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This dissertation aims to contribute to a comprehensive explanation of sexual harassment by the investigation of three social-psychological processes, which seem to crucially contribute to the etiology of sexual harassment: motivation to sexually harass (e.g., power or sexuality), enabling processes (e.g., through diverse situational cues), and legitimization of sexually harassing behavior (e.g., by applying myths about sexual harassment). By consolidating these three processes into one multi-factor theory, diverse shortcomings of previous, mostly single-factor theories in sexual harassment research can be solved (see Pina, Gannon, & Saunders, 2009, for a detailed critique), and a broader but also more accurate explanation of the complex phenomenon sexual harassment is provided. In this work a three-factor model is introduced and tested, which describes the hypothesized direct effects of motivation, enabling processes, and legitimization on sexually harassing behavior, as well as various hypothesized interactions between the three model components.

The empirical part of this work is based upon three manuscripts, which test different components of the model. They contain mostly experimental studies, in order to identify causal relationships between the contributing factors and sexually harassing behavior.

(a) In Manuscript #1, motivating and legitimizing processes on the perpetrators’ side are explored. Combining evolutionary and socio-cultural accounts to explain sexual harassment, it represents the first attempt to simultaneously test power and sexuality as the prevailing motives for specific forms of harassing behavior (Gelfand, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 1995): Power is assumed to lead to gender harassment, which includes hostile and degrading gender-related behavior. Sexuality is assumed to lead to unwanted sexual attention, which includes more ambiguous but also offensive and unrequited sexually connoted behavior. Furthermore, legitimization tendencies via sexual harassment myth acceptance (SHMA; Lonsway, Cortina, & Magley, 2007), and their interplay with the two motives is tested.

In this study, sexually harassing behavior is measured in vivo by using a refined version of the computer harassment paradigm (Dall’Ara & Maass, 1999). As part of an alleged computer-chat task, male participants can choose between sexualized personal remarks (representing unwanted sexual attention), sexist jokes (representing gender harassment), and non-harassing material to send to an attractive female target. The findings indicate that power and sexuality are two differentiable motives, both predicting different forms of sexual harassment: Sexually motivated men only showed unwanted sexual attention, while power motivated men particularly showed gender harassment but also unwanted sexual attention. This latter effect may indicate that unwanted sexual attention seems to be functional also for a hostile motive in order to create an embarrassing and humiliating atmosphere. Furthermore, SHMA fully mediated the effect of a power motive on gender harassment, but did not mediate effects on unwanted sexual attention. This finding documents that both, power motivation and overtly hostile behavior (i.e., gender harassment), seem to elicit a certain need for justification and neutralization. A sexual motive, however, seems to be more socially acceptable, and unwanted sexual attention seems to be ambiguous enough to be re-interpreted as an attempt to flirt. Thus, Manuscript #1 shows first evidence for the crucial role of two components of the proposed model to explain sexual harassment: motivational and legitimizing processes. Furthermore, it approves the assumption that the model components should be examined in their interplay with each other.

(b) In Manuscript #2, the role of enabling processes is studied, while taking again motivational processes into account. The focus of the study is on effects of situational cues on the relative impact of pre-existing motivational structures on actual sexual harassing behavior.

This predicted influence of situational cues was investigated in an experimental study, in which either power or sexuality was primed in two different conditions. Before entering the laboratory, the male participants are briefly exposed to a wall poster designed to activate either one of both concepts. In the following, participants undergo the chat paradigm as described in Manuscript #1. The results mostly replicate and extend the findings described in Manuscript #1: Sexual motivation specifically predicted unwanted sexual attention harassment, whereas power motivation specifically predicted gender harassment. Importantly, priming of sexuality versus power selectively strengthened the link between the sexual motive and unwanted sexual attention, and between the power motive and gender harassment, respectively. Thus, Manuscript #2 shows that a subtle variation of context variables differentially affects the relative impact of power- and sexual motives on sexually harassing behavior. This underlines the relevance of enabling processes, especially in interaction with motivational processes, for the explanation of sexual harassment.

(c) Manuscript #3 presents the attempt to counteract legitimizing processes as one starting point for the prevention of sexual harassment. Two studies address knowledge about the consequences of sexual harassment and empathy with the targets as two main factors reducing SHMA, and also reducing the likelihood to sexually harass (LSH).

In Study 1, participants read a newspaper-style text describing sexual harassment, depending on condition, as either a harmless phenomenon (i.e., consequences are downplayed) or a relevant problem in society (i.e., consequences are detailed). Additionally, participants’ level of empathy is assessed. Results show that reporting about sexual harassment as either a harmless phenomenon or a relevant problem in society significantly influenced participants’ SHMA. This effect is moderated by participants’ level of empathy. Reading the text that detailed the negative consequences of sexual harassment for its targets led to a reduction in SHMA only for persons low in empathy. These results provide first evidence that confronting participants with the actual consequences of sexual harassment leads to decreased legitimization. Furthermore, this attempt to counteract legitimizing processes seems to be particularly effective for persons with low levels of empathy, which supports the relevance of the few existing empathy trainings to prevent sexual harassment (e.g., Schewe & O’Donohue, 1993).

In Study 2, an alternative way of teaching people the consequences of sexual harassment was used by harnessing the influence of empathy. Participants’ perspective taking is manipulated by presenting them an eyewitness report about a sexual harassment case at the workplace either from a female target’s perspective, or from a male perpetrator’s perspective. It was hypothesized that taking the target’s perspective (but not the harasser’s perspective) makes participants simultaneously learn about the serious consequences of harassment, which again reduces SHMA but also male participants’ LSH. In a third condition participants read a neutral text about interactions at the workplace with no reference to sexual harassment. As assumed, learning about a sexual harassment case from the target’s perspective lead to significantly lower SHMA, compared to learning about the same case from the perpetrator’s perspective and compared to the control condition. Furthermore, for the male subsample, getting to know the case from the target’s perspective additionally led to lower LSH compared to the control condition. In conclusion, both approaches successfully counteracted legitimizing processes (i.e., SHMA): equipping people with knowledge about the negative consequences of sexual harassment and instructing them to take the target’s perspective. Beyond the effect on legitimization, Study 2 also shows a direct effect on anticipated future behavior. Thus, the results of Manuscript #3 supports the assumption that the investigation of legitimizing processes may be a specifically important and promising starting point for the prevention of sexual harassment.


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Gelfand, M. J., Fitzgerald, L. F., & Drasgow, F. (1995). The structure of sexual harassment: A confirmatory analysis across cultures and settings. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 47, 164–177. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1995.1033

Lonsway, K. A., Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2008). Sexual harassment mythology: Definition, conceptualization, and measurement. Sex Roles, 58, 599-615. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9367-1

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