Why We Judge Sexual Harassment Victims, PLUS The Time I Got Drive-By Oinked At

Because we believe that we’d aggressively defend ourselves when harassed, we tend to look down on those who do not, arguing that people contribute to their own victimization by not being more assertive.
Publish date:
November 12, 2012
science, harassment, victim blaming, sexual harassment

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought about what I would do in various scenarios that might present themselves in my life; how I’d respond to someone who cat-called me on the street, say, or how I would deal with sexual harassment at work. I practice those scenarios in the hopes that when they actually happen (or did happen -- it’s kind of hard to be sexually harassed at work when I’m the only employee), I’ll be prepared for them. Yet, somehow, in the heat of the moment, all my values, careful preparation and knowledge seem to go out the window.

Instead I just stand there totally gobsmacked and unsure of what to do with myself.

My moment of oink

Like a few years ago, when I was strolling down the street and got drive-by oinked by a passing car. When I tell this story, I try to keep it light and funny. There I was, minding my own business, and I was oinked at! It was hilarious! And it was, kind of, except for the part where it really actually wasn’t very funny to have a car full of men all catcalling me and making animal noises because I happened to be fat and walking down the sidewalk.

Sometimes, when I tell this story, I lie about what happened next. I want to come across as brave and heroic; I tell the story the way I wanted it to happen. So I say that I oinked back. Or I say that I gave them the finger and sailed on down the sidewalk like nothing had happened. What actually happened, though, was that I ducked down the first side street I saw and into a business so that a truck full of rednecks would stop slowly trailing me down the street, oinking all the way.

The version of the story where I slink away like a little coward isn’t the one I want to tell people.

It’s not the only time I haven’t stood up for myself despite all my best intentions. And, it turns out, there’s some interesting social science behind the phenomenon of overestimating our ability and willingness to stand up for ourselves, and with how that connects to the way that we perceive victims. Because we believe that we’d aggressively defend ourselves in these situations, we tend to look down on those who do not, arguing that people contribute to their own victimization by not being more assertive.

We all think we'd be badasses when harassed, right?

This attitude is what plays into the slew of judging comments that come from other women about rape; she shouldn’t have been out so late, she shouldn’t have worn that, what was she expecting when she flirted with those boys, why didn’t she cry for help, why didn’t she tell him to stop, why didn’t she call the police, how come... and the list goes on. And it comes into play when women are harassed, everywhere from the streets to the boardroom; we imagine ourselves in that situation and we think about what we would like to do, not what we would probably actually do.

The victim of a drive-by oinking who whips out a doughnut and eats it with a sneer, that’s the kind of person I’d like to imagine I am, but it’s really not. And the more we convince ourselves that we’d be the doughnut-eaters, police-callers, middle-finger-raisers, hollabackers, and reporting to human resources-ers of the world, the harder it is for us to have sympathy for victims who don’t do these things.

Stand back, we're doing SCIENCE!

In June of this year, researchers Kristina A. Diekmann, Sheli D. Sillito Walker, Adam D. Galinsky, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel published “Double Victimization in the Workplace: Why Observers Condemn Passive Victims of Sexual Harassment” in Organization Science, discussing the outcomes of five different studies they conducted to look at the way observers react to victims of sexual harassment specifically, though their results obviously have implications for other kinds of harassment.

They started by examining behavioral forecasts, and found that the more assertive the prediction, the more harsh the condemnation. In another study, they explored contributing factors to passivity on the part of victims, and (surprise!) found that people who failed to consider those factors tended to overestimate their behavioral forecasts. Those who reflected on possible issues that might make a victim passive tended to be more accurate when they predicted how a victim might respond to a given situation.

The researchers also had their study participants think back to incidents in their past where maybe they weren’t as assertive as they would have liked when they were intimidated in the workplace, and looked at the way their perspective on passive victims changed. All of the studies showed how a confluence of factors can lead people to be passive in response to sexual harassment, how ignoring those factors leads people to condemn and scorn people who are passive when they’re sexually harassed.

This is one of those studies that seems obvious on the surface to people who’ve been thinking about these issues; one strategy used to break down assumptions and beliefs about victims, for example, is to ask people to put themselves in their shoes and to educate people about complicating factors that can contribute to passivity. But the study is still important, because it provides a little bit more information about how the specific mechanics of judging victims works, which might also show us how to work on developing tools for helping people be more sympathetic to victims.

Who knew that blaming victims didn't fight harassment?!

The problem with sexual harassment doesn’t lie with victims, but with the people who perpetrate it. As Kelly Bourdet points out in her response to this study at Motherboard, work environments create an inherent power inequality, and it can be very hard to resist that. Women who report harassment could be subject to retaliation in a variety of forms, and that’s a serious silencing tool; you don’t want to lose your job, get stuck with a bad schedule or be harassed even more for asserting yourself in the workplace.

And as long as people focus on victims, instead of the people doing the harassing, it’s going to be difficult to meaningfully fight harassment of all kinds, not just sexual harassment in the workplace. The problem that day wasn’t the fact that I was fat and walking down the street, but that a car full of people thought it was appropriate to shame me for that fact.