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The Psychology of How People Can Commit Sexual Misconduct

Why Risk of Misconduct is Higher Than Many Assume

The Big Picture

Awareness of sexual assault and misconduct is at an all-time high, but confusion on the issue remains. You might even say divisiveness on the subject has increased.

I believe the problem now is not a lack of awareness; it’s a lack of understanding. People are aware sexual assault and misconduct happen, but awareness does not mean understanding the complexity of these issues in important ways.

But how is it possible that a good person could commit sexual misconduct? I want to help demystify the confusing issue of sexual misconduct by answering this important question.

I recognize the problems with referring to a person responsible for sexual misconduct as “good,” but until people understand how an otherwise decent person could rationalize sexually violating behavior, confusion will remain, and proactive efforts will be under-valued, simplistic, or misguided.

Understanding sexual misconduct starts with understanding two critical concepts:

Critical Concept 1: It does not take violence for a person to be violated.
A person does not need to commit extreme violence or even an act of force to cause harm. There are many ways people can cause serious harm by violating the basic boundaries of others.

Critical Concept 2: Most sexual misconduct is committed by a “regular” person.
We naturally try to keep predators and pathological people out of our businesses and communities, but that is only one type of person who could violate another person sexually. Most disturbing experiences and trauma are caused by a “regular” person who rationalizes or justifies their actions.

What does this mean for you?

It means the risk of harmful behavior is not about whether a deviant, violent predator is in your midst. The real risk is based on psychological factors that are human tendencies in otherwise decent people.

Key Understanding: *Most of this thinking happens instantaneously and unconsciously.

5 human tendencies that explain why risk is higher than many leaders assume:

01

People Compare with Worse to Make their Actions Seem Better

There is always a more extreme behavior to compare our actions against to make ourselves feel better. This is a big problem because most harmful interpersonal interactions are not stereotypically violent. Comments, non-verbal communication, inferences, non-violent touching, unethical use of a smartphone, and actions with a person incapacitated from alcohol or another drug are just some of the “non-violent” ways one person could cause a disturbing experience for another.

02

People Blame Someone or Something Else for Their Behavior

People tend to justify negative behavior by blaming it on the other person or on something else. Some people can feel entitled to be less careful of their words and actions when they are experiencing strong emotions, such as anger or attraction. That internal pull guides their behavior in a certain direction and their mind rationalizes why it’s okay.

03

People Minimize or Deny the Effects of Their Actions or Words

Humans are not good at accurately perceiving the impact their words or actions can have on another person. It is too uncomfortable to think about the pain of others, especially if we caused it. Therefore, people either do not think of that person’s painful experience, or they convince themselves that what happened is not a big deal.

04

People Feel Less Responsible for Their Choices than They Are

There are many ways people feel not responsible for their choices. This contributes to them not monitoring their own behavior like they would if they felt fully responsible. For example, a person can also misplace responsibility in personal relationships. Rather than owning the moral responsibility to not make someone uncomfortable, they might operate as if it’s the other person's responsibility to either tolerate their behavior or convince them to stop. These four tendencies are a very brief summary of Albert Bandura’s framework of moral disengagement, which explains how otherwise decent people can do harm and live with themselves, or sometimes not even comprehend the effects of their actions.

05

People Prefer Denial and Self-Identity Protection

People like to view themselves as good, decent, and moral. They don’t view themselves as “harassers” or “abusive," so they feel defensive or that training on these issues is not relevant to them. They either tune out or become resistant and mock the training and messaging on those issues. Cognitive dissonance is the explanation for this tendency. Leon Festinger proposed in 1957 that our brains don’t like to hold two competing beliefs at the same time. It creates dissonance, which we don’t like, so we often keep our current belief and ignore what could threaten it. This tendency is just one psychological factor that explains why policy education and traditional training has not influenced many of the people who needed to be reached.

And It’s Worse than That…

These five human tendencies are only a small selection of the ways people can have moral and ethical disconnects that affect their decision-making and behavior.

Common sense assumptions and typical training do not do well against the complexity of human decision-making.

Traditional training on sexual misconduct is based on what people assume should work, but human beings are more complicated than that. To paraphrase Dr. Robert Long, people design most training as if human beings are rational. And we know from both science and experience that people often do not behave rationally.

Informing people is easy, but influencing behavior requires a more strategic approach.

We understand the complexity of this issue.

At Culture Strength, we know you care about your people and community. And we understand these issues are confusing and complex. Many leaders are unsure of what more to do.

You shouldn’t have to rely on guesswork or assumptions. There is too much at stake.

If you are a campus or school administrator, business leader, or part of the U.S. military, we provide a no-fee call and consultation to discuss your current approach, concerns, and options for training or consulting.

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