Sexual harassment is pervasive and has adverse effects on its victims, yet perceiving sexual harassment is wrought with ambiguity, making harassment difficult to identify and understand. Eleven preregistered, multimethod experiments (total N = 4,065 participants) investigated the nature of perceiving sexual harassment by testing whether perceptions of sexual harassment and its impact are facilitated when harassing behaviors target those who fit with the prototype of women (e.g., those who have feminine features, interests, and characteristics) relative to those who fit less well with this prototype. Studies A1–A5 demonstrate that participants’ mental representation of sexual harassment targets overlapped with the prototypes of women as assessed through participant-generated drawings, face selection tasks, reverse correlation, and self-report measures. In Studies B1–B4, participants were less likely to label incidents as sexual harassment when they targeted nonprototypical women compared with prototypical women. In Studies C1 and C2, participants perceived sexual harassment claims to be less credible and the harassment itself to be less psychologically harmful when the victims were nonprototypical women rather than prototypical women. This research offers theoretical and methodological advances to the study of sexual harassment through social cognition and prototypicality perspectives, and it has implications for harassment reporting and litigation as well as the realization of fundamental civil rights. For materials, data, and preregistrations of all studies, see https://osf.io/xehu9/.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Social Psychology
- Sociology and Political Science
- Attributional ambiguity
- Civil rights
- Sexual harassment