Women could learn to cope better with unwanted sexual advances -- or men could stop making them

A new study suggests that some women are naturally better at handling harassment. They shouldn't have to be

Published August 7, 2014 5:06PM (EDT)

       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-281914p1.html'>Ydefinitel</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Ydefinitel via Shutterstock)

Women deal with unwanted sexual advances all the time. An estimated 65 percent of women have experienced some form of street harassment, and a recent report revealed that a majority of teen girls believed sexual assault to be par for the course. To address the issue, groups like Hollaback have taken steps to prevent harassment through education and even legislation. Others have more traditional problem-solving strategies, like telling women just to deal with it.

According to a new study published in the journal Sex Roles, some women are better equipped than others to do exactly that: Shrug off sexual harassment and move on with their lives. Other women, however, might be less resilient, and can internalize guilt for unwanted sexual advances. In other words, sexual objectification of women can cause major psychological problems, leading some females to believe they are to blame for their own harassments or assaults.

The study polled 270 heterosexual young adult women from a Southeastern U.S. university to determine how they cope with sexually oppressive experiences. From the press release:

The findings show that young women experience increased psychological distress when they are being sexually objectified. Women with low resilience are especially vulnerable, and tend to internalize such behavior. Some women feel confused and shameful, and reason that their own inferiority is the cause of such bad experiences. They therefore blame themselves, rather than the perpetrators, and this causes psychological distress.

[The study's authors] surmise that resilient women are more successful at managing adverse experiences because they are able to cope and adapt. They can manage stress and rise above disadvantage. Resilience is both a style of personal functioning and a way in which people ably adapt to stressful situations.

The researchers go on to suggest that the findings might provide a helpful guide to teaching less resilient women how to cope with sexual objectification, which is certainly necessary to help women deal with an unfortunate reality. But it doesn't exactly address how to change that unfortunate reality, so that women -- regardless of their level of personal resilience -- don't have to deal with sexual harassment.

Women are not the only ones who need to understand that objectification is a flawed cultural practice; that's something everyone should learn. While it can help countless individual women to learn not to take such harassment personally, it helps society at large to discuss why harassment needs to be eradicated entirely. Support communities, like the ones the study advocates, are never a bad idea for helping people heal from the damaging effects of rape culture. They don't, however, offer proactive strategies for eliminating sexual objectification, which the researchers see as a necessary added component.

"Psychologists can help their female clients to identify and explore various ways by which they can better cope with sexually oppressive behavior," said Chandra Feltman, a professor at the University of Tennessee and one of the study's authors. "In addition, we need interventions aimed at decreasing individual and cultural practices of sexually objectifying women."

By Jenny Kutner

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