Coping With Sexual Harassment

Problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategies refer to a variety of cognitive or behavioral methods used to reduce the stress of a traumatic event.23 Problem-focused strategies focus on managing or changing the situation (e.g., reporting the incident) while emotion-focused strategies attempt to manage one's own thoughts and feelings about the situation (e.g., avoiding thinking about it). Knapp and colleagues61 proposed four categories of coping with sexual harassment: avoidance-denial (avoiding being physically close to the perpetrator or avoiding thinking about the harassment); social support (receiving emotional support and advice from others); confrontation-negotiation (directly communicating with the perpetrator that the harassment must end); and advocacy-seeking (reporting the perpetrator's behavior to appropriate individuals within the organization). The type of coping method one uses is influenced by characteristics of the target and perpetrator, the harassment, and his/her own cultural norms.62 For example, more upsetting, frequent, and persistent harassment will result in the use of multiple strategies to try to end the harassment and decreased reliance on ignoring the perpetrator's behavior.62,63,64 Those harassed by a superior, especially if they are fairly low in organizational status, are more likely to talk with trusted sources and eventually report the harassment than those harassed by coworkers.63,64 Although rates of reporting sexual harassment remain extremely low overall,65 women from collectivistic, patriarchal cultures are less likely to confront harassers than to try to avoid the perpetrator.62 Among one sample of Black women, avoidance and denial were common, but as harassment increased in frequency and severity, they utilized additional coping strategies, including confrontation.66 These findings reflect that coping with sexual harassment is a dynamic process,67 and targets adapt their coping strategies in an attempt to end the harassment.

The question remains as to whether or not there are advantages to using certain coping strategies rather than others. Many organizations require that targets formally report sexual harassment to someone in authority within the company and more generally, many assume that confronting the perpetrator or filing a complaint are indicators that the target really did not want or enjoy the harassment. "Passive" responses, such as trying to avoid the harasser, are frequently viewed negatively; however, passive strategies often reflect well-thought, deliberate attempts to balance the harm of being harassed and the potential risks of angering or alienating the perpetrator and supporters (e.g., being ostracized by other coworkers, demoted, or fired).63,67 In fact, over two-thirds of those who have voiced concerns about harassment faced retaliation as a result.68 For example, among Black women in the military, those who filed formal complaints against their harassers experienced negative work outcomes; conversely, confronting the harasser (without filing a report) resulted in better psychological well-being.66 Taken together, these studies indicate that the responses often assumed to be most appropriate may come with a high price to one's psychological and occupational well-being.

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