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Herman Cain, Sexual Harassment, And The Perception Gap

Last night, Politico reported some very serious accusations against a very frivolous candidate: While at the helm of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, Herman Cain allegedly sexually harassed two female subordinates, leading to their departure from the organization (along with financial payouts) and an agreement to remain silent about the circumstances thereof. Cain’s initial response was not, politically-speaking, ideal—when confronted by Jonathan Martin, who co-wrote Politico’s piece, he petulantly turned the question around, scowling, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?” The story (which Cain’s campaign now categorically denies) seems destined to unravel into an ugly and protracted “he said-she said.” What do researchers make of these conflicts?

A survey of the literature on perceptions of sexual harassment shows that most scholars would be unsurprised by the explosive nature of these controversies. A 2001 meta-analysis of gender differences in perception of harassment found that across a broad range of actions, from impersonal derogatory statements to overt sexual coercion, there is a small but persistent difference in how men and women perceive harassment. In some studies, researchers found stark differences—for instance, nearly 90 percent of women in one survey considered “sexual touching” to be harassment, but less than 60 percent of men agreed. (At least one study has suggested that men are more likely to see such behavior as flattery.) The gender difference narrowed for more direct forms of harassment, such as sexual coercion. But overall, the scholars concluded, “it is conceivable that a series of behaviors may be perceived as flattery by one group and as harassment by another solely on the basis of one’s value system or how one is socialized.” These gender differences may go a long way in explaining how many harassment cases arise, but it’d probably be unwise for Cain to say he simply had a divergent “value system” than that of his accusers.