What does COVID-19 transmission have in common with sexism and harassment? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Take two, apparently isolated incidents. First, a male employee scoffs after a female colleague tells him that he frequently stands close to her and touches her arm. She asks him to stop because it makes her uncomfortable. “I’m just trying to be friendly,” he says. Second, a university student reacts angrily after a nearby classmate comments that his COVID-19 mask has slipped below his nose. She asks him to pull it back up because she’s worried about contracting COVID-19. “I’m just trying to breathe,” he says.
On the surface, these two anecdotes have little in common – one involves an instance of potential workplace sexual harassment, the other an instance of risky COVID-19-related behavior. Yet, sexual harassment and COVID-19 behaviors share several things in common. For instance, men are more likely than women to perpetrate both. The links between masculinity and sexual harassment behaviors have long been established in harassment research. In a parallel development, new research on COVID-19 has revealed similar gender disparities in risk prevention behaviors. Research suggests that men report being less willing to wear masks and social distance than women, and they are more likely to discount the risks of COVID-19 than women. In addition, men who self-identify as more “masculine” also report higher rates of COVID-19 infection.
It’s possible that gendered patterns in COVID-19 behaviors may simply reflect pre-existing gender differences in both risk perception and health behaviors. In general, men tend to judge multiple types of risk as lower than women, a phenomenon dubbed the “white male effect.” Men are also less likely than women to seek out preventative medical care. These factors likely influence COVID-19 behaviors among men specifically.
On average, men are more likely than women to feel comfortable invading others’ space, despite possible risk and/or discomfort to others. Just as this level of comfort affects their interactions with others’ personal space, it also affects their behaviors related to others’ health. It’s not a simple coincidence that prominent figures accused of sexual harassment also seem to be notable culprits of “mask-slipping.”
However, there are several unique dynamics at play with regard to COVID-19 that are difficult to ignore. Some of these dynamics mirror those underlying sexual harassment. Unlike many other healthcare decisions, the risk and harm of COVID-19 extend beyond the individual. Because of its high rate of transmission, COVID-19 introduces additional interpersonal and societal considerations that involve the complex assessment of both our own and others’ safety, comfort and boundaries. Individuals must consistently monitor their movements and navigate through shared spaces. Considerate individuals may repeatedly evaluate how their own behavior is impacting others. For instance, they may ask themselves: “Am I making this person uncomfortable by standing too close to them, even though I might be comfortable?” or “How might this person’s boundaries differ from my own?” As we know from sexual harassment research, many men may have different understandingsthan women of what constitutes appropriate interpersonal behavior.
Unwanted touching or leering is often rationalized as simply men “expressing themselves,” “being friendly,” or “just being the way they are.” However, such behavior is another instance in which many men can move about the world and interact with others with little consideration for their impact on others. On average, men are more likely than women to feel comfortable invading others’ space, despite possible risk and/or discomfort to others. Just as this level of comfort affects their interactions with others’ personal space, it also affects their behaviors related to others’ health. It’s not a simple coincidence that prominent figures accused of sexual harassment also seem to be notable culprits of “mask-slipping.”
Given these theoretical similarities between entitlement in sexual harassment and in COVID-19 transmission, we hypothesized that we would see a link between sexism and harassment perpetration with COVID-19 behaviors and attitudes (Adams-Clark & Freyd, under review). New research conducted in our lab reveals strong links between male role adherence, hostile sexism, sexual harassment perpetration, and COVID-19 behaviors and attitudes. We recently conducted two studies of these relationships among undergraduate students at a large public university in the Pacific Northwest during the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 academic terms (also see this article for additional findings from the same samples). In our COVID-19 studies, we measured both students’ past week-compliance with university COVID-19 safety policies (e.g., completing symptom self-checks, wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining social distance) and their attitudinal support for these policies (e.g., belief that we should prioritize the prevention of COVID-19).
Interestingly, participants’ general rule-breaking history (e.g., past instances of physical aggression, vandalism, drug use), only modestly correlated with COVID-19 behaviors or attitudes. However, there were strikingly high correlations between hostile sexism (e.g., believing women seek to gain power by controlling men, feminists are asking for too much) and COVID-19 behaviors and attitudes, as well as a correlation between COVID-19 behaviors and lifetime sexual harassment perpetration, particularly among men (see Figure 1 & 2; see below). Those who reported higher sexual harassment perpetration reported lower past-week compliance with COVID-19 rules, even when statistically accounting for their attitudes about COVID-19 regulations, political beliefs, prior rule-breaking histories, and antisocial personality characteristics.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that sexism or sexual harassment causes someone to engage in risky behaviors related to COVID-19. However, it does suggest that similar overarching attitudes or beliefs may underly both types of “boundary-crossing” behaviors. Uncovering the mechanisms underlying these two behaviors will not be simple, as they are likely intertwined with larger societal forces of power, privilege and entitlement that shape many behaviors in society. What we do know is that both phenomena seem to implicate questions of respect for others’ space, access and comfort. Such considerations have historically been, at best, an afterthought by the most powerful. Confronting that entitlement may help create safer spaces by creating and enforcing boundaries related to personal space and health.
Alexis Adams-Clark is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Oregon studying trauma and sexual violence. Jennifer J. Freyd is professor emerit [not a typo] in psychology at the University of Oregon, adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine and faculty fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and founder and president of the Center for Institutional Courage.