The stories of sexual assault and harassment that emerged last year seemed to touch every industry — Hollywood, hotels, restaurants, politics and news organizations, including this one. Many of those stories focused on what happened, but most didn’t or couldn’t get to the question of why: Why do some people, mainly men, sexually harass their colleagues?
Psychologist John Pryor has been thinking about this for more than three decades, and he has created a test in an effort to measure a person’s tendency to harass someone. It’s called the “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale.”
Pryor, who is a professor at Illinois State University, created the scale in the 1980s, a time when many researchers were looking at rape.
“There was a scale that was developed then to measure the likelihood that people would rape if they thought they could get away with it,” he says. “So that inspired me to think about sexual harassment.”
Pryor spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about his research and his thoughts on the national conversation about harassment and the #MeToo movement.
On what the scale looks at and how he created it
Now, the “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale” focuses only on one kind of sexual harassment, something that researchers used to call sexual coercion – a quid pro quo situation where someone is offering a bribe or maybe threatening a punishment for sexual cooperation. So I designed the “Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale” using some common stereotypes about men in power situations. So I asked college men to imagine that they had such a job, and one of the things that let me know I was on to something when I first started working on this was that there was a high level of consistency. Men who would say that they would perform this act in one situation were highly likely to say they would do it in another situation.
On his reaction to the #MeToo moment
I’m not surprised at all that many women across all different kinds of walks of life are coming forth to say this has happened to them, because we know that the majority of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Admitting that you are a target or a victim of sexual harassment is somewhat of a stigma, but when you start to see people coming forth in public, one of the things you start to do is remove some of the stigma. When women hear other women say, “Oh this happened to me,” they think, “Yeah, it happened to me” and they’re less likely to think that they’re going to be treated negatively for coming forth and saying it happened to them.
On if there are specific characteristics harassers share
There are a series of beliefs that people have about sexual harassment that represent kind of a psychological underpinning — basically justifications for the behavior. So beliefs like women asking for it or women making false complaints. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve been interviewed by who ask me,”What about the false complaints?” Well, there are not many false complaints. There are not many complaints period. We can reduce the willingness of men to engage in sexual coercive sexual harassment by inducing them to think long and hard about perspectives of women.
NPR’s Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web. Adhiti Bandlamudi, NPR Kroc Fellow, produced for it for radio.