Mexican American and Caucasian university students' experience of sexual harassment: the intertwining of power and culture

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Kearney, Lisa Kathryn

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While many studies have examined the sexual harassment of university students, little research has specifically addressed the sexual harassment of Mexican American university students. The main purpose of this study was to gather data about the harassment experiences of Mexican American female students and to investigate how their experiences compared to those of Caucasian female students. In particular, the study investigated students' responses to a subset of variables that illuminate the intertwining of power and culture in the experience of harassment. These variables included: 1) responses to harassing behavior, 2) perceptions of offenders' power, 3) attitudes toward harassment, and 4) the psychological effects of harassment. In accordance with power models of harassment, sex-role spillover theory, and minority marginalization theories, Mexican American students were hypothesized to experience more harassing behaviors, more indirect responses to behavior, attribute greater power to offenders, be more tolerant of harassment, and experience more negative consequences. Mexican American (n=261) and Caucasian female students (n=111) were recruited from three universities, including one university on the border of the United States and Mexico. Participants completed a packet of instruments measuring the frequency of harassing behaviors experienced, perceived power of the offender, attitudes towards harassment, chosen response to harassing behavior, post-traumatic stress and depression symptoms, and acculturation. Contrary to what was predicted, Caucasians reported experiencing more harassing behaviors than Mexican Americans and attributed greater power to offenders holding faculty/staff positions. Mexican Americans endorsed more tolerant attitudes and attributed greater power to student offenders. Both groups reported similar levels of negative psychological consequences and chose more indirect response styles. Acculturation was not found to be significantly associated with any factors. Rather than supporting minority vulnerability theories, these findings are more consistent with theories that view sexual harassment as a means of exhibiting and maintaining power. Recent research indicates that more egalitarian women experience greater harassment than traditional women. Since Caucasian women in the United States generally hold more egalitarian views of gender roles than Hispanic women, Caucasian university women may experience more harassing behaviors as a method of decreasing their power in society. Implications of these findings are discussed.