MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Sexual harassment is so common for women that they are able to build up a resistance to it—not unlike people build up immunity to an infection following exposure to a virus.
A new study, reported in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is one of the first to examine how both men and women view harassment—whether they saw it as bothersome or frightening—and how these perceptions relate to their psychological well-being, says Isis Settles, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
More than 6,000 women and men serving in all five branches of the U.S. military were asked their opinions on 16 types of verbal and physical harassment, including offensive stories or jokes and touching that made them uncomfortable.
Sexual harassment was a problem for both sexes. More than 50 percent of women and nearly 20 percent of men reported at least one incident of sexual harassment during a 12-month period.
For women, sexual harassment was distressing when they saw it as frightening, but not when they saw it as bothersome. “We were surprised by this finding,” says Settles. “We thought women would be negatively impacted if they saw their harassment as frightening or bothersome.”
For men, sexual harassment was distressing when they saw it as either frightening or bothersome, she adds.
While the study does not suggest sexual harassment is less distressing for women than men, it points to the perceptions people have about how the sexes approach and respond to it.
“People tend to underestimate the impact of sexual harassment on men,” Settles says, adding that men “typically haven’t had a lifetime of experiences dealing with sexual harassment and may not know how to deal with it when it happens to them.”
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