Why sexually harassed individuals might not report the incident immediately or at all?

Seeking justice by coming forward is just one of the needs.


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Sexually harassed people frequently hesitate to disclose their experiences formally, instead of evaluating if and how reporting satisfies the needs of persons who experience harassment, current understandings of this issue focus on the procedural obstacles to reporting.

New research documented the repertoire of needs experienced by those sexually harassed and their actions to meet them. It shows a gap between how people imagine they’d act if sexually harassed and how those who experience it respond.

According to research, persons who experience sexual harassment only view obtaining justice by coming forward as one of their needs; other needs, such as those for safety, are deemed more significant.

According to the 2017 Crime Survey England and Wales, five out of every six victims of sexual offenses fail to report the incident to the police. This finding suggests that the research may help to explain why people who encounter sexual harassment frequently don’t report it properly.

Researchers contrasted responses from a private online survey from those who had personally experienced sexual harassment to those from those who had not but were asked to imagine how they would react. Sexually harassed individuals reported a range of needs and took several kinds of actions to satisfy these needs.

Needs for safety, personal control, and social support were prioritized over formal actions, such as reporting to the police. Those who had not encountered sexual harassment anticipated having stronger needs and taking more actions—mainly formal ones.

Scientists discovered there is a generally held idea that the best way to handle sexual harassment is to report it quickly and formally. It is what is typically meant when someone uses the phrase “coming forward.”

However, most of those who experience sexual harassment do not formally report it, and those who do frequently do so a long time after the incident. The reasons for this are primarily attributed to procedural difficulties with the police and other authorities, with less emphasis placed on the needs of the victim of sexual harassment.

According to research, there is a discrepancy between the expectations of those who have experienced sexual harassment and how those individuals react. It’s crucial to remember that someone who has experienced sexual harassment may feel and act very differently than someone who hasn’t.

Scientists noted, “Instead of asking; ‘why people don’t come forward more often?’, we should perhaps ask ourselves; ‘what is the best action for the individual?'”

Researchers examined responses from participants in two studies who had experienced sexual harassment regarding the measures they had taken, as well as those from people who had not experienced sexual assault but were asked to consider their reactions if they had. After determining no gender differences, a second study was undertaken with only women (589 participants)—far more likely to experience sexual harassment—as 301 experienced participants and 288 imaginers.

Lead author, Professor Thomas Morton, worked at the University of Exeter on the research and is now at the University of Copenhagen. He said: “There is an assumption that their desire for justice primarily guides those who experience sexual harassment. But this research shows that peoples’ needs are wider than others might expect and include needs for safety, personal control, and life to return to normal. Of all the needs that people expressed, the need for justice was not the highest priority. This might explain why people don’t take formal actions, like reporting to police, that others expect them to.”

“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. But if you have not experienced sexual harassment, it is hard to accurately anticipate what you might need and, therefore, what you would do to satisfy those needs. Our research suggests that the assumptions people make are often wrong or don’t reflect what the people who have experienced sexual harassment say they need.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Thomas A. Morton, Elena Dimitriou, et al. What Would a “Reasonable Person” Do? Exploring the Gap Between Experienced and Anticipated Responses to Sexual Harassment. Psychology of Women Quarterly. DOI: 10.1177/03616843231170761