’Reilly did this when he commented that a woman who was raped and killed was “moronic” because she was wearing a miniskirt and a halter top, and that ”every predator in the world is gonna pick that up.”

The end result? Harassers sleep well at night because, through moral disengagement, they rest assured that what they did was within the realm of normalcy, deserved, and didn’t cause any harm.

The mind is a tricky thing: often we choose our behavior to match our values, but sometimes, through moral disengagement, we change our values to justify our behavior. This is how sexual harassers can maintain their view of themselves as decent, even morally upstanding, people.

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