Climate Change: How to Prevent Sexual Harassment From Progressing to Sexual Assault

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Unlike the type of stranger danger scenarios depicted in the movies and in documentaries profiling predators, many cases of sexual assault are committed by people you know. Although usually not out of the blue. Contrary to the idea that someone suddenly becomes a rapist or workplace predator, sexual assault is often the culmination of a gradual process of interpersonal manipulation within a sexually permissive environment.

Because preparedness and precautions promote prevention, consider some of the ways in which sexual harassers test the waters before plunging into committing a sexual assault. By learning how to recognize both behavior and response patterns, we can work together to put an end to the cycle sooner rather than later, creating a safe workplace for everyone.

Climate Change: Workplace Culture Concerns

We live in an era where we hear descriptions of sexual assault climate or “rape culture.” Such labels refer to the premise that sexual assault is more likely to occur within a sexually charged atmosphere of harassment and innuendo than a zero tolerance environment of rapid investigation and rule enforcement. Sexualized, demeaning behavior desensitizes both perpetrators and victims, often to the point of overlooking or downplaying red flags that are precursors to sexual assault.

In the workplace, when determining which employees are at risk for sexual harassment, factors which have been identified include gender, age, job position, sexually permissive attitudes, and prior experience with sexual harassment. [1]

Detecting Sexually Permissive Attitudes: Victim Selection

Predators use manipulation and interpersonal strategies to narrow down the pool of prospective victims—honing in on those who are the least likely to resist, and least likely to report the assault. Especially when the victims are apt to fear that they bear some culpability for getting themselves into the situation. One victim (and predator)-oriented mindset is an attitude of sexual permissiveness.

Research demonstrates that employees who hold sexually permissive attitudes are at greater risk for becoming involved in sexual harassment, either as a perpetrator or a victim.[2] Research also demonstrates that men hold more sexually permissive attitudes than women.[3] With both men and women, sexually permissive attitudes may be gauged through tolerance testing and physical boundary probing.

Tolerance Testing: When a Joke is Not Funny

From the locker room to the lunchroom, sexual predators test tolerance through noting individual reaction to inappropriate language or remarks. Nine out of 10 people will display discomfort to an off-color or sexist joke told in the office lunchroom, or even rebuke the offender. The employee who snickers or smiles, however, is automatically added to the short list of potential victims.

Physical Space Invaders: Boundary Probing

The sexual harasser who walks around the office attempting to give shoulder massages to co-workers is likely to be rebuffed in some fashion by 9 out of 10 employees. The one who does not resist or display discomfort has demonstrated a willingness to tolerate inappropriate behavior—or a failure to view the boundary-violating behavior as inappropriate. Either way, he or she is danger of being added to the victim short list.

Other ways in which sexual harassers capitalize upon victim receptivity to inappropriate behavior include shaming, power exploitation, and inappropriate methods of control.

Workplace Shaming: Attempting to Normalize Inappropriate Behavior

Be wary of the co-worker who complains that she cannot be herself with you around. She complains that you “can’t take a joke” or are too uptight. Such shaming is shameful. Reality check: off-color humor and sexist jokes are not normal office behavior. In an age of sexual harassment awareness they are the exception to the rule. If you are offended, you are in good company.

Especially with new employees, be aware of statements claiming “That is the way we do things around here,” “You´ll get used to it,” or anything indicating an attempt to force or normalize inappropriate behavior.

Power Play

Predators capitalize on status, exploiting relationships of power imbalance. Research conducted on male perpetrators in the workplace demonstrates that males in higher positions are more likely to engage in harassing behavior toward female subordinates.[4]

However, we live in a day and age where female perpetrators and same-sex harassment are prevalent as well as the more stereotypical forms. Nonetheless, we can no doubt agree that in many cases, regardless of the gender of the parties involved, power imbalance is often a contributing factor.

Exerting Control: Timing is Everything

Another way to establish power is for harassers to test the control they have over you through inappropriate demands on your time. They may insist on having your attention when they know you are obligated to be doing something else.

I have handled cases where micromanaging bosses or co-workers demanded that other employees take their calls during the workday, even when they knew the victims were with customers, in meetings, or even interviewing for a promotion. The common denominator was that the demand was actually a test of the level of control they had over potential victims.

Keep these tips in mind during April, Sexual Assault Awareness month, and every month thereafter. Together, we can enhance our sense of both perception and perspective, improving our collective ability to keep each other safe.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert who spent years prosecuting sex offenders. She lectures frequently on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment. She is a former co-chair of the California District Attorneys Association Sexually Violent Predator Committee and Human Trafficking Committee. She received the SART Response with a Heart Award from the Sexual Assault Response Team based on her significant contribution to the field of sexual assault prosecution. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

[1] Murali Shanker, Marina N. Astakhova, Cathy L.Z. DuBois, “Sexual Harassment

A Complex Adaptive System Viewpoint,” Gender, Technology and Development

Vol. 19, Issue 3, (2015): 239 – 270 (242).

[2] Shanker et al., “Sexual Harassment,” 243 (citing DuBois, Faley, and Knapp (2008)).

[3] Shanker et al., “Sexual Harassment,” 243 (citing DuBois, Faley, and Knapp (2008)).

[4] Shanker et al., “Sexual Harassment,” 243.

This post originally appeared in Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today column