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What causes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment or sexual coercion occurs when someone tries to gain sexual favours from another person without their consent. While this can happen to both sexes, the male-on-female sexual harassment is the most common in humans and gets a lot of media coverage and attention.

Recently, there began a widespread movement in the West (as well as in countries like India) where women accused high-status and powerful men of sexual harassment.

While sexual harassment can occur in any industry and at any workplace, it usually happens in show business because this industry typically has the largest concentration of attractive, young women trying to get a break in their careers. The powerful men in the industry take advantage of these powerless and helpless women. This is the usual narrative of sexual harassment that we come across. But there’s more to the story.

anti-sexual harassment movement

Why the harassment?

Understanding harassment begins by understanding that, in humans, female sexuality is more valued than male sexuality. This boils down to the biological difference between males and females whereby females can produce a few offspring and males can produce much more (see Why female sexuality tends to be suppressed) without investing a lot of time and energy. Therefore, the males have an incentive to produce as many offspring as they possibly can (to pass on as many genes as they can).

This corresponds to the stronger sex drive of men which basically means their urge to reproduce is stronger and more frequent than women. Now, in order to reproduce, males have to court females to get them to mate with them. Females are usually cautious in choosing the males they want to mate with because producing offspring is a costly affair for them requiring huge investments. So their criteria for an ideal mate is tighter than men.

What happens when females reject a male? The male may move on and try to court another female, or he can try to obtain sex by force. In the article, Why men do men rape and commit sexual assault, I pointed out that rape is primarily a strategy for men to obtain sex when they can’t obtain it through courtship. I further discussed how men of low socioeconomic status and low attractiveness are more likely to rape simply because they’re less likely to win at courtship.

Power and sex

Why would men of high socioeconomic status, who’re probably married and have kids, engage in sexual harassment?

Low-status men who're not powerful are likely to be content with any mate that they’re able to secure. Powerful high-status men, on the other hand, have the potential to mate with a number of women. High-status men are more attractive to women but this doesn't mean women will fall for any high-status man they encounter. Female mate choice is complex and involves a lot of variables.

Our male ancestors living in hunter-gatherer as well as agrarian societies who attained high status in society typically mated with multiple women.1 Hence, there is a link between power and sex in the male psyche. The more powerful men become, the more women they expect to mate with. Power can also distort the perception of men to the point that they find women more attractive than they are. Studies show that men who’re likely to sexually harass perceive women as more attractive when primed with power.2

In my article, The crotch displays of men, I pointed out how men drive attention to their crotch (and sometimes even flash their phallus) as a display of power and aggression. Interestingly, some cases of sexual harassment that I was reading about had instances where men dropped their pants in the presence of their victims and flashed their member. The online equivalent of this behaviour would be sending unsolicited pictures of their organ to random, unsuspecting women.

That power is tied to sex in the psyche of men is also evident in the language that is used to describe instances where a great deal of power is exerted. For example, a football team that suffers a heavy loss is said to have gotten “f@!ked” by the winning team. Sure you can think of many instances where people, mostly men, use this type of language.

High-status men who’re powerful but unattractive are especially prone to engage in sexual harassment. Being unable to attract women in the past, they overcompensate for this previous loss by forcing themselves on to women when they’ve gained power. Also, being powerful may convince them that they can get away with these sorts of behaviours.

How sexual harassment is dealt with

While it may have the potential to be beneficial for individual men on a micro level, sexual harassment is costly to society on a macro level. Sexual harassment is like stealing money from a person, only the currency being sex. It's the person’s choice and right as to how they spend their money just as it's a woman’s choice and right who she consents to have sex with. 

When this right is taken away, the woman’s reproductive choice is harmed and the costs are borne by her as well as her immediate family (who share most of her genes). Therefore families, being the basic units of society, seek to punish sexual harassment to protect their own reproductive interests.

If families are to live together in a society, they better safeguard each other’s reproductive interests. This is why there’s immense shame dumped on men who commit sexual harassment. People stop doing business with them and they lose contracts they’ve had for years. Nobody wants to associate with the criminal because that would mean condoning the crime. The idea that there’s a “rape culture” that normalizes sexual harassment is unfounded. If it were true then the social costs of sexual harassment wouldn’t be so huge.  


1. Buss, D. M. (2016). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. Basic books.

2. Bargh, J. A., Raymond, P., Pryor, J. B., & Strack, F. (1995). Attractiveness of the underling: An automatic power→ sex association and its consequences for sexual harassment and aggression. Journal of personality and social psychology68(5), 768.

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