Sexual harassment may have become so commonplace for women that they have built up resistance to harassing behavior they consider merely "bothersome," suggests a controversial new study from Michigan State University. This effect, suggests lead researcher Isis Settles, could be similar to the way people build up immunity following exposure to a virus.
"When women view sexual harassment as bothersome, it doesn't seem to be associated with distress," said Settles. "In some ways this suggests that sexual harassment is such a widespread problem that women have figured out ways to deal with it so it doesn't interfere with their well-being."
The study, appearing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, surveyed more than 6,000 women and men serving in all five branches of the U.S. military.
Settles found that sexual harassment was a problem for both sexes, with more than 50 percent of women and nearly 20 percent of men reporting at least one incident during a 12-month period.
Importantly, the study is one of the first to examine how both men and women view harassment and how these perceptions relate to their psychological well-being. The survey covered 16 types of verbal and physical harassment, including offensive stories or jokes and touching that made the person uncomfortable.
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," Settles said. "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. "People tend to underestimate the impact of sexual harassment on men," Settles said. She added 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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Source: Michigan State University