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4 November 2001
When Is A Request For A Date Harassment?
by George Atkinson

A new analysis of 62 studies that looked at how men and women define sexual harassment finds little difference in what both genders believe constitutes the more serious types of harassment, but did find gender-based disagreement about the more subtle forms of harassing behavior. These findings call into question the "reasonable woman" standard still used by some courts to decide harassment cases, especially in cases involving the less obvious forms of harassment, according to a study in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

It is well known that men and women sometimes differ in their perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment. Research indicates that women tend to perceive a broader range of behaviors as harassing than men do. That prompted courts to adopt the reasonable woman standard, requiring judges and juries to adopt the perspective of the harassees, which often tend to be women, when evaluating the circumstances in a sexual harassment claim. However, some say such a standard may be unfair to men because it does not consider their viewpoint when deciding if sexual harassment has occurred. In recent years most courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have gone back to consistently using the "reasonable person" standard, but the debate over which standard should be used continues.

In their meta-analysis involving 33,164 participants in 62 studies, authors Maria Rotundo, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto, Dung-Hanh Nguyen, graduate student at Michigan State University, and Paul R. Sackett, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus, found evidence that women do perceive a broader range of social-sexual behaviors as harassing. However, the study found that these gender differences are not large, and that the difference occurs for less extreme and more ambiguous behaviors like derogatory attitudes and dating pressure rather than for sexual propositions or sexual coercion.

"Men and women agree that sexual coercion and sexual propositions constitute sexual harassment," say the authors. "However, they do not necessarily agree that sex-stereotyped jokes or repeated requests for dates after refusal do. Therefore, a woman may perceive that sexual harassment has occurred after a number of the latter types of social-sexual behaviors have taken place, whereas a man may be less inclined to do so." For example, men may interpret repeated requests for dates as flattery, whereas women may perceive it as something that may escalate to harassment.

The origin of these gender differences--whether innate or a product of socialization and a person's value system--is not clear, according to the researchers. "Men and women may be socialized to perceive different social-sexual behaviors as appropriate or inappropriate. Therefore, it is conceivable that a series of behaviors may be perceived as flattery by one group and as harassment by another solely on the basis of one's value system or how one is socialized." Also, prior experiences with such behaviors that eventually led to harassment may cause people to interpret isolated occurrences of social-sexual behaviors more seriously, fearing that they will escalate to sexual harassment, say the authors.

Another factor found to moderate the size of the gender differences, according to the study, is the status of the harasser. Men and women demonstrated greater agreement as to whether behaviors constitute sexual harassment when the harasser is in a position of higher authority than the harassee. However, when the harasser was a peer, coworker or fellow student, men and women disagreed more often on what constituted actual harassment.

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