Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

The gendered nature of sexual violence is well documented in academic research, organizational and policy studies, and government documents. Viewpoints on why men are responsible for the vast majority of rapes and cases of sexual harassment, with the victims being largely women and girls, often clash in the social, political, and advocacy arenas. Battles between nature and nurture, social construction and biology, and feminism and conservatism contribute to divergent views on both the causes and the consequences of these behaviors.


I. Background

II. The Sexual Violence Continuum

III. Social Norms versus Criminalization

IV. Individual Belief Systems

V. Rape and Sexual Assault

VI. Sexual Harassment

VII. Sexual Assault Prevention: Responses to Violence against Women

VIII. Conclusion


Sexual Harassment 1Whereas men are sexually assaulted by women and same-gender sexual assault does occur (for example, a man sexually assaults a man), statistics indicate that the majority of sexual violence perpetrators are men and the majority of victims are women. In fact, 90 percent of the victims of sexual assault are women and 10 percent are men, and nearly 99 percent of offenders in single-victim assaults are men (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2010). However, not all men who commit acts that meet the legal definition of sexual assault identify their behavior as such. For example, 1 in 12 male college students surveyed report engaging in acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but 84 percent of them report that what they did was “definitely not rape” (Warshaw 1994). The debate about the gendered nature of sexual violence exists in multiple social contexts. Some argue that it is men’s nature to sexually dominate and control women. Driven by a biological need to procreate, men sexually dominate women to ensure the continuation of the species and of their own biological line. Thus, when a man is presented with a situation that imposes a barrier to reaching this goal, such as a woman who does not want to have sex, the man’s biological predisposition takes the driver’s seat, resulting in a disregard for the woman’s wishes and leading to sexual assault. However, others argue that it is the patriarchal U.S. society and systemic oppression by men of women that explains the prevalence of men’s sexual violence. In what is called a culture of violence, dominance and control are presented as positive attributes of masculinity in society. According to this argument, men’s and women’s socialization begins in childhood, where toughness is valued in boys and submissiveness is valued in girls. Observers and advocates point out that these messages, paired with a society where men’s sexual violence is tacitly accepted, lead to rampant sexual violence with minimal consequences.

The Sexual Violence Continuum

Regardless of their ideological perspectives on sexual violence, most observers would agree that the phenomenon of sexual violence in the United States has grown into an epidemic. With statistics indicating that a rape occurs every 2.5 minutes in the United States and that one in every six women in the U.S. is a victim of rape or attempted rape (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network 2006), sexual violence causes increasing alarm and commands increasing attention. When viewed as a systemic form of violence, sexual violence is not seen as a single act; rather, sexual violence refers to a range of behaviors commonly described as a sexual violence continuum. These behaviors include stranger rape, date /acquaintance rape, intimate partner rape, and sexual harassment as well as incest, child sexual abuse, voyeurism, and unwanted sexual touching. The concept of a sexual violence continuum is used as an explanatory model by rape crisis centers and sexual assault coalitions nationwide. Although various versions of the model use slightly different stages, they generally refer to a range of behaviors beginning with socially accepted behavior and ending with sexually violent death.

This continuum serves as a road map for exploring the many facets of sexual violence in a larger societal context.

Social Norms versus Criminalization

Although violent crimes such as stranger rape are criminalized in our society, the social norms—that is, the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that are considered acceptable in a society—about violence against women often contradict or undermine laws and policies. Thus, whereas institutional policies and laws may specifically denounce and sometimes criminalize a behavior, social norms may contradict this by allowing or failing to respond to certain behaviors. For example, in most states it is illegal to initiate sexual activity with someone who is asleep, as that person is unable to give consent to the activity. However, many fairy tales tell of a prince kissing a princess who is asleep as a result of a wicked spell. The kiss is the only thing that can break the spell, and it is seen as loving and romantic. In fact, many young girls wait for their “prince” to carry them off to a castle to live happily ever after. The idea, or social norm, that kissing a sleeping princess is romantic is both powerful and pervasive in U.S. culture and strongly contradicts legal definitions of nonconsensual sexual behavior. Social norms create an atmosphere in which behaviors are accepted and even socially rewarded based on responses from peers.

Imagine a situation in which a number of college-age young adults are attending a party. Most guests are drinking alcohol, there is music, and plenty of people are dancing and kissing. In this situation, there may be peer pressure for young women and men to behave in certain ways. Young men receive messages that they are supposed to “get a girl,” and they receive positive peer reinforcement for initiating and maintaining intimate contact with one or more young women. In fact, the more the man encourages a woman to drink alcohol and engage in intimate behavior, the more social messages the man receives from his peers, praising him as a “stud.” At the same time, the young woman receives messages that she should feel flattered by the sexual attention and that she should do as the man encourages or wants. The social norms of this situation send messages to the woman that she should not assert her own feelings or desires if it will cause a scene or embarrass the man, and the man receives messages that he should continue to push the woman, regardless of her wishes. These messages create an environment where unwanted sexual behavior can occur with little or no intervention from bystanders. This has important consequences for the way observers of rape and sexual harassment patterns assign blame and design policies and laws to address these behaviors.

Individual Belief Systems

Despite existing social norms, sexual violence can occur only when the perpetrator holds a belief system that allows him to engage in sexually intrusive behavior. These belief systems include the ideas that men have ownership or control over women, that a woman owes a man sexual behavior in exchange for some interaction (for example, “If I buy you dinner, you owe me sex”), and that men have earned or have the right to sexual activity regardless of a woman’s wishes. These belief systems are reinforced by the larger societal context of systemic oppression and sexism, which sends messages about gender roles, power, and control though the media and social norms. No amount of alcohol or peer pressure can “make” a person force sexual behavior on an unwilling participant if his or her individual belief system does not already support such action to some extent. The controversy lies in people’s support for or opposition to individual belief systems that view rape as consensual (“even if she says no, she means yes”) and in the belief that sexual harassment is natural and simply part of a man’s natural sex drive rather than an unjustifiable act of aggression toward a woman.

Rape and Sexual Assault

Although there are many legal definitions of sexual assault and rape, in general these terms refer to oral sexual contact or intercourse without consent. Whereas stranger rape is the most publicized type of rape, it is one of the least often committed. Among female victims of sexual assault, 67 percent reported they were assaulted by intimate partners, relatives, friends, or acquaintances (Catalano 2005). In addition, only 8 percent of sexual assaults involve weapons, again in contradiction to the stereotypical idea of stranger rape. This is important, because societal myths about rape and sexual assault affect offenders, victims, bystanders, and those responding to the crimes through law enforcement and social service systems. In struggling with these myths, many victims either believe that the rape was their fault or fail to identify what happened to them as rape. According to one study, only approximately 35 percent of sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2004, an increase in recent years but still a rate substantially lower than the rates for noninterpersonal crimes (Catalano 2005). Many victims choose not to report because of shame, fear, guilt, or concern about others’ perceptions. The responses of varying social systems, and in particular of law enforcement, can reinforce these feelings if the victim feels blamed by first responders. On one hand, the judicial system is set up to address charges of rape, based on the societal view that rape is wrong. In practice, however, many people find it difficult to address the issue, and there is often great silence and shame experienced by victims as well as perpetrators, families, law enforcement officials, and other people involved in the process.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is even more difficult than rape to define and document legally; observers disagree as to when an act actually constitutes harassment. According to law, sexual harassment is an illegal form of sex discrimination that violates two federal laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Both laws address sexism and gender discrimination; the Civil Rights Act focuses on nondiscrimination in the workplace, while the Education Amendments focus on nondiscrimination in educational settings. As defined by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (2002), “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment” (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2002, 1). In an educational environment, this sexual harassment can “threaten a student’s physical or emotional wellbeing, influence how well a student does in school, and make it difficult for a student to achieve his or her career goals” (U.S. Department of Education 2005, 1). There are two types of sexual harassment as defined by law: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

Quid pro quo, which means “something for something,” is a type of sexual harassment that occurs when “an employee [or student] is required to choose between submitting to sexual advances or losing a tangible job [or educational] benefit” (Rubin 1995, 2). Examples may include a boss harassing an employee, a teacher harassing a student, or a coach harassing an athlete. In quid pro quo sexual harassment there must be a power differential between the target and the harasser. The harasser must be able to exercise control over the threatened job or educational benefit. Sexual harassment occurs regardless of whether the target chooses to accept the sexual behavior as long as the conduct is unwelcome.

Hostile environment harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is so severe or pervasive as to change the conditions of the claimant’s employment [or education] and create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment” (Rubin 1995). Hostile environment harassment can include gender- or sexual orientation–based jokes or comments, calling people by derogatory gender-related names (for example, “slut”), threats, touching of a sexual nature, offensive e-mail or Web site messages, talking about one’s sexual behaviors in front of others, spreading rumors about coworkers’ or other students’ sexual performance, and negative graffiti (for example, in a bathroom stall).

In general, the standard for sexual harassment is what a “reasonable person” would find offensive. However, a decision by a 1991 circuit court allowed for a “reasonable woman” standard, allowing for differences in perception of offensiveness across gender lines (Rubin 1995). Some argue that jokes, comments, and sexual innuendos are actually compliments to women and are men’s natural way of bringing their biological drive for sexual behavior to the forefront. However, men and women often report different perspectives on whether behavior is flattering or offensive.

Additional issues related to the legal criminalization of sexual harassment and rape concern encroachment on a person’s sense of sexual safety and invasion of a person’s space. This type of behavior may include a physical intrusion, such as “accidentally” brushing against someone in a sexual manner, but often does not involve actual touch. Sexual jokes, catcalls and whistles, leering at a sexual body part, and making sexual comments are all invasions of sexual space. Some argue that such behavior by men is actually complimentary to women, and frequently those who speak up by identifying such behavior as degrading and disrespectful are labeled as vindictive feminists, jealous, or too serious. Comments such as “Lighten up, it’s a just a joke” reflect this view. Sexual assault activists argue that this type of commentary sends a message condoning harassment and also contributes to silencing bystanders who seek to intervene. According to some activists, unwanted sexual touch is the first point on the sexual violence continuum. This is a point at which gender role messages conflict with sexual safety. In most social settings, men receive positive messages with regard to engaging in such behavior in a public setting, and women are often acutely aware of the message that it is not acceptable to embarrass a man. Often, if a woman rebuff s the initial stages of sexual touching, this results in both the woman and the man being viewed negatively in a social context.

Sexual Assault Prevention: Responses to Violence against Women

Traditional sexual assault prevention programs focus on risk reduction strategies for women and girls, teaching them how to avoid situations in which sexual assault is likely to occur based on knowledge of risk factors. However, some argue that risk reduction programs inherently carry a biased view, namely that victims can prevent sexual assault if they simply learn to behave in the “right way.” Therefore more recent strategies involve addressing men’s socialization processes as well. Literature on engaging men in rape prevention activities focuses clearly on how essential it is to appeal to men as bystanders, not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators (Katz 2001). In order for bystanders to intervene, they must understand the dynamics and risks of sexual violence, have empathy for the devastating impact of sexual violence on victims, and have the skills and confi dence to intervene. In social situations, many young people report feeling uncomfortable when they notice a woman who is the target of sexual attention that appears to be unwanted, but they also report feeling embarrassed at the reaction of their peers if they intervene (Warshaw 1994). Men’s love and care for the women in their lives can be a powerful tool in building empathy. And it is men who are “embedded in peer culture” with other men and who are in the most influential position to intervene (Katz 2001, 7). Additionally, activists point out that we cannot challenge the systemic oppression of patriarchy, men’s entitlement and privilege, and violence as acceptable without engaging men. According to Katz, “as empowered bystanders, men can interrupt attitudes in other men that may lead to violence. They can respond to incidents of violence or harassment before, during or after the fact. They can model healthy relationships and peaceful conflict resolution” (Katz 2001, 7). Teaching men to intervene at the earlier stages of the sexual violence continuum, especially at the social norms and individual belief systems stages, will result in preventing sexual assaults from occurring.


Viewed through the lens of the sexual violence continuum, it can be seen that there is a clear connection between sexism, social norms that condone violence and the transgression of sexual boundaries, gender role socialization messages to men and women, and sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. According to this model, intervention at the initial stages will prevent the later stages (sexual violence). Ultimately, though, sexual assault activists argue that sexual violence will end only when it becomes completely intolerable in society. Owing to long-held beliefs in men’s innate sex drive and women’s innate desire to be protected, conquered, or gazed upon, debates on how to address rape and sexual harassment will surely continue. Whereas some observers believe that the federal government should support sexual assault initiatives, others believe that only state or local governments or the private sector should be held responsible for addressing these behaviors. This reveals how difficult it is to legally address behaviors that we are socialized to see as naturally emanating from biology rather than from our social environments, although of course sexual assault activists have worked hard to change these beliefs.

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