By: Christa St. George
Sexual harassment and assaults are based on two things: power and control.
Unfortunately, there is a cultural phenomenon in which sexual assaults are considered to be sexually motivated, particularly in cases where the victim is physically attractive.
Take, for example, the numerous stories of women coming forward as Donald Trump’s sexual harassment victims. These stories convey instances in which Trump preyed upon, asserted power over, and fundamentally disrespected the women he’s come into contact with. During a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, Trump openly mocked the women who brought harassment allegations against him. He suggested that the accusers weren’t attractive enough to earn his attention and therefore made false accusations in order to acquire fame and attention. In response to 38 year-old Jessica Leeds’ claim that he assaulted her on an airplane, he told the crowd “Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.”
Trump’s comment alludes to one of the biggest myths about sexual harassment: only young, pretty women are in danger of being targeted. This theory is driven by the notion that people commit sexual crimes based on physical attraction and sexual desire. When Trump openly mocks the attractiveness of women who feel victimized by him, he strengthens the precedent that sexual harassment accusations are only credible when the victim is “worthy” of being assaulted.
A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Social Psychology investigated this phenomenon by exploring the relationship between attractiveness and “victim-blaming” in sexual harassment cases. Researchers simulated a hypothetical sexual harassment scenario, presented to 205 university students (81 percent male and 19 percent female). After listening to the scenario, the students completed a questionnaire.
Results of the questionnaire show that observers:
- Were more likely to attribute blame to a harasser when the victim was attractive
- Were less likely to attribute blame to an attractive harasser when the victim was not attractive
- Considered attractive harassers to be motivated by assertion of dominance, rather than physical attraction victims
These results indicate an imaginary “scale” in which observers weigh the attractiveness of the two parties, determining the amount of blame attributed to each. In other words, if a harasser is less attractive than the victim, people are more likely to attribute blame to him/her, instead of the victim (and vice versa).
This preconceived notion of blame not only discredits victims of assault, but also reinforces “victim-blaming” behavior. “Victim-blaming” prevents victims of sexual assault from coming forward, therefore continuing cycles of violence against women and/or vulnerable individuals. Victims fear coming forward due to the emotional and mental distress that accompanies scrutiny and assignment of blame. According to the study, the greater the acceptance of this myth, the “more responsibility is attributed to the victim,” and the more likely people are to believe that, “sexual harassment could have been provoked by [women] for some kind of ‘malevolent’ end.”
I conclude with the infamous statement made by Donald Trump regarding the emphasis he places on physical appearance. In his “locker-room comment” recorded in 2005, he boasted that he is “automatically attracted to beautiful,” and starts kissing beautiful people because “when you’re a star they let you do it…. you can do anything. Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.”
Sexual harassment is a crime, regardless of celebrity status or the attractiveness of the people involved. Victims of sexual assault should never be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed for speaking up. Let this example inspire us to understand and advocate for our rights, as well as the rights of those around us. The only way to change our cultural perception of sexual harassment and eliminate “victim-blaming” is to defy social norms and educate ourselves regarding the truth about sexual harassment.