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What Does Being a Man's 'Type' Have to Do With Harassment and Rape?

President Donald Trump recently defended himself against an accusation of rape by saying the accuser wasn't his type. How much does attraction play into sexual harassment and assault?
President Donald Trump walks to reporters before leaving the White House for the G20 summit on June 26th, 2019.

President Donald Trump walks to reporters before leaving the White House for the G20 summit on June 26th, 2019.

Last week, the writer E. Jean Carroll became the 22nd woman, at least, to accuse President Donald Trump of sexual harassment or assault. In an excerpt from her upcoming book, published in New York, Carroll describes running into Trump in a Bergdorf's department store in the 1990s, and then going with him into a dressing room, after he suggested it. Once in the room, Trump pushed her against the wall and raped her, before she was able to shove him off and flee, she writes.

In response, Trump laid out a singular defense in an interview with the Hill. "I'll say it with great respect: No. 1, she's not my type," he said. "No. 2, it never happened."

Trump's "not my type" remark suggests he wouldn't have assaulted Carroll because he wasn't attracted to her. It brings to mind a long-standing hypothesis about sexual harassment: that it's the result of natural, biological urges, particularly among men who are attracted to women. But over the past few decades, many studies have shown that sexual harassment often isn't about attraction. Instead, it's a reaction, from some men, to women who seem threatening: because they have personality traits that seem masculine, such as being assertive or ambitious; because they say they plan to compete with men; because the men have been reminded that women can sometimes be better than men.

Several clever experiments have illuminated those motivations for sexual harassment.

In the mid-2000s, Jennifer Berdahl, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, surveyed 175 undergraduates, 98 women and 77 men. Her survey questions determined how many traditionally feminine and masculine traits the students had, such as being affectionate and gentle (considered feminine) or ambitious and dominant (considered masculine). The questions also asked how often the students had had potentially harassing experiences—like hearing sexist jokes, having someone pursue them romantically despite efforts to put them off, or being mistreated after turning down a date—that stressed them out.

Berdahl found that "masculine" women tended to have the most stressful harassing experiences. That flies in the face of the idea that men harass women they're attracted to, Berdahl writes in a paper, published in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. One would expect traditionally feminine women to be the most widely attractive to a random sample of university students, but Berdahl thinks that, in these cases, the harassment was about threats to the harassers' identity. "[W]omen who violate traditional gender norms are natural targets—they've stepped out of line, into men's 'turf,' and needed to be reminded of who they are," she writes in an email. She notes that men who seem to threaten norms may be similarly harassed.

Berdahl replicated her findings via 238 surveys she got back from members of several unions, who worked in manufacturing and city government. Most survey-takers were in their 40s. Among them, too, women with more traditionally masculine traits saw the most harassment.

In another study, researchers invited 80 male students and recent graduates of the University of Padova in Italy to chat online and exchange photos with "Stefano" and "Marta"—actually avatars the researchers controlled. Marta introduced herself in one of two ways: as either an education student who was hoping for a career that would leave plenty of time for family, and who had switched her major from law because she didn't think she could compete with men; or an economics student who dreamed of being a bank manager, believed she could compete with male students, and volunteered for a women's rights organization in her free time.

During the chat, Stefano would begin to harass Marta, sending her soft-core, and then hard-core, pornographic images. Marta would protest: "What does this have to do with the experiment?" "This photo is offensive!" but Stefano would encourage the study participant to join him: "Why don't you send her one from the same file?" (The participants had access to 110 photos on their computer, ranging from nature pics to porn.)

Study participants were more likely to send pornographic images to feminist Marta than traditional Marta. They were also more likely to send porn to Marta when researchers had told them, at the very beginning, that women are typically better at memorizing photos than men, setting the men up to feel threatened.

Critically, these experiments measure harassment, not assault or rape. Rape is rarer than harassment, and more difficult to study. But the two types of behavior might be linked. In a classic survey, Illinois State University psychologist John Pryor found that male undergraduates who say they would theoretically take advantage of quid pro quo sexual harassment—Have sex with me, and I'll get you that big contract—are also more likely to say they would rape someone, if they knew they could get away with it.

All this is not to say that sexual harassment, assault, and rape never have anything to do with attraction. A series of studies Pryor worked on found that, in the minds of some men, power is linked to sex. In one study, published in 1995, researchers subconsciously primed male undergraduates to think about power, by flashing words like "boss" on a screen, too briefly for the men to consciously process them. Afterward, the study participants were supposed to find and read aloud words on a screen that could have to do with sexuality, such as "bed" and "date." For some men, getting the power prompt helped them to answer faster.

In the same study, seeing a power prime also made some men rate a woman in the room with them as more attractive. Which men? Those who had answered on surveys that they would harass and rape, if they could. In other words, given power, some men who have harmful tendencies and beliefs will turn that into a sexual drive.

So does a woman not being a man's "type" keep her from being assaulted by him? Not necessarily. It may make her even more vulnerable, if she breaks gender norms in certain ways.

Does attraction play a role in harassment and assault? It may, sometimes, insofar as having power creates a sense of attraction in some.

Feminists have long said that sexual violation is about power, not sex. These studies back up that idea: In every one, harassment and assault seem to result from power, or the apparent loss of it.