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The psychology behind women’s ‘old school’ thinking on sexual harassment and assault

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.). (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

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In the wake of the many allegations of sexual harassment, coercion and violence leveled against movie impresario and large-scale Democratic Party donor Harvey Weinstein, the question of what the country should do about men like him has become standard fare. But when a Texas television reporter asked Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) last week what might be necessary, she offered what she later described as an “old school” prescription.

“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as it was a man’s — how you were dressed, what your behavior was,” said Johnson, 81, a longtime member of Congress. “I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting. It can be interpreted as such. That’s the responsibility, I think, of the female. I think that males have a responsibility to be professional themselves.”

Johnson’s ideas may strike some as antediluvian, disconnected from the zeitgeist that created #MeToo. But as outrageous or outmoded as her comments may seem, she is not an outlier. Since the Weinstein scandal became public, fashion designer Donna Karan, 69 and actress Mayim Bialik, 41, also have made public comments suggesting that women can head off these problems by making themselves less alluring, checking and curtailing anything in their carriage and demeanor that invites the attention of men.

There is a significant share of Americans who believe that the problems of sexual assault and harassment can be readily addressed by personal change among women. And many of the people who think this way are themselves women.

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Consider Karan’s initial public comments after a red carpet reporter asked her about Weinstein: “You look at . . . how women are dressing and, you know, what they’re asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.”

Karan has since apologized.

There are a variety of reasons that these ideas persist, said Sherry Hamby, editor of the journal Psychology of Violence and a research professor in psychology at the University of the South. In the United States, a patriarchal society co-exists with an abiding belief that hard work and initiative are the biggest influences on one’s life and what happens in it. That logic makes many Americans prone to what social psychologists call the “just-world illusion,” Hamby said, or the comforting idea that bad things happen to bad people and that all danger can be avoided with prudence. That’s a dressed-up form of victim-blaming that makes people feel less vulnerable in an unpredictable world, Hamby said.

“These are classic examples of what people say and think when they really fear falling prey to the terrible possibilities that exist in this world,” she said. “At some level, they know that bad things do happen to very good people.”

It may seem paradoxical, but just-world thinking sometimes makes people who have themselves been victimized and those who feel most vulnerable to it less likely to be sympathetic to others who have been assaulted or harassed. There’s evidence of this phenomenon in the outcome of the 2016 election.

The majority of white women — 52 percent — voted for Donald Trump. They did so despite a widely publicized tape which includes the president bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without consequence.

In her Oct. 13 New York Times op-ed, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World,” Bialik wrote of the alleged inevitability of terrible male behavior under certain conditions.

“I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise,” she wrote.” I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

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Bialik has since said that the essay wasn’t intended to blame victims or put off the work of dismantling the patriarchy. It was an attempt to speak about the reality of operating in a sexist world.

Just-world delusions can render people less willing to insist on social and cultural changes, Hamby said, and they can prompt people to cling to ostensible protective measures that have no actual effect. Predators seek to exploit power differentials, targeting people who may be less likely to be believed, to be heard or to speak. They work to convince their victims that reporting will be damaging or dangerous.

Put another way, women wearing turtlenecks and thermals are no safer than women wearing tank tops.

In 2010, a University of California survey of 150 women working in that state’s agricultural fields found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers, supervisors or landowners. Some also reported rapes and assault. Sexual assault and harassment remain issues in uniformed industries such as the military and fast-food restaurants.

“My initial reaction was, when I heard the congresswoman’s comments, I think, surprise,” said Danielle L. McGuire, a historian and author of “At the Dark End of the Street,” a book about the history of sexual violence perpetrated against black women in the United States and acts of resistance.

“I couldn’t help but think about all the many older African American women who could not do anything to protect themselves from sexual predators who took advantage of the way that race works to make some people more important, some people more believable,” McGuire said.

In 1944, when Johnson was a child, a black woman on her way from a church revival in Alabama — and dressed accordingly — was kidnapped and raped by a group of white men who admitted to the crime but were never convicted. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who had escaped a rape attempt while working in a white family’s home, investigated Recy Taylor’s case, which circulated in African American communities across the country. In 1959, as Johnson was completing nursing school, another black woman, this time a Florida A&M college student, was raped on her way home from a formal dance. It, too, was a widely circulated story.

Then there were the millions of black women who since arriving in the United States in chains were raped and sexually exploited with such regularity that today the average African American is somewhere between 19 and 29 percent white.

When Johnson spoke with The Washington Post on Thursday, she said she didn’t want to leave the impression that “I didn’t have any sympathy for the victims. I’ve passed legislation and have been known for women’s rights. I’ve reached out and tried to be a guide and be a role model and help young women.”

Johnson’s staff sent a list to reinforce that point. The congresswoman hosts an annual event in Dallas to promote peace and nonviolent conflict resolution as well as a yearly STEM Braintrust that aims to introduce boys and girls of color to science and technology careers. She is a member of congressional caucuses for women’s issues as well as black women and girls. Johnson, a pro-choice lawmaker, has been a consistent supporter of the Affordable Care Act and backed the Violence Against Women Act.

But Johnson also repeated her essential argument. Growing up, “I was taught that you had as much responsibility to protect yourself and you have to carry yourself in such a way to defend yourself from this kind of thing,” Johnson said.

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