The Relation between Sexual Harassment and Sexual Coercion

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     Sexual harassment has been considered one of the most prevalent forms of sexual aggression (Pina, Gannon, & Saunders, 2009; Spitzberg, 1999). Extreme forms of such harassment have sometimes been considered equivalent to rape (Timmerman & Bajema, 1998). Nonetheless, little research has directly addressed the nature of the relation between sexual harassment and sexual coercion.

     Because of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and the military, studies of harassment have focused to date more on sociological factors (e.g., organization climate, power differentials, institutional relationships), rather than on the characteristics of those individuals causing the harm (e.g., Lucero, Allen, & Middleton, 2006; Pina & Gannon, 2012; Quick & McFadyen, 2017). In contrast, sexual coercion, which is more often prosecuted as a criminal violation, has frequently been examined from an individual difference perspective (e.g., Knight & Sims-Knight, 2011). Consequently, less is known about the specific characteristics of those who sexually harass than is known about those who sexually coerce. The few studies that have been done on individuals who sexually harass have, however, indicated that males high in likelihood to sexually harass are also likely (a) to be high on rape proclivity, (b) to endorse both rape myths and adversarial sexual attitudes, (c) to be more authoritarian, and (d) to be more aggressive (Begany & Millburn, 2002; Lucero et al., 2006; Malamuth, 1981; Reilly, Lott, Caldwell, & DeLuca, 1992). Both sexual harassment and sexually coercive behavior also correlate significantly with high sexualization, hostile sexuality, and general hostility toward women (Bendixen & Kennair, 2017; Diehl, Rees, & Bohner, 2018). All these shared characteristics suggest substantial similarities among those identified as harassers and those identified as coercive.

     In the past few years the relation between harassment and coercion has become more salient and the need to understand it more pressing. Several powerful men have been fired when their history of sexual misconduct toward women was revealed (Zacharek, Dockterman, & Edwards, 2017). Some of them reportedly raped or attempted to rape women, but the behaviors of others could better be described as sexual harassment. The “MeToo” phenomenon has clarified that women perceive both sexual harassment and sexual assault as intrusive, frightening, and harmful. Relatively little research has, however, explored the basic issues: (a) are the associated factors that predict sexual coercion similar to or different from those that predict sexual harassment, and (b) are sexual assault and sexual harassment categorically different or are they different levels along the same continuum?

     In a large sample of male and female college students (n = 576) Sims-Knight and Knight (2018) examined the covariates of sexual harassment and of sexual coercion and explored their separate and joint structures. Using factor analysis, Item Response Theory, taxometrics, and structural equation modeling, they found that the sexual harassment and sexual coercion covary
with the same related concurrent constructs and with the same developmental antecedents. The two can best be conceptualized as constituting an intertwined single dimension that varies in the severity of the abusive behavior. This integrated dimension is depicted in the accompanying infographic, which indicates the parallel severity levels of the combined constructs. Not surprisingly, in this same study Sims-Knight and Knight (2018) found that sexual harassment covaried with other forms of bullying, especially relational and cyberbullying. The strong link between sexual harassment and coercion and their shared etiological roots suggest the possibility that targeting sexual harassment in antibullying programs may help prevent subsequent sexually coercive behavior. These promising results require replication and further empirical scrutiny and elaboration, especially because of their potential role in the primary prevention of sexual aggression.


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