#MeToo? Perceptions of sexual harassment depend on the victim’s femininity

Review written by Leon Mait (PSY, G2)

In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call for women who had been sexually harassed to reply to her post saying “Me too”, aiming to give the public a sense of how pervasive the experience of sexual harassment is. This ignited the Me Too movement as we know it. However, ten years earlier, social activist Tarana Burke had already started using the phrase on her Myspace page to promote empowerment among women of color who had been sexually abused. Milano did later credit Burke with coining the phrase, but the fact that it took a White woman to bring national attention to a social movement spearheaded by a Black woman is telling.

Unfortunately, as the Me Too movement illustrates, sexual harassment is all too common. But while many women have experienced unwelcome sexual attention or gender-based harassment, not all women’s claims are received in the same manner. Some are granted more credence than others, and thus their perpetrator may be punished more harshly. This may stem, in part, from whom society expects to be the prototypical target of sexual harassment. In other words, those women who fit our image of a “sexual harassment victim” may be more readily believed. 

Recently, a team of psychologists, including Princeton Psychology’s graduate student Nate Cheek and Professor Stacey Sinclair, undertook an extensive program of research to investigate how perceptions of sexual harassment incidents rest on the prototypicality of the victims in question. Across eleven studies encompassing over 4,000 participants, Cheek and his collaborators demonstrated that people envision victims of sexual harassment to look and behave femininely. When the target of harassment diverges from this image, the behavior in question is less likely to be labelled as sexual harassment and is seen as less harmful than the same behavior inflicted on more feminine targets. Importantly, both men and women are equally influenced by the prototypicality of the victim in question, illustrating the pervasiveness of such images. As a result, it is possible that in real-life cases, perpetrators against non-prototypical victims may be punished less severely.

To start, the researchers set out to establish how Americans imagine the prototypical sexual harassment victim. Participants first read descriptions of work incidents that either depicted sexual harassment (e.g., inappropriate physical contact or unwanted romantic interest) or other non-harassment events (e.g., a boss bumping into his subordinate) toward a woman by her male coworker. Participants then indicated how they imagined the target to look, since her physical appearance was never described in the text. The researchers used various techniques to generate these images across five separate studies. For example, in one study, participants drew a picture of the woman in the story. These pictures were then rated by other participants as part of a separate study in terms of how feminine the woman looked and how similar she was to the “typical” woman. In another study, participants were asked to select from a collection of photographs of women’s faces, which had been digitally morphed to appear more mascline or feminine. The pattern was clear: Americans imagine targets of sexual harassment to be more feminine and “stereotpyically woman” than targets of non-harassment. 

So how do people interpret an incident of sexual harassment towards more masculine women? In the next set of studies, the researchers had participants read about a woman who experienced an ambiguous work incident that could be construed as sexual harassment (e.g., a male supervisor placing his arm around her shoulder). Critically, the woman was depicted as either feminine or masculine. Participants were then asked to rate the likelihood that the ambiguous behavior was sexual harassment. As expected, participants were less likely to view the behavior as sexual harassment when the target was depicted as masculine as opposed to feminine. 

Finally, Cheek and his team wanted to know what the perceived impact of sexual harassment was for seemingly prototypical versus non-prototypical women--that is, those who look and behave more femininely or masculinely, respectively. In the final series of studies, participants once again saw images of or read about a (non-)prototypical woman and were told she made a sexual harassment claim against a coworker. Participants then indicated how confident they were that the woman had actually been sexually harassed, how psychologically harmed (e.g., distressed or traumatized) they felt she would be if she were sexually harassed, and how severely they believed the coworker should be punished. In all of the studies, more masculine women were seen as less credible and less psychologically harmed by sexual harassment. The results also suggested that the harasser of a non-prototypical victim would be punished more leniently than the harasser of a prototypical victim. 

This research by Cheek, Sinclair, and colleagues shows how pernicious our assumptions, expectations, and stereotypes can be, particularly when it comes to safety and crime. As society comes to grips with the ways it has previously turned a blind eye to--or even enabled--gender-based harassment, we cannot ignore the fact that certain women may be granted more credibility than others. Given how inherent race, class, and sexual orientation are to perceptions of femininity, we have to be particularly attuned to how we systematically silence certain voices. Previous research indicates Black, working-class, and/or queer women are seen as less feminine than White, affluent, straight, and/or cisgender women; it therefore stands to reason that harassment inflicted on minority women may be less readily recognized. According to Cheek, this is exactly what they have found in follow-up work:

"We have some work on the neglect of Black women who experience harassment—people believe White women are more likely to experience harassment than Black women (the opposite of what is true), and the vast majority (more than 75%) of the New York Times coverage of Me Too has been on White victims… In other work, we’re similarly finding that trans women are perceived as less likely to experience harassment than cis women."

This perception is particularly dangerous given that, contrary to popular belief, non-prototypical women are actually at greater risk of harassment. To ensure that all people are granted equal protection from harm, we have to make every effort to uncloud our judgment and give all claims the credence they deserve. At the moment, Cheek and his colleagues are extending this work to examine its policy implications. “Under federal law, behaviors must be perceived as harmful to constitute harassment,” he says. “If some women’s harassment is discounted as not harmful, they lose federal protection. So we’re thinking along those lines—how can we improve sexual harassment policies and how can we change these narrow prototypes.” 

This article was published in advance online in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. The accepted manuscript will be publicly available on January 14, 2022. Please follow this link to see the advanced online version.