In October 2017, the New York Times published Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s landmark investigation on Harvey Weinstein, and women began sharing their experiences of sexual assault and harassment on social media with two simple words: Me too. The #MeToo social media movement spurred a cultural reckoning about our understanding and treatment of sexual harassment and assault.

Nonetheless, many prominent activists, including the original founder of the movement Tarana Burke, have argued that the mainstream #MeToo movement has largely centered on and benefited only a small subset of women, such as those who were attractive, affluent, and White (e.g., Hollywood actresses). Meanwhile, many women, especially women of color and low-wage workers, are excluded from the movement and continue to encounter disbelief, dismissal, and obstacles to legal recourse.

Why have certain victims of harassment and assault received attention and support while others continue to face neglect? We theorized that people ‘miss’ sexual harassment unfolding in front of them, question whether the harassment actually occurred, and minimize the severity of harassment when it targets women who do not fit the prototype of a sexual harassment victim. If we asked people to imagine a victim of sexual harassment, we predicted that they would likely imagine a feminine, young, and attractive woman who reflects the prototype of women and ideas about how women in our society should look and behave. Accordingly, it would be easier for people to connect sexually harassing behaviors to prototypical women. In consequence, people might be more likely to detect harassing behavior, believe harassment claims, and think harassment is harmful when it targets more prototypical (for example more attractive, feminine) compared to less prototypical women. To test this theory, we conducted 11 studies, which we divided into three sets.

What is the Prototype of a Sexual Harassment Victim?

When people imagine a sexual harassment victim, what kind of woman are they picturing? In our first study, participants (students from the University of Washington) read about a woman who had either been groped by her supervisor or had only been accidentally harmed by her supervisor. We then gave participants a box of colored pencils and a piece of paper to draw the woman they had read about. As rated by independent coders, participants who read about a woman who experienced sexual harassment drew more prototypical and feminine women than did those who read about accidental harm. Using additional methods such as survey ratings and morphed photographs in our other studies with online and university participants, we consistently found that people perceived women who were sexually harassed to be prototypical women.

This bias in people’s minds about how victims would look is potentially dangerous because non-prototypical women are actually disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment, meaning the sexual harassment victim prototype does not reflect reality.

Does Prototypicality of Victims Influence Their Credibility?

We wanted to know if these flawed victim prototypes can bias people’s perceptions of harassment, so we next tested whether people ‘miss’ sexual harassment when it targets non-prototypical women compared to prototypical women. Vignettes describing some women as prototypical or non-prototypical through their traits and careers were used in some studies, and morphs of facial photographs that were made to look more masculine or more feminine were used in other studies. Participants then read that a more or less prototypical woman experienced a potentially ambiguous sexual harassment incident, such as a supervisor inquiring about her relationship status or physically touching her. These behaviors were more likely to be seen as sexual harassment when they targeted a prototypical woman as opposed to a non-prototypical woman, despite the fact that all women experienced the same exact incidents.

Finally, we examined whether the narrow victim prototype holds legal consequences for non-prototypical women who are sexually harassed. Under the current legal system in the United States, for a case to reach an investigative body, be taken seriously, and have a legal outcome that favors the victim, the harassment claim must be perceived as credible, and the harassing behavior must be perceived to have caused significant psychological harm to the victim. Consistent with our other findings, we found that people perceive non-prototypical women’s harassment claims to be less credible than those of prototypical women, and that people think non-prototypical women are less upset, distressed, or traumatized by harassment. Additionally, we found some evidence that people may assign less severe punishments to perpetrators who harass non-prototypical women.

It Adds Up to…

Because people so strongly associate sexual harassment victims with prototypical women, non-prototypical women may face greater barriers when seeking help or justice in the face of sexual harassment. The inappropriate and illegal behavior they encounter may go unrecognized, their reports may be doubted and dismissed, and their experiences may be downplayed as harmless and undeserving of punishment. Victim prototypes can bias people’s perceptions of harassment in ways that may contribute to discriminatory treatment under the law. Given that non-prototypical women are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and that the majority of women probably do not fit this narrow prototype of a conventionally young, attractive, and White image, it is especially concerning that a victim who does not fit this picture may not receive the civil rights protections afforded to her by federal law, much less the emotional support and workplace outcomes she may also need.

Understanding the biased perceptions people hold about victims of sexual harassment is critical to recognizing the barriers many victims face and ensuring that all women targeted by sexual harassment receive the same protection, support, and justice under the law.

For Further Reading

Berdahl, J. L. (2007). The sexual harassment of uppity women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 425-437. .92.2.425

Buchanan, N. T., Settles, I. H., & Woods, K. C. (2008). Comparing sexual harassment subtypes among black and white women by military rank: Double jeopardy, the jezebel, and the cult of true womanhood. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 347-361.

Goh, J. X., Bandt-Law, B., Cheek, N. N., Sinclair, S., & Kaiser, C. R. (2021). Narrow prototypes and neglected victims: Understanding perceptions of sexual harassment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Bryn Bandt-Law is a PhD student at the University of Washington and conducts research on intergroup perceptions and gender-based violence.

Nathan N. Cheek is a PhD candidate in psychology and social policy at Princeton University and studies inequality, prejudice, and decision-making.

Jin X. Goh is an assistant professor of psychology at Colby College where he teaches and conducts research on social identities and intergroup perceptions.

Cheryl R. Kaiser is Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Washington and conducts research on social identity, diversity, discrimination, and civil rights law.

Stacey Sinclair is Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and studies prejudice, implicit bias, diversity, and inequality.