Adolescents who sexually harass others have had casual sex more often than those who do not harass others. They also fantasize more about casual sex and find it more acceptable to have sex without any commitment or emotional closeness.
What may be even more surprising is that adolescents who have been sexually harassed are more strongly inclined to have casual sex than others.
These findings are at the core of what two NTNU researchers discovered when they studied the psychological mechanisms behind sexual harassment among adolescents.
Their study suggests that a person’s preference for casual sex may actually increase their risk of being harassed.
It might be that a preference for casual sex results in more sexual solicitations in general, including undesirable ones, but the researchers have not yet studied this hypothesis.
These findings might give the impression that it’s the victim’s fault for being harassed, but the researchers, Associate Professor Mons Bendixen and Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, both at NTNU’s Department of Psychology, say their findings are not intended to “blame the victim.”
“Absolutely not! We’re trying to understand the psychological mechanisms that underlie harassment,” Bendixen said.
First and foremost, they see it as an individual’s right to have sexual relationships, of any length, without fear of being harassed.
The researchers’ goal is to develop methods for reducing sexual harassment. To do this, they need to understand the underlying mechanisms behind sexual harassment. But this also requires them to ask uncomfortable questions.
Individuals who sexually harass others appear to be motivated primarily by sexual interest, but intent can be tricky to understand when the harassment is directed at same-sex peers.
The researchers distinguished between two different types of harassment.
One type occurs between the sexes and usually consists of more or less successful exploration – and solicitation – of sex. So this is obviously related to a desire for sexual relations, usually of short duration.
The harassment of same-sex peers, on the other hand, is about intrasexual competitiveness. In this case, the main point is to make oneself more attractive, at the expense of same-gender competitors.
Understanding same-sex harassment of peers requires a fuller explanation. “It’s mostly about social positioning,” says Kennair.
By denigrating someone of the same sex, you can show that you rank above the others in this hierarchy.
Some of the same mechanisms occur in bullying, but not necessarily motivated by sex. But with sexual harassment, the goal, consciously or unconsciously, is to increase your probability of having sex by also reducing the other person’s probability.
“A girl might say, for example, that another girl is ‘loose’, a whore or homosexual,” says Bendixen. Then the goal is to make herself more attractive at the other girl’s expense.
“We don’t know if this form of denigration achieves the desired effect, but we think it has some role in girls’ and boys’ sexual negotiations and competition,” says Kennair.
Sexual harassment is very common. Fully 60 per cent of the girls and boys in the survey reported that they had been sexually harassed in the last year. Around 30 per cent of the girls and 45 per cent of the boys admitted that they had sexually harassed someone one or more times.
People often think of sexual harassment solely as something boys do to girls. But that’s simply not the case.
According to Kennair, the most common form of sexual harassment is between boys. “Typically, one boy makes comments on another boy being gay,” says Bendixen.
Boys who harass girls make up the second most common type of harassment. But girls also harass other girls. Girls harassing boys is the least common scenario.
“This topic requires that we look at all the constellations of harassment. Both sexes get harassed, both sexes harass, and we’ve considered the issue from the perspectives of both sexes both as target and perpetrators,” the researchers said.
It is worth noting that many more individuals report that they have been subjected to sexual harassment than report that they have harassed someone. This is especially true in the case of sexual solicitation toward the opposite sex.
This may be due in part to adolescents’ lack of sensitivity. Young harassers often behave in clumsy and awkward ways and don’t know the boundaries or rules of the game.
And herein lies the key to doing something about the problem.
“Maybe they didn’t mean to harass anyone,” says Kennair, who believes that some of the harassment reflects insecure adolescent behaviour. “Young people need good scripts for how to communicate their sexual interest and how to interpret this interin others,” says Bendixen.
Preventive efforts to reduce harassment have helped change what we know about – and attitudes towards — sexual harassment. Boys and girls have a more negative view of harassment after someone has intervened. But these attitude shifts have not reduced the incidence of harassment.
The researchers believe the time is ripe to develop methods that actually work.
“We’ve studied this issue to find out more about the mechanisms at work. This gives us a more solid empirical base for doing something about sexual harassment,” says Kennair.
“This clearly belongs to the schools’ sex education training,” Bendixen believes.
Bendixen, who has previous experience with bullying prevention, wants to link educational instructors to the project to develop a sound methodology for working with sexual harassment.
“Role playing with well-developed scripts, where students are active participants, is one possible avenue,” says Bendixen.
The study included 1326 heterosexual girls and boys with an average age of nearly 18 years. The psychologists only looked at non-physical forms of sexual harassment.
The study also only included actions that were actually unwanted and offensive, to exclude the more common, loose jargon used among young people.