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Sexist or Sexual? Hear from the Harassers

Harassers speak their minds in a faculty-led psychology study

By Reem Abouemera

Numerous studies have analyzed sexual harassment and its implications and consequences, but not as many bring to the table the perceptions of harassers. Do they label their actions as harassment? Why do they behave that way to begin with? Do they feel guilty afterward?

In his research, “Sexual Harassment in the Egyptian Streets: Feminist Theory Revisited,” Hani Henry, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social
Sciences and associate professor of psychology, tackles these questions through in-depth interviews with nine self-professed harassers from the streets of Cairo and Giza. Through this study, Henry argues that sexual harassment is a sexist, rather than a sexual, act. “This is in line with the feminist theory approach that examines harassment from a gender-based perspective that is frequently overlooked by society, namely male dominance and women’s subordination,” Henry says.

In his study, Henry chose to focus on male harassers in Egypt through a qualitative approach to understand wider cultural themes. While the research
is not enough to draw scientific conclusions, it does provide insights that pave the way for future research questions.

Male harassers in the study believe that no harm is caused by sexual harassment, saying that “everyone does it” and perceiving it as a normative act. Some of them define sexual harassment as mere “flirtation” (mo’aksah) and prefer to describe it as such instead of harassment (taharosh), which upsets them.

“They believe that this act is a compliment to women by acknowledging
that they’re attractive,” Henry explains. “They went as far as making statements such as ‘What is wrong with giving a compliment to a pretty woman? Women should like the attention and care they are getting; they should encourage it. A woman’s self-esteem might drop if she was not exposed to this.’ Some even believe that women might suffer from depression if they weren’t harassed.”

Many of the participants tended to blame women for one reason or another, but one thing was common: Sociocultural factors were involved, and harassment was always perceived to be the woman’s fault.

The most common justification for their actions was blaming women for the way
they’re dressed, finding sexual harassment to be “God’s punishment” to them, making statements such as: “I do not intentionally want to harass women, but I believe women send a subtle message through the way they are dressed. Women with tight clothes are probably sending a message that they are asking for sex.’’

“They also justified sexual harassment by blaming women for their desire to work,” says Henry. “One participant even said that women should stay home if they don’t want to get harassed.”

The research highlighted the influence of strict religious interpretations on
perpetuating sexual harassment. “Many participants believe that these women
deserve sexual harassment because they decided to leave their homes, children
and husbands to pursue work,” explains Henry. “They feel that a woman’s main
role in life is serving her family, and women who ignore religious rules, such as
adopting a strict dress code and staying home to cater to their family needs, are asking for harassment.”

With regard to single women, many of them believed that they should “stay home and wait for a groom.”

Henry also examined psychological patterns among the harassers in his study, particularly their feelings about their sexual harassment actions. Lack of empathy, objectification of women, punishing women’s competitive efforts, victim-blaming, normalization of their acts and abuse of differential power were common characteristics across all participants.

Whether in movies or real life, psychology is often brought into the equation when harassment is involved, especially to reduce sanctions and punishments. But is there a psychological association with sexual harassment?

“My study highlights the possible role of social oppression in perpetuating this
problem,” Henry notes. “It’s possible that participants in the study accept sexual
harassment due to ‘identification with the aggressor,’ a concept that originally initiated in the 1930s by psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, who argued that when
people are exposed to a significant threat, they identify with those who hurt them and displace their aggression onto others.”

A classic example of identification with the aggressor includes children who begin to imitate their doctors after they get a shot, proceeding to pretend to give
shots to their dolls or stuffed animals. It’s usually a defense mechanism to protect the person from “absorbing” the trauma they’ve been exposed to, and the behavior is activated out of fear. In other words, the person fears their original abusers to an extent that they end up imitating them and becoming abusers themselves, starting a vicious cycle of violence because they feel that they have the “right” to impose that violence on others.

“Some participants might have identified with the violent behavior of those who violated, disempowered and oppressed them and then directed their oppression toward the women they harassed,” Henry says.

So what does it take to change this mentality among harassers?

The solutions are diverse.

“Governments need to concentrate their efforts on awareness campaigns
and prevention programs, starting with children. Ending gender segregation might help close the male-female gap and decrease the sense of disorientation
it has caused between genders. Men should see women as equal and respected partners, and that will only come about through cultivating notions such as equality,” says Henry.

Revamping extremist religious rhetoric is another issue that needs to be tackled from its roots. “This type of rhetoric perpetuates the problem by objectifying women and punishing their competitive efforts, encouraging gender-
based violence and enforcing gender stereotypes,” stresses Henry.

It’s not just extremist rhetoric but a lack of understanding of concepts such as sexual harassment and equality on the part of harassers, which causes
their lack of remorse. Sexual harassment programs should focus on decreasing acceptance of men’s aggression against women and, most importantly, teaching empathy. “Unfortunately, in a patriarchal society, many men are socialized to believe that women are inferior objects, and that needs to change,” Henry says. “While the actions of the harassers are sufficiently striking on their own, the lack of empathy and remorse are equally striking.”

Harassers should be “taught” how to sympathize with others to be able to put
themselves in people’s shoes and see their perspectives. “They must recognize and
understand the psychological damage they inflict on the women they harass,” says Henry. “When harassers absorb this, it will affect the way they think, feel and act.”

Disclaimer: This was a qualitative study attempting to account for cultural
influences on sexual harassment. The themes gleaned from it do not prove
any generalization about this cultural understanding, but the internal consistency and conceptual coherence within these themes, as well as the richness of the quotes that were used to produce them, lend some confidence to such understanding. The study examined the issue in-depth and was not aimed at supporting any hypothesis or making generalized statements.

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