Helping Responses by Indirect Bystanders of Coercive Sexual Harassment in Academia: Friendship Status With Source of Information
Coercive sexual harassment (CSH) by faculty is a risk factor for women in higher education. Bystander intervention and support for a victim are critical. Social networks can influence peers’ social reactions to victims of sexual violations. This is the first study to explore the responses of peers who learn about CSH of a peer indirectly, thus becoming indirect bystanders. In this scenario, a peer classmate learns of CSH of a classmate from another classmate who witnessed the CSH. The 181 participants (52.8% female) were randomly assigned to one of four conditions where a written vignette described an interaction between the instructor faculty member and a student; the interchange involved either moderate or severe CSH (severity). The peer informant who witnessed the CSH and shared the information with the potential indirect bystander was described as either a close friend in the same class or only a classmate (friendship status). The vignette was followed by a series of items with Likert-type scales that measured cognitive appraisals (offensiveness of interaction, harm to victim, the believability of information, personal responsibility to act), emotional reactions (fears of negative consequences for taking action, emotional reactions to perpetrator and victim), and behavioral intentions (helping peer victim, social responses to victim, behaviors towards professor/perpetrator). Results indicated that the severity of CSH was a critical factor in cognitive appraisals and both positive emotional reactions to the victim and negative emotions towards the perpetrator. Yet, the main effects for the severity of CSH were moderated by friendship status of the informant: when the source was a close friend in the moderate CSH condition, participants were more likely to act to support the victim, less likely to avoid/exclude the victim, and more likely to avoid/exclude the professor than when the source of the information was simply a classmate. Results support training programs that focus on peer social networks as sources of deterrence and enhanced support regarding SH.