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The Psychology of Sexual Harassment

The world began unraveling the hard truths about workplace sexual harassment exposed by the high-profile #MeToo movement that gained notoriety in 2017.

Six years later, the conversation surrounding sex, discrimination, and harassment continues to evolve as society seeks the root cause of this behavior puts an end to it for good.

Considering the anecdotal evidence, it’s apparent unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature is experienced by men and women no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, or age.

Workplace sexual harassment is still pervasive, according to a study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

The NSVRC found 81% of women and 43% of men claim they’ve experienced unwanted sexual advances at some point. However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 75% of these incidents go unreported for many reasons.

Let’s explore the psychological factors that motivate perpetrators of sexual harassment, how this behavior affects victims, and how victims can protect themselves from unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace.

The psychology motivating perpetrators

Though there are exceptions, perpetrators of sexual harassment generally share common psychological motivations and environmental influences that shape their behavior.

It’s important to note that having one of these disorders or traits does not necessarily mean that someone will engage in sexual harassment.

However, individuals with these characteristics may be more likely to use harassment or other forms of abuse to control or manipulate others.

Here is a selection of some of the most common factors driving some to perpetrate sexual harassment at work.

Power and control

Power and control are significant motivators for perpetrators of sexual harassment.

This is especially true of perpetrators of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Many individuals use their position of authority, physical strength, or other forms of dominance to intimidate and manipulate those around them.

Mental health disorders

Though mental health disorders are no excuse, understanding their role in workplace sexual harassment is vital.

Here are some examples of mental health disorders that can make someone more likely to use sexual harassment as a way to control others.

Narcissistic personality disorder

People with this disorder have an inflated sense of self-importance, lack empathy, and believe they are entitled to special treatment from others.

Antisocial personality disorder

Antisocial personality disorder allows people to disregard the rights and feelings of others and helps them engage in manipulation, aggression, or deceit to get what they want.

Borderline personality disorder

This disorder is characterized by people who struggle with intense emotions, fear of abandonment, and unstable relationships.


This trait refers to a willingness to manipulate and deceive others for personal gain without regard for their feelings or well-being.


People with psychopathy often display callousness, lack of empathy, and impulsive behavior, and may engage in criminal activity or other harmful behaviors without feeling guilt or remorse.

Low empathy and emotional intelligence

Individuals with low empathy and emotional intelligence are more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment.

This is because they have a decreased ability to understand and relate to the emotions of others and struggle to recognize boundaries and consent.

Some signs of low empathy and emotional intelligence include:

  • Insensitivity or indifference toward the feelings of others
  • An inability to take responsibility for their actions or apologize for mistakes
  • A lack of awareness of their own emotions and how their behavior affects others
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining meaningful relationships
  • A tendency to blame others for problems or conflicts
  • The inability to handle criticism or feedback

Sexual addiction or compulsivity

According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 6%-8% of US adults have a sex addiction.

Individuals with sexual addiction or compulsivity may use sexual harassment to seek sexual gratification or cope with emotional pain.

They’re driven by a need for validation, attention, or control and may view others as objects for their pleasure.

They may also have issues with impulse control and struggle to resist their urges.

Toxic workplace culture

According to a study by MIT, 30 million people believe their workplace is toxic.

With numbers that high, workplace culture is clearly a significant factor that can contribute to sexual harassment.

A culture that tolerates or normalizes sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment that perpetuates such behavior.

Effects of Workplace Sexual Harassment on Victims

The effects of workplace sexual harassment can be devastating and come with short -and long-term implications.

While each situation is different, it’s clear that victims can experience psychological, physical, and work-related injuries from workplace sexual harassment.

Psychological effects on victims

It’s difficult to measure how harmful the manipulation, intimidation, and psychological warfare victims face is to their mental health.

Depending on the situation, victims may experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Humiliation
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Self-blame
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

It is essential to recognize that every person’s experience is unique, and the effects of sexual harassment can vary widely from person to person.

These psychological effects can significantly impact their personal and professional lives and may require ongoing support and therapy to overcome.

Physical Effects on Victims

Considering poor mental health substantially affects physical health, it’s easy to see how victims of sexual harassment report a decline in their physical condition.

While it’s impossible to provide an exhaustive list, some of the physical effects victims experience can include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Hyperventilation
  • Nausea
  • Physical symptoms of stress (ulcers, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, etc.)

These physical symptoms can harm their overall well-being and potentially lead to more significant issues in the long run.

Impact on Work Performance and Career Advancement

Workplace sexual harassment can significantly impact victims’ job performance and career advancement.

As a result of the ongoing abuse, victims may experience decreased productivity, missed workdays, and difficulty concentrating.

Additionally, if the abuser is in a position of power, victims may face discrimination, retaliation, and exclusion from opportunities for career advancement.

This can create a hostile and demotivating work environment, decreasing job satisfaction and higher turnover rates.

How victims can protect themselves from harm

Employees must remain vigilant and seek support if they experience workplace sexual harassment.

By asserting their rights and seeking legal counsel from a sexual harassment attorney, victims can take essential steps to protect themselves and hold their abusers accountable.

Everyone in the workforce must know how to spot potential issues and seek the support they need to minimize the harm they may experience from sexual harassment.

Know the red flags of workplace sexual harassment

Awareness of inappropriate behaviors and conduct that cross personal and professional boundaries is essential.

Some examples of this include unwelcome physical contact, sexual comments, and requests for sexual favors. Red flags can also include power imbalances, favoritism, and a culture that tolerates or normalizes harassment.

Trusting your instincts and speaking up if something feels wrong helps prevent further harm to you or your colleagues.

Seek Support

One of the most important things victims need to know is they’re not alone.

Though sexual harassment can feel isolating and cause adverse health effects, reaching out for support is one of the best ways to find fast relief from the harassment.

Here are some tips on seeking support if you experience workplace sexual harassment:

  • Reach out to HR or a supervisor for help and guidance
  • Consider talking to coworkers or colleagues you trust for support
  • Seek medical attention or counseling if you are experiencing physical or psychological effects
  • File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Hire an experienced sexual harassment attorney

If the situation continues to escalate, one crucial step is to hire an experienced sexual harassment attorney  who can help you understand your legal rights and hold your abusers accountable.

Hiring an attorney can help you:

  • Understand your legal rights and options for recourse
  • Advise you on how to navigate the legal system and pursue justice
  • Represent you in negotiations and legal proceedings
  • Hold your abusers accountable for their actions
  • Recover damages for lost wages, emotional distress, medical expenses, and more
  • By providing a supportive and safe space to discuss your experiences
  • Create a plan of action to protect yourself and prevent future harm.

If you’ve experienced workplace sexual harassment and feel you need the help of an attorney to assert your rights and find closure, reach out to our experienced team at Makarem & Associates today.

Sexual Harassment FAQs

How does workplace sexual harassment impact job performance and career advancement?

Victims may experience decreased productivity, missed workdays, and difficulty concentrating. They may also face discrimination, retaliation, and exclusion from opportunities for career advancement.

What are the red flags of workplace sexual harassment?

Some red flags of workplace sexual harassment include unwelcome physical contact, sexual comments, requests for sexual favors, power imbalances, favoritism, and a culture that tolerates or normalizes harassment.

How can victims protect themselves from workplace sexual harassment?

Victims can protect themselves from workplace sexual harassment by seeking support from HR or a supervisor, talking to trusted colleagues, seeking medical attention or counseling, and hiring an experienced sexual harassment attorney. It’s also important for victims to be aware of the red flags of workplace sexual harassment and to trust their instincts if something feels wrong.

What remedies are available for individuals who have experienced sexual harassment in California?

In the event of winning a sexual harassment lawsuit, there are four potential remedies that can be awarded. These remedies include monetary damages to compensate for emotional distress, the opportunity for rehire or reinstatement if wrongfully terminated, compensation for lost wages if wrongfully terminated, and a mandate for the employer to implement changes in their practices to prevent future incidents of sexual harassment.