London: Safety becomes more important than seeking justice to individuals after a sexual harassment event, according to two studies, explaining why such people may not come forward immediately, or at all.
In the studies, researchers from the Universities of Exeter in the UK and Copenhagen in Denmark compared answers from a confidential online survey from people who have experienced sexual harassment to those who have not but were asked to imagine how they would react.
The results, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, showed that people who have experienced sexual harassment reported a range of needs and engaged in a variety of actions to meet these needs. Needs for safety, personal control and social support were prioritised over formal actions, such as reporting to police.
On the contrary, those who had not encountered sexual harassment anticipated having stronger needs and taking more actions — especially formal ones.
“We found there is a widely held belief that quick and formal reporting is the correct response to sexual harassment. It’s what’s generally meant with the phrase ‘coming forward’. Yet most people who are sexually harassed do not report it formally and those who do, often report the offence a significant time after it happened,” said Professor Manuela Barreto, from Exeter University.
“There’s a focus on procedural barriers with police and other authorities as to why this is, but less attention paid to the actual needs of the person who has experienced sexual harassment,” Barreto added.
The research suggests there’s a gap between what people expect from those who have been sexually harassed and how those who experience it actually respond.
“It’s important to consider that the feelings and actions of someone who has experienced sexual harassment might be very different from those who have not. Instead of asking; ‘why people don’t come forward more often?’, we should perhaps ask ourselves; ‘what is the best action for the individual?'” Barreto said.
In the first study, 415 participants from mixed genders took part (259 experienced, 156 imaginers) and after finding no gender differences, the second study was conducted with women only (589 participants – 301 experienced, 288 imaginers), who are much more commonly sexually harassed.
Professor Thomas Morton, from the University of Copenhagen said there are often accusations – including high profile recent examples – that if people who experience sexual harassment don’t come forward at the time, it’s because it wasn’t that serious or perhaps even true.
“There is an assumption that those who experience sexual harassment are primarily guided by their desire for justice. But this research shows that peoples’ needs are wider than what others might expect, and include needs for safety, personal control, and for life to just return to normal. Of all the needs that people expressed, the need for justice was not the highest priority,” Morton said.