New studies from researchers at Ohio University suggest that men who sexually harass subordinates fear being judged as incompetent. The findings suggest that men who sexually harass people may not have been exercising their power, but that their behavior could actually be about feeling insecure and believing others think them incompetent or not deserving of their dominant positions over subordinates.
This new research into sexual harassment by men was published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles, and led by Leah Halper of Ohio University and Ohio State University, and Kimberly Rios, also of Ohio University. They conducted three different studies using a combination of adults and college students. Some of the research included only men, and some included both men and women.
Rios tells Inverse in an email that the first study had 273 men, the second had 59 men and 85 women, and the third had 90 men as well as 107 women. “The women were included for comparison purposes,” she explained.
The findings are especially relevant in the age of the #MeToo movement, and indicate that sexual harassment might not always be about sexual gratification. In fact, Rios tells Inverse that the studies were actually started in 2014, and “became more timely than ever” because of #MeToo movement revelations.
The studies determined that some of the time, sexual harassment may actually be about trying to look more competent and in control — a scientific validation of the effects of toxic masculinity.
What Makes Someone a Sexual Harasser?
In the studies, Halper and Rios wanted to understand whether there are specific features of a man’s disposition that make him more likely to misuse his power to sexually harass others. After all, not all men in positions of power sexually harass subordinates.
Their theory — that male power-holders would be especially likely to sexually harass subordinates when they felt insecure in their power — was based on previous research indicating that people in general who feel insecure in their power “behave more aggressively toward others,” Rios explained.
In one study, 273 men had to imagine themselves in the role of a male employer in a position of power over a female employee or interviewee. These men were then asked to indicate whether they would ask for sexual favors in exchange for a job, a promotion, or another job-related benefit.
In addition, participants had to answer questions that measured their self-esteem and their narcissism. They were also asked how important they believed others’ opinion and criticism of them is.
It’s All About Fear
Powerful men who are worried that they will be perceived as incompetent were particularly inclined to sexually harass others, the research found. The Sex Roles report findings found that having that fear “was consistently found to predict sexual harassment among men in powerful positions.” The same was not found to be true when it came to women.
There’s an important difference when it comes to where that feeling of incompetence comes from, according to the research. Halper explained, according to EurekAlert, that “Fearing that others will perceive you as incompetent is a better predictor of sexual harassment than your self-perceived incompetence.”
And Rios added:
The findings also suggest that men do not necessarily sexually harass women because they seek sexual gratification, but rather because their insecurity about being perceived as incompetent prompts them to want to undermine a woman’s position in the social hierarchy.
There’s obviously still a lot of work to do to better understand rampant cultures of sexual harassment, in the workplace and the world at large, and to create a society in which it’s not acceptable and where people feel more comfortable coming forward and reporting harassment.
Indeed, Halper and Rios both believe that sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be examined more broadly. Rios believes “it will be critical to examine how certain workplace cultures might foster the feelings of insecurity that often precede sexual harassment among the powerful.”
Hopefully, these studies are just the beginning of getting to the heart of the problem and trying to solve it for good.
This article has been updated with comments from Rios.