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Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature Essay


Available literature demonstrates that sexual harassment is a widespread and incorrigible problem among women in institutions of higher learning, though men are also sexually harassed and assaulted (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2009). These authors report that sexual assault and harassment of college women require closer scrutiny, as between 20 percent and 25 percent of women studying in these institutions are raped during the course of their college life, and between 2 percent and 3 percent of college women experience forcible rape in the course of an academic year. The present paper attempts to review and synthesize relevant literature on the social dynamics of sexual assault and harassment.

A number of studies have been conducted to illuminate the reasons why sexual assault and harassment among college women are on the increase, with several of them categorizing the reasons under three main groups namely developmental and socialization dynamics, beliefs and personality factors, and situational characteristics (e.g., Jozkowski, Peterson, Sanders, Dennis, & Reece, 2014; Krebs et al., 2009; Warkentin & Gidycz, 2007). The present paper will utilize these categorizations or perspectives in comparing and contrasting available literature on the topic of sexual assault and harassment. Although the studies reviewed were conducted to answer various gaps in the sexual assault and harassment literature, the focus of this review will be on college women.

Literature Review and Synthesis

Developmental and Socialization Factors

According to Warkentin and Gidycz (2007), “developmental and socialization factors encompass such areas as membership in an all-male group and degree of pornography usage” (p. 829). In their study, Warkentin and Gidycz (2007) found that members of all-male groups and athletic teams are more likely to use the prestige associated with their positions or teams to not only perpetuate acts of sexual assault and harassment, but also to support beliefs that appear to advocate for rape and aggression of women.

This view is reinforced by Wuensch and Moore (2014), who found that physically attractive individuals can engage in sexual assault and harassment and still get away in a court of law owing to the fact that society views physically attractive people more favorably and physically unattractive people more unfavorably. When the context is changed to women in college, this particular finding explains how physically attractive men in college hide behind their looks and group membership to perpetrate sexual assault and harassment against women without necessarily attracting the attention of the administration.

Drawing from the works of Wuensch and Moore (2014), it is evident that society is guided by an erroneous perception that physically attractive people are less likely to engage in acts of sexual aggression than physically unattractive people. These findings assist researchers to understand why college administrators always find it difficult to believe that a physically attractive member of the college athletic team, for example, would sexually harass a physically unattractive female student.

As demonstrated by Warkentin and Gidycz (2007), group membership is also positively associated with a high incidence of sensation seeking, which in turn reinforces the resolve of individuals to engage in sexually aggressive tactics. According to Jozkowski et al (2014), it is in such closely-knit groups where men are socialized into believing that women are powerless and should be there to satisfy men in line with the traditional gender ideology.

In their systematic review, Lindgren, Parkhill, George, and Hendershot (2008) acknowledge that group membership and traditional gender ideologies have continued to play a significant role in perpetrating various misperceptions of sexual intent, as men perceive more sexuality in female targets based on how they have been socialized in a group and how they understand gender roles.

Beliefs and Personality Characteristics

As demonstrated by Warkentin and Gidycz (2007), a substantial number of men still adhere to traditional gender roles and readily accept sexually coercive behaviors demonstrated by others, not mentioning that others demonstrate personality characteristics (e.g., psychopathy and sensation seeking) which are closely related to sexual aggression, leading to increased instances of sexual assault and harassment of women. In their study, Zawacki, Abbey, Buck, McAuslan, and Clinton-Sherrod (2003) used the beliefs and personality perspective to demonstrate that perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment have “stronger histories of delinquency, more aggressive and dominant personalities, and greater engagement in and endorsement of casual sex” (p. 375).

By also revealing that perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment show stronger attitudes in supporting violence against women and an extremely stronger motivation to have sex with women to satisfy their ego, Zawacki et al (2003) findings support theories demonstrating that “perpetrators have antisocial personality traits that are reflected in a general lifestyle of societal transgression, are highly motivated to pursue all sexual encounters, consensual or not, and espouse stereotypes about sex and dating that condone sexual aggression” (p. 375-376).

Situational Characteristics

A number of studies have argued from the perspective that most college women experience sexual assault and harassment in situations involving alcohol, drugs, and significant others. For example, Benson, Gohm, and Gross (2007) found that alcohol use is positively associated with heightened risks of sexual assault, and that most sexual assault and harassment incidences are perpetuated by people close to the victims rather than by strangers. In their study, Krebs et al (2009) reinforce this perception by acknowledging that previous research has demonstrated positive relationships between college women’s alcohol and/or drug use and the risk of sexual assault, though only a few studies have investigated the various means by which sexual assault or harassment is perpetuated in alcohol-related cases.

Available literature on alcohol and sexual harassment has raised pertinent issues on whether alcohol is really to blame for the increasing incidences of rape and other forms of social aggression perpetrated against women in college. For example, while researchers (e.g., Krebs et al, 2009) are in agreement that most sexual assaults occur after women voluntarily consume alcohol, Warkentin and Gidycz (2007) found that most men who sexually assault or harass women use alcohol as an excuse for their actions and hence end up consuming a lot of it during sexual interactions and during sexual misperceptions of women.

Similarly, in their systematic review, Lindgren et al (2008) found evidence supporting the fact that most alcohol-induced perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment believe strongly in already predetermined misconceptions that alcohol elevates their own sex drive and that a woman’s drinking is a good indication of sexual interest. On their part, Benson et al (2007) found that high intensities of alcohol use are positively correlated with beliefs that alcohol facilitates sex urge, sexual affect as well as vulnerability to sexual coercion, hence giving credence to the argument that most sexual assault or harassment perpetrators use alcohol as bait to provide an enabling environment for the sexual aggression to occur.

Lastly, in dealing with situational characteristics, Benson et al (2007) raise an important issue relating to three constructs, namely alcohol use, sexual assault record, and consensual sexual partners. These authors argue that women who report heavy drinking also report higher incidences of sexual assault record and higher numbers of consensual sexual partners, thus giving credence to the fact that the consensual sexual partners could actually be the ones who violate their drunken victims sexually. Lindgren et al (2008), Warkentin and Gidycz (2007), and Zawacki et al (2003) have all supported the assertion that most women are sexually abused by people they know, and that most of these abuses occur after social events involving alcohol consumption and/or drug use.


This paper has attempted to review existing literature on sexual assault and harassment using three perspectives, namely developmental and socialization dynamics, beliefs and personality aspects, as well as situational factors. All the three perspectives seem to provide viable justifications as to why cases of sexual assault and harassment are on the increase among college women; however, there have been noted counterarguments that need to be carefully investigated to ensure that this issue is successfully resolved.

At best, these dynamics seem to affect and influence each other, hence the need to conduct a careful analysis on how they contribute to sexual assault and harassment. For example, it has been demonstrated how perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment may be using alcohol and/or drugs as a veil to hide their personality deficits and deeply entrenched traditional beliefs. Consequently, in discussing about the social dynamics of sexual assault and harassment propagated against female students in college, it is suggested that the main focus will be on investigating how the three perspectives interrelate to trigger men into sexually assaulting and abusing women in college.


Benson, B.J., Gohm. C.L., & Gross, A.M. (2007). College women and sexual assault: The role of sex-related alcohol expectancies. Journal of Family Violence, 22(6), 341-351.

Jozkowski, K.N., Peterson, J.D., Sanders, S.A., Dennis, B., & Reece, M. (2014). Gender differences in heterosexual college students’ conceptualizations and indicators of sexual prevention program. Journal of Sex Research, 51(8), 904-916.

Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2009). College women’s experiences with physically forced, alcohol- or drug-enabled, and drug facilitated sexual assault before and since entering college. Journal of American College Health, 57(6), 639-647.

Lindgren, K.P., Parkhill, M.R., George, W.H., & Hendershot, C.S. (2008). Gender differences in perceptions of sexual intent: A qualitative review and integration. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 423-439.

Warkentin, J.B., & Gidycz, C.A. (2007). The use and acceptance of sexually aggressive tactics in college men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(7), 829-851.

Wuensch, K.L., & Moore, C.H. (2014). Effects of physical attractiveness on evaluations of a male employee’s allegation of sexual harassment b y his female employer. Journal of Social Psychology, 144(2), 207-217.

Zawacki, T., Abbey, A., Buck, P.O., McAuslan, P., & Clinton-Sherrod, M. (2003). Perpetrators of alcohol-involved sexual assault: How do they differ from other perpetrators and nonperpetrators? Aggressive Behavior, 29(2), 366-380.

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"Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature." IvyPanda, 9 July 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/sexual-assault-and-harassment-synthesis-of-literature/.

1. IvyPanda. "Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature." July 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sexual-assault-and-harassment-synthesis-of-literature/.


IvyPanda. "Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature." July 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sexual-assault-and-harassment-synthesis-of-literature/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature." July 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sexual-assault-and-harassment-synthesis-of-literature/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Sexual Assault and Harassment: Synthesis of Literature'. 9 July.

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