Character  &  Context

The “Reasonable” Way to Respond to Being Sexually Harassed

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In the cascade of sexual-harassment allegations now coming to light, a central question has emerged: Why did so few speak up before?

Research from psychology provides an answer: Many women feel complicit in their own assault and are ashamed that they did not react more forcibly at the time. Consider the experience of the actress Rachel McAdams, who as a 21-year-old theater student was lured by the director James Toback to a hotel room and pressured to take off her clothes. McAdams, now 38, kept quiet about the episode for 17 years. “This has been such a source of shame for me—that I didn’t have the wherewithal to get up and leave,” she told Vanity Fair.

Like McAdams, many people feel embarrassed that they “let” themselves be sexually harassed, and they keep quiet as a result. Yet according to research from psychology, finding the resolve to get up and leave is much harder in the moment than it seems after the fact.

study conducted at Boston College in the 1990s sheds light on this issue. Psychologists Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance asked nearly 200 women what they would do if, during a job interview, they were asked questions like, “Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?” and “Do people find you desirable?” These questions were chosen because they were clearly sexually harassing.

Most women thought they would be angry and confrontational if an interviewer used these lines on them. They said they would storm out, tell the interviewer to shove off, or, at the very least, refuse to answer his inappropriate questions. Some said they would report him to his supervisor.

But what do people do when actually subjected to sexual harassment? To find out, the researchers placed advertisements in newspapers and posted fliers around campus advertising a position as a research assistant in a psychology lab. They recruited 25 women to come in for what appeared to be a job interview. The researchers trained a male actor to pose as the interviewer and to subject each woman to the sexually harassing questions. The researchers covertly videotaped the interactions.

Continue reading the post by visiting Behavioral Scientist.


Roseanna Sommers is a joint-degree student pursuing a J.D. and Ph.D. in psychology and law at Yale University. She seeks to understand our intuitive folk theories of morally and legally salient concepts such as consent, voluntariness, and autonomy.

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