Have Women Built Up An Immunity To Sexual Harassment?

Illustration for article titled Have Women Built Up An Immunity To Sexual Harassment?

The female body is pretty powerful. Compared to men, we live longer, we're more likely to address mental health issues, we're totally immune to sexual harassment, you name it!

Okay, not exactly. In a recent study, Social Psychological and Personality Science examined "how both men and women view harassment —whether they saw it as bothersome or frightening— and how these perceptions relate to their psychological well-being," says Isis Settles, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

More than 6,000 women and men serving in all five branches of the U.S. military were asked their opinions on 16 types of verbal and physical harassment, including offensive stories or jokes and touching that made them uncomfortable.

Sexual harassment was a problem for both sexes. More than 50 percent of women and nearly 20 percent of men reported at least one incident of sexual harassment during a 12-month period.

For women, sexual harassment was distressing when they saw it as frightening, but not when they saw it as bothersome. "We were surprised by this finding," says Settles. "We thought women would be negatively impacted if they saw their harassment as frightening or bothersome."

For men, sexual harassment was distressing when they saw it as either frightening or bothersome, she adds.


Well, I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation for this, and I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that women are so used to your run-of-the-mill "bothersome" sexual harassment that it's essentially white noise at this point! Right? ...Right?

Not so.

The study says that these findings do not suggest that sexual harassment is less distressing for women than it is for men, but that the evidence found in this particular study may point to different ways the sexes "approach and respond to it."

"People tend to underestimate the impact of sexual harassment on men," Settles says, adding that men "typically haven't had a lifetime of experiences dealing with sexual harassment and may not know how to deal with it when it happens to them."

That's definitely an interesting point to glean from this study, as it lends itself to the idea that sexual harassment may be a solid example of gender bias. Men are generally less-exposed to sexual harassment, therefore it doesn't exist, therefore they shouldn't be upset if they experience it, therefore everything is fine, fine, fine. Et cetera.

Perhaps women have learned to ignore sexual harassment for a myriad of reasons, but it does not make it any less of an issue, not any more than the men in this study who seemingly chose to ignore the harassment and/or told themselves it wasn't a big deal makes the sexual harassment of men less of an issue.


In general, the sooner we can take topics like sexual harassment and rape out of the "This Is Only A Female Issue" box and recognize it is a human issue that affects everyone, the sooner we can stop pretending it isn't there, because maybe —and hopefully— one day it won't be.

Women Immune To Sexual Harassment? [Futurity]

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Do women build up an immunity to sexual harrassment? Not an immunity, no, but certainly a filter which allows us to just ignore all but the most obnoxious cases a lot of the time. For me it's often only the most over the top, really way out of line behavior that even registers - the random "hey baby, great legs" I barely even notice half the time as long as I have my "going out in public, pushy assholes likely to be encountered" filter in place. But that's not immunity - it still grates, and the fact that we have to develop an ability to filter things out is proof of how harmful the harrassment is. If we really allowed ourselves to constantly notice the full extent of it we'd probably find it difficult to function.

So yeah, men are more likely to notice individual incidents of harrassment simply because it's not a part of their daily life experience in the same way as it is for women. I really doubt that they're experiencing the same response though unless the harrassment is coming from other men, given the average differential in size and strength between men and women. Harrassment is always unpleasant and annoying, but it's only frightening if you think the person/people doing it might be about to cause you actual physical harm. So I'm guessing that in most cases where men are feeling actual fear or intimidation, the harrassment is coming from other men. Which is different from the icky skin crawling "ew stop leering at me you perv" feeling, which is going to be there even if there's no way the other person could actually hurt you.

I'm hoping this study attempted to control for homophobia in some way, because it would be really easy for men to overreport the icky skin crawling but not actual fear feeling if they're just freaked out by the fact that a man is checking them out and they're straight. If not controlled for that could disort the study results in odd and interesting ways.