The stories of sexual assault and harassment that emerged last year seemed to touch every industry — Hollywood, hotels, restaurants, politics and news organizations, including this one. Many of those stories focused on what happened, but most didn't or couldn't get to the question of why: Why do some people, mainly men, sexually harass their colleagues?
Psychologist John Pryor has been thinking about this for more than three decades, and he has created a test in an effort to measure a person's tendency to harass someone. It's called the "Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale."
Pryor, who is a professor at Illinois State University, created the scale in the 1980s, a time when many researchers were looking at rape.
"There was a scale that was developed then to measure the likelihood that people would rape if they thought they could get away with it," he says. "So that inspired me to think about sexual harassment."
Pryor spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about his research and his thoughts on the national conversation about harassment and the #MeToo movement.
On what the scale looks at and how he created it
Now, the "Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale" focuses only on one kind of sexual harassment, something that researchers used to call sexual coercion - a quid pro quo situation where someone is offering a bribe or maybe threatening a punishment for sexual cooperation. So I designed the "Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale" using some common stereotypes about men in power situations. So I asked college men to imagine that they had such a job, and one of the things that let me know I was on to something when I first started working on this was that there was a high level of consistency. Men who would say that they would perform this act in one situation were highly likely to say they would do it in another situation.
On his reaction to the #MeToo moment
I'm not surprised at all that many women across all different kinds of walks of life are coming forth to say this has happened to them, because we know that the majority of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Admitting that you are a target or a victim of sexual harassment is somewhat of a stigma, but when you start to see people coming forth in public, one of the things you start to do is remove some of the stigma. When women hear other women say, "Oh this happened to me," they think, "Yeah, it happened to me" and they're less likely to think that they're going to be treated negatively for coming forth and saying it happened to them.
On if there are specific characteristics harassers share
There are a series of beliefs that people have about sexual harassment that represent kind of a psychological underpinning — basically justifications for the behavior. So beliefs like women asking for it or women making false complaints. I can't tell you how many people I've been interviewed by who ask me,"What about the false complaints?" Well, there are not many false complaints. There are not many complaints period. We can reduce the willingness of men to engage in sexual coercive sexual harassment by inducing them to think long and hard about perspectives of women.
NPR's Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web. Adhiti Bandlamudi, NPR Kroc Fellow, produced it for radio.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about one of the other major stories of recent months - excuse me - sexual harassment. In a few minutes, we'll hear a perspective on how religious institutions struggle to deal with complaints about sexual misconduct by clergy.
While a lot of the stories have rightly focused on what happened, they often don't get to the question of why some people, mainly men, sexually harass their colleagues and others don't. And one person who's been thinking about that question since the 1980s is psychologist John Pryor of Illinois State University. Years ago, he designed a scale to measure how likely someone is to sexually harass. I started by asking him about what motivated his research and how he developed it.
JOHN PRYOR: I designed the "Likelihood To Sexually Harass Scale" using some common stereotypes about men in power situations. In fact, one of the scenarios I developed focused on the casting couch in Hollywood. So I asked college men to imagine that they had such a job and that there's a woman they're attracted to. And I asked them, how likely is it that they would offer a role in a film in exchange for sexual favors?
One of the things that let me know I was onto something when I first started working on this was that there was a high level of consistency in men's responses to this. So men who would say that they would perform this act of sexual coercion in one situation were highly likely to say they'd do it in other situations. Conversely, you see that men who said they wouldn't do it were also unlikely to say they would do it in other situations.
MARTIN: Do you find specific characteristics in the individuals who are likely to engage in this conduct?
PRYOR: There are a series of beliefs that people have about sexual harassment that represent kind of a psychological underpinning for this kind of behavior - beliefs like women asking for it or women making false complaints. I can't tell you how many people I've been interviewed by ask me, what about the false complaints? Well, there are many false complaints. There are not many complaints period.
Some of the things that we see have to do with a lack of perspective-taking or empathy for other people. One of the other things I can tell you that's kind of consistent with that is that we can reduce the willingness of men to engage in sexual coercion - sexual harassment - by inducing them to think long and hard about perspectives of women. So that shows that, as a variable, something like taking the perspective of others is a very important thing, I believe.
MARTIN: What has struck you about - I mean, as we mentioned earlier, you started this research three decades ago. But now, the floodgates have been opened within the last couple of months, and there's all these different industries, as we've mentioned, including this one, where this behavior has been revealed. I'm just - I'm curious how you have reacted to this, as a person who's been studying this for so long.
PRYOR: One of the things that I and many others have concluded is it's a really common kind of thing to see some forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. So it's not surprising that you have all these people saying yeah, me too - this happened to me too. So I think that maybe what's surprising is why it took so long for people to come forth.
One of the things that I suspect though, with regard to why it has taken so long - and I'll speculate here - is I think that admitting that you were a target or a victim of sexual harassment is somewhat of a stigma. So people generally avoid identifying themselves as having some kind of stigmatizing characteristic or stigmatizing behavior they've encountered.
But when you start to see people coming forth in public, one of the things you do is you start to remove some of the stigma. So what we see is when women hear other women say, oh, this happened to me, this happened to me, and you think, yeah, it happened to me, and they're less likely to think they're going to be treated negatively for coming forth and saying that it happened to them.
MARTIN: John Pryor is a distinguished professor emeritus at Illinois State University. He created the "Likelihood To Sexually Harass Scale." We talked to him at the studios at Illinois State University.
Professor Pryor, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PRYOR: Thank you, Michel. It's nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.