Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sexual harassment and emotion

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Sexual harassment and emotion:
What are the effects of experiencing sexual harassment?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Human emotions and sexual harassment go hand-in-hand with one another. There are a number of differing theories of emotion, and how these relate to workplace sexual harassment and street harassment. Studies have examined the role of sexual harassment on emotions and have found links between experiencing sexual harassment and chronic, long-term psycho-emotional difficulties in men and women. Due to the overwhelming evidence suggesting that sexual harassment is linked to such severe psychological issues and trauma, it is suggested that future studies aim to contextualise sexual violence and implement educational programs.

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Human emotions are subjective, conscious experiences driven by biological reactions, resulting in psychophysiological expressions (Gaulin & McBurney, 2003). These are influenced by hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, GABA, cortisol and noradrenaline (Gaulin & McBurney, 2003).

Experiencing sexual harassment triggers the basic, primary emotion of fear, which is used to cope with a potential threat (Reeve). This fear is due to a situational threat of experiencing physical or sexual harm. With this fear, there is a perception of vulnerability for the victim experiencing the sexual harassment, especially because the perpetrator is often in a position of power, where some form of intimidation is used (Reeve, 2009). The fear motivates the victims’ defenses, triggering either a fight or flight response, which in turn then triggers a physiological reaction to the fear – sweating, quickness of breath, increased heart rate, and muscle tension (Reeve, 2009). Once the threatening event has passed, sadness ensues (Reeve, 2009). How human beings experience fear that is triggered by sexual harassment is often debated. However, the differing theories of experiencing emotions can be broken into biological, or cognitive theories (Reeve).

James-Lange Theory of Emotion Example.

James-Lange of Emotion:[edit | edit source]

This theory states that feelings and emotions are secondary to physiological responses. An exciting event leads to a physiological response, which leads to an emotional response and expression (Dangleish, 2004).

Example: someone staring and wolf whistling at you on the street → increased heart rate, sweating, quickness of breath → feelings of fear and anxiety

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion:[edit | edit source]

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion.

This theory of emotion is based on thalamic processes, in which physiological changes and emotional experiences are separate and independent of each other.

It is not physiological response before emotional reaction, but rather the physiological response will occur independently of the emotional reaction (Dangleish, 2004).

Example: someone staring and wolf whistling at you on the street → increased heart rate, sweating, quickness of breath + feelings of fear and anxiety

Two Factor Theory of Emotion:[edit | edit source]

Two Factor Theory of Emotion.

This theory is based on the idea that the expression of emotions is a two stage process.

The first stage is physical arousal, followed by cognitive interpretations of the arousal (Dangleish, 2004).

Example: someone staring and wolf whistling at you on the street → physiological reactions and feelings of fear and anxiety →cognitive interpretations reveal they are feeling physically and emotionally anxious and afraid due to the behaviour of the stranger

Lazarus’ Appraisal Theory of Emotion:[edit | edit source]

Lazarus' Appraisal Theory of Emotion.

This theory states that emotions are experienced in a three stage process, dependent on how the situation is appraised.

Firstly, cognitive appraisal comes into play and assesses the situation, which then cues the onset of emotions.

Physiological changes then occur, based off of the cognitive appraisal of the situation given.

Finally, the person takes action in how to deal with the emotions (Lazarus, 1982).

Example: someone staring and wolf whistling at you on the street → cognitive interpretation: "this could be dangerous" → physiological reactions occur due to possible danger → feelings of fear motivate the person to run in the opposite direction

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

This theory states that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, which can be ranked from most essential to physical survival (basic needs), to essential for personal growth (growth needs) (Maslow, 1943). The five stages are biological and physiological needs, safety needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation (Maslow, 1943). In order for someone to move through the chain of needs, each stage before must first be sufficiently met (Maslow, 1943). According to this theory, when someone experiences sexual harassment, their basic safety needs are not met, because they are likely to be experiencing fear. Due of this fear, those who experience sexual harassment are unable to move up the pyramid of needs and thus fulfill higher growth needs (Maslow, 1943). This interruption to the pyramid of needs can lead people to a number of potential emotional difficulties, which are discussed further in the article.

Case study:

Joanne – a 34 year old woman – had been working for the same company for 12 years, when new management took over operations of the business. Joanne’s new boss is a 56 year old man who constantly makes Joanne uncomfortable by staring at her, making inappropriate sexual comments to her and cornering her when other employees are not around.

Whilst the sexual harassment is occurring, Joanne is experiencing fear, demonstrated by her heart beating harder and faster, a tightness in her chest, sweaty palms and quickness of breath. However, when this fear passes and the threat is gone, Joanne feels sad and defeated. When she is not around her boss, Joanne’s senses are heightened and she experiences anxiety – always wondering when it will occur again. As well as this, she has had trouble sleeping and eating, and does not want to be around her friends like she used to. After seven weeks of feeling like this, Joanne takes a trip to her family doctor and is diagnosed with anxiety and comorbid depression, which has taken a physical toll, causing high blood pressure.

Sexual harassment[edit | edit source]

Sexual harassment can be defined as any unwanted sexual behaviour that leaves the victim feeling offended, humiliated or intimidated. These behaviours can be obvious or indirect; physical (including touching) or verbal; and occur across the gender spectrum (AHRC, 2013). Examples of behaviour that may constitute sexual harassment include:

  • Staring, glaring or leering
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Touching
  • Suggestive comments, jokes or ‘compliments’
  • Intrusive questions or statements
  • Explicit technological communication/advances – emails, SMS, social media, phone calls
  • Requests for sexual activity and repeated requests for dates
  • Illegal sexual behaviour – assault, indecent exposure, stalking, obscene communications

Types of sexual harassment[edit | edit source]

Sexual harassment can be broken down into two categories: work-based sexual harassment and street harassment.

Work based[edit | edit source]

Work based sexual harassment is commonly associated with the workplace setting – including university, workplace, schools and volunteer work. This type of harassment can be broken down into two categories:

  • Quid proquo-perp:

This form of workplace harassment usually involves employers giving workers employment conditions that are based on sexual favours being provided (RAINN, 2009). This is the rarer of the two categories.

  • Hostile environment:

This form of workplace harassment can include any unwelcome, severe and persistent sexual misconduct from perpetrator to employee, creating a hostile working environment (RAINN, 2009). Both of these categories of workplace sexual harassment are illegal and prosecutable (Filborne, 2013).

Statistics[edit | edit source]

A study conducted by the Human Rights Commission (2008) established that unwelcome sexual jokes, comments or suggestions account for 56 per cent of cases, whilst approximately 31 per cent of workplace sexual harassment cases are physical in nature (Human Rights Commission, 2008). Furthermore, the study found that one in five cases of workplace sexual harassment involves the use of email or SMS (Human Rights Commission, 2008). It was found that 27 per cent of people will experience workplace sexual harassment in their lifetime – of that, 22 per cent will be female, while 5 per cent will be male, whilst 1 in 3 women aged between 18-64 years will experience workplace sexual harassment in their lifetime (Human Rights Commission, 2008). Furthermore, the study established that 35 per cent of workplace sexual harassment claims are made by women, whilst men were found to make up approximately 25 per cent of sexual harassment victims (Human Rights Commission, 2008). Finally, and startlingly, more than one in ten people witnessed workplace sexual harassment in the last 5 years - another indication of the frequency of workplace sexual harassment (Human Rights Commission, 2008).

The same study conducted by the Human Rights Commission (2008) drew conclusions on the most common characteristics of the victims of workplace sexual harassment, finding that young people (25-44 years old) are the most likely age group to experience workplace sexual harassment (Human Rights Commission, 2008). Full time clerical workers and professional workers are also most likely to experience this form of harassment, with 19 per cent of victims being clerical workers, whilst 31 per cent of victims are professional workers(Human Rights Commission, 2008). Finally, it was found that the length of employment status is not a determinant of the likelihood of workplace sexual harassment, with no one group more likely to be targeted (Human Rights Commission, 2008).

In terms of the harasser in workplace sexual harassment cases, it was found that two thirds of harassers are males above the age of 40, whilst fifty per cent of of offenders are co-workers (Human Rights Commission, 2008). This is an important statistic, as it shows that there does not need to be position of power for the offender, and workplace sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anyone in the workplace, not solely employers. Finally, harassment occurs across small, medium and large business equally, with no one business size being correlated with higher rates of workplace sexual harassment (Human Rights Commission, 2008).

The Australian National Phone Survey showed slightly higher rates of creating a hostile work environment, with 69 per cent of incidents in the workplace being non-physical. The study also found that 39 per cent of workplace sexual harassment cases are one off incidents.

Emotions involved[edit | edit source]

According to Equal Rights Activists (2013), 90 to 95 per cent of workplace sexual harassment victims suffer from some form of debilitating condition, which can include anxiety; depression; chronic headaches; sleep disorders; weight fluctuations and nausea; sexual dysfunction and decreased self-esteem (Equal Rights Activists, 2013).

A 1995 study exploring nurses experiences regarding sexual harassment showed a variety responses in their emotional consequences. In particular, nurses described feeling annoyed; upset; isolated; resentful; tense; disgusted; nervous; intimidated; shocked; threatened; scared, anxious and vulnerable (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007). Furthermore, studies have also found correlations between sexual harassment and self-blame; feelings of humiliation; economic losses; decreased morale, job satisfaction and job performance and damage to interpersonal relationships (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007).

A 1999 study by Lenton, Smith, Fox and Morra (1999) found that workplace sexual harassment is correlated with work-related issues; gastrointestinal disorders; stress reactions and feelings of shame, guilt and distrust.

There has also been links found between workplace sexual harassment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Gutek & Koss, 1993).

Furthermore, in a 2011 longitudinal study, researchers found that men and women both showed a significant increase in depressive symptoms following workplace sexual harassment, compared to those who had not experienced harassment before. The study also found that the earlier on in a person’s career that sexual harassment occurs, the worse their depressive symptoms were in adulthood (Houle, Staff, Murtimer, Uggen & Blackstone, 2011).

Street harassment[edit | edit source]

Street harassment includes any type of sexual harassment occurring in a public setting, usually committed by a stranger. This type of sexual harassment is more difficult to define, as the harassment is not based on any clear laws, but the behaviour can include words, noises, or gestures, and labelling of the behaviour is often left up to the victim to define (Fileborn, 2013).

Interpretations as to whether or not something constitutes as harassment depends on a range of factors, including the age of the harasser, and whether or not the harassment occurred whilst the victim was alone with the perpetrator (Fileborn, 2013)

Esacove’s 1998 study surveyed women on their interpretation of the difference between a stranger being complimentary (non-threatening) and threatening. The study found that non-threatening behaviours often depended on whether or not the attention being given is in a non-intrusive manner and was made from a safe distance, and whether or not the advance was made with warmth and friendliness (Esacove, 1998).

Fileborn (2013) concluded that an advance being interpreted as threatening is often determined by the person being persistent and in close proximity to the victim; attention being given in isolated areas and including staring, glaring, whistling, hissing and using a threatening tone of voice; the offender having an 'aggressive' of 'dominating' energy; the attention involves sexual remarks or touching, and there are feelings of power inequality between the victim and perpetrator (Fileborn, 2013).

Prevalence[edit | edit source]

A 2009 study found that over 80 per cent of people experience sexual harassment (McMillan et al., 2000)

Lenton et al. (1999) found that nine in ten people experienced at least one public form of sexual harassment, whilst three in ten people experienced a stranger touch or try to touch them in a sexual way (Lenton et al., 1999)

Emotional effects[edit | edit source]

McMillan et al.’s 2000 study also concluded that street harassment impacts peoples’ perceptions of safety in walking alone at night, using public transport and being alone in public (McMillan et al., 2000).

A study by Fairchild and Rudman (2008) found that sexual street harassment is related to fear of rape and perceived risk of rape (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008).

Coping strategies[edit | edit source]

Differing people use differing coping strategies to deal with the emotional consequences of experiencing sexual harassment. These reactions can either be self-focused (which does not involve the perpetrator) or initiator-focused (which addresses the perpetrator directly) (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007). The reactions are also broken into either self-response (in which no outside resources are used for coping) or supported-response (in which the victim employs outside resources to cope) (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007).

According to this table, quadrant one is the least effective, quadrant two is generally ineffective, but may encourage the individual to take further action, and quadrant three and four is most effective (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007). Sigal et. al (2003) supported these findings, showing that active coping strategies are the most effective method for dealing with emotional trauma following sexual harassment (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007).

The gender debate[edit | edit source]

Both workplace and street sexual harassment are commonly associated with women being the victims, and men being the perpetrators. However, this stereotype is a misconception, as both men and women have been shown to experience workplace and street sexual harassment.

The consequences of coming forward for women in an academic setting is often being perceived as ‘less feminine and likeable’ and ‘less trustworthy’ (Hunt, Davidson, Fielden & Hoel, 2007). According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (2013), women are more likely to experience physical sexual harassment (including inappropriate physical contact, unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing), whilst men are more likely to experience non-physical types of harassment (including explicit pictures, posters, gifts, emails and SMS that make the victim feel offended). They also state that 81 per cent of harassers are male, whilst roughly 15 per cent of cases involve female to male harassment (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2013).

Whilst workplace sexual harassment and street harassment disproportionately affects women, it is important to keep in mind that men experience the same emotional consequences of harassment (Human Rights Commission, 2008).

Where to from here[edit | edit source]

Sexual harassment has been shown to have extremely detrimental effects on the victim, but the current system for assessing and handling offenses of both workplace and street sexual harassment is imperfect. Street harassment is not currently recognized as illegal, and although there is workplace harassment legislation in place, only 20 per cent of victims make a complaint, whether that be formal or informal (Fileborn, 2013). Those who do not come forward often base this choice on:

  • The victims may not label the behaviour as sexual harassment
  • The behaviour may not be illegal, leaving few avenues for reporting that can be pursued
  • The harassment may be dismissed from others as trivial or welcomed
  • The victims may feel as though no-one will take them seriously
  • The victim may fear negative outcomes from reporting
  • The victim may consider it too risky to complain

(Fileborn, 2013)

Future studies[edit | edit source]

It is suggested that future studies aim to contextualise sexual violence to include models:

  • Hierarchical model: this model contextualises different “types” of violence in a linear manner from least harmful to more harmful

(Fileborn, 2013)

  • Continuum model: this model is based on Kelly’s 1987 model and states that all sexual violence and harassment are interlinked and occur along the same continuum of behaviours. This takes into consideration the nature of the harm caused and how the victim responds and copes with the harassment. How harmful the behaviour is depends on a range of personal and contextual factors, and the harm is fluid and subject to change over time, rather than being static (Fileborn, 2013).

The continuum model has been suggested to be superior over the hierarchical model, as it takes into account all forms of harassment and sexual violence without making one more severe than the other, but rather the severity of the behaviour is determined by personal and contextual factors (Fileborn, 2013).

As well as using models to contextualise sexual violence, generalised education in communities about what constitutes sexual harassment, the effects of harassment and how to reduce sexual harassment would be incredibly beneficial in the reduction of sexual harassment.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Emotions are subjective, conscious experiences that go hand-in-hand with a physiological reaction, often determined by hormones and neurotransmitters. There are many differing theories as to how and why humans experience emotions, including the James-Lange Theory, the Two Factor Theory and Lazarus’ Appraisal Theory. Sexual harassment can be broken into two broad categories – workplace sexual harassment and street harassment. Both these types effect both men and women, although men are disproportionately more likely to be the perpetrator and women the victim. Workplace harassment is illegal, whilst street harassment is not. Both these types of sexual harassment have been shown to be linked to detrimental emotional reactions, disorders and states - including depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse and eating disorders. It is suggested that future studies aim to contextualise sexual harassment into models, including the hierarchal model and the continuum model[for example?][explain?]. For the purpose of emotional reactions to sexual harassment, the continuum model would be more suitable to employ[why?].

References[edit | edit source]

Australia Human Rights Commission (2008). “Sexual Harassment”.

Dangleish, T. (2004). The emotional brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience (7), 582-589

Fileborn, B. (2013). Conceptual understandings and prevalence of sexual harassment and street harassment. Australian Institute of Family Studies, 12

Gaulin, S.J., McBurney, D.H. (2003). Evolutionary Psychology. Pretense Hall, USA

Gutek, B.A., Koss, M.P. (1993). Women and changed organizations: consequences of coping with sexual harassment. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 52, 28-33

Ho, I.K., Dinh, K.T., Bellefontaine, S.A., Irving, A.I. (2012). Sexual harassment and PTSD among Asian and white women. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 21(1), 95-113

Hunt, C., Davidson, M., Fielden, S., Hoel, H. (2007). Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: a Literature Review. The Centre for Equality and Diversity at Work: Manchester

Houle, J.N., Staff, J., Murtimer, J.T., Uggen, C., Blackstone, A. (2011). The impacts of sexual harassment on depressive symptoms during the early occupational career. Society of Mental Health, 1(2), 9-105

Lazarus, R.S. (1982). Thoughts on the relations between emotions and cognition. American Psychologist, 37, 1019-1024

Lenton, R., Smith, M., Fox, J., Morra, N. (1999). Sexual harassment in public places – experiences of Canadian women. Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 36(4), 517-540

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. (2009). “Sexual Harassment”. Viewed 31/10/2014, retrieved from

August (2019) Update: New York State Expands its Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Laws