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Psychological Factors in Sexual Harassment

Assessment of Emotional Factors in Sexual Harassment - In personal injury cases, there is usually physical trauma, in addition to emotional trauma, but in sexual harassment cases, the most significant harm to the individual is psychological. There are other damages, such as loss of job or promotional opportunities, loss of pay for days not worked, and damage to reputation, but the psychological impact of sexual harassment can be very severe and sometimes permanent.

While psychologists may offer an opinion regarding the connection between a traumatic event and emotional injury in an accident, that is less clear in sexual harassment. The emotional trauma experienced by the victim of sexual harassment is based on perceptions about the behavior of others by the victim. Psychologists are not qualified to determine if sexual harassment took place, because that is a legal question, not a psychological one. However, psychologists can offer an opinion regarding whether a particular action by one individual can reasonably lead to emotional distress in another individual. Most of the time, psychologists are asked to evaluate victims of sexual harassment to assess whether they are exhibiting any psychological distress, and whether that distress appears to be related to specific events on the part of another person. The court must then decide whether those actions were appropriate or legal.

Are we splitting hairs? Some individuals misinterpret harmless, reasonable behavior as malicious and specifically directed at themselves. Diagnostically this is called ideas of reference. This would suggest an individual with some type of psychological problem who overreacts to reasonable behavior because of their own perception of the world and the other person. This often occurs in individuals with personality disorders, paranoid disorders, or other psychological problems that might involve delusions or extreme exaggerations of negative events in their lives. Therefore, psychological evaluations in sexual harassment cases also focus on the expectations of the victim, and whether the victim presents with psychological symptoms which result in exaggerated negative conclusions about others.

For example, a person's boss is of a different sex than the person. The worker believes that the boss is sexist and discriminates against the worker's sex. The worker requests to work on a specific project, but is not chosen. The worker assumes the choice was based on sexist behavior, rather than merit or chance. The worker experiences a number of events like this over time, and feels harassed because of it, resulting in depression. Is this sexual harassment? The answer depends on many factors, such as alternative reasons for not selecting the worker, whether the worker was selected positively on other occasions, whether other individuals had credentials which led to choosing them instead, and whether other individuals of the same sex as the worker experienced similar problems and perceptions.

Psychologists are experts in human behavior. In addition to evaluating the presence or absence of psychological disorders, psychologists may also offer opinions regarding whether a person's expectations are reasonable, based on the circumstances. Many psychological problems result when we expect people to treat us in an unrealistically positive way. These cases are not clear cut, because they are not based solely on the identification of a psychological problem. Ultimately, the court will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude that sexual harassment took place.

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