Ask an Expert: Zoe Peterson discusses America’s reckoning with sexual assault and harassment

by | Dec 15, 2017

In this Q&A series, UMSL Daily connects with subject-matter experts from across the university on newsworthy topics.
Zoe Peterson

Zoe Peterson, an associate professor of psychological sciences at UMSL, serves as the director of the Sexual Assault Research and Education Program. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The country seems to be engaged in a national moment of reckoning as prominent men in film, comedy, journalism, dining and politics have faced allegations of sexual harassment and assault, their actions bringing them disgrace and in some cases costing them careers.

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and Russell Simmons are just some of the prominent people who’ve been implicated on a list that is growing by the day.

Zoe Peterson, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, researches gender and human sexuality with a specific focus on issues surrounding sexual assault and serves as the director of the Sexual Assault Research and Education program. UMSL Daily spoke with her about harassment and assault, society’s longtime tolerance of both and how she sees that changing in the current moment.

How would you describe the link between harassment and assault since they’re not exactly the same thing?

That’s complicated. I think if we talk about a college campus context, the way that they’re defined under Title IX is the same. Sexual assault is part of a Title IX violation and is an extreme form of sexual harassment. But I think clearly unwanted comments, although potentially very upsetting, are not the same as experiencing sexual assault. So I think that this really is a continuum. I think all acts of sexual harassment and assault are related, and I think they can all have a negative impact, but I think it is important to think of it as a continuum.

How has society’s seeming tolerance for harassment contributed to the problem of assault?

Obviously, this is a problem that’s been around for many, many decades. In fact, it has probably been around forever, but we have only been studying it for the last five or six decades. Until relatively recently, this hasn’t gotten much attention. Certainly in the past and still somewhat today, I think when victims do come forward about either harassment or assault, often they’re questioned or not believed or blamed. That understandably influences victims’ willingness to come forward. If victims don’t come forward, that means that perpetrators don’t get prosecuted or punished, and it also means that the problem remains invisible. People are not aware of how frequently it is occurring because they’re not hearing about it from the people that it’s happening to.

What are the primary focuses of your research?

I do research both on victims’ experiences of sexual assault and the correlates of perpetration. In terms of victims, I’m really interested in how victims cognitively conceptualize their sexual experience and how that then impacts their reactions to the experience. For example, research suggests that probably at least half of women who had an experience that meets the legal definition of sexual assault don’t think about their experience as rape or sexual assault. They might think about it just as a bad sexual experience or miscommunication or a mistake, but they don’t recognize that they’ve actually been a victim of this particular crime. I’m really interested in what influences that and what helps women to recognize that it is sexual assault – and then what impact that has on their recovery following sexual assault.

I started out studying women, but actually, this is true of male victims as well. Male victims often don’t recognize that what has happened to them does qualify as sexual assault or rape.

Then in terms of perpetrators, I really think that there’s still so much we don’t understand. More recently I’ve been focusing my research program largely on perpetration of sexual assault and the correlates of that and how can we effectively measure it so that we can learn about the correlates and motives. Obviously in order to study sexual assault, you have to be able to identify who are the people who’ve perpetrated this, which is a challenge.

How important is it, as we think about actually solving the problem, to deal with that side of it – the perpetrator side – as opposed to just focusing on victims?

When we look at prevention programs, most in the past have been focused on victim risk reduction, so teaching women ways to change their behavior to reduce their risk. I think that there’s some value in that, but it depends on the messages we’re giving them.

Back in the ’80s and early ’90s when people were first starting prevention programs, often the messages around risk reduction were not very helpful. They were based on a lot of stereotypes – like don’t walk alone at night, avoid isolated locations. We know that most women are raped by people they know, so avoiding strangers in the dark alley isn’t going to protect most women.

Now that we’re wiser about the context of sexual assault, I think some of the risk reduction trainings are useful – teaching women how to respond if they’re in a dangerous situation with a perpetrator. But I also think we don’t want to give the message that women are responsible for protecting themselves from this crime, so I think it’s important to think about perpetrator behavior.

There’s been a move to bystander intervention as a way to address this issue. The idea is that often when there’s a sexual assault there are other people around who witness what is leading up to the assault, if not the assault itself. There’s been a lot of work to train people to intervene and stop those. I think that is really useful, but again, the focus still isn’t on the people who are actually doing the behavior.

I think in part that’s just because we don’t know how to intervene with the people who actually engage in the behavior. I really hold out hope that there are ways to intervene that we might be able to change at least some men’s sexually aggressive behavior and some women’s sexually aggressive behavior because some women are sexually aggressive. I think we need more research on how to possibly do that.

What are the biggest misconceptions that people still have?

People are a lot more informed than they used to be. I think because of some of the political and media attention on sexual assault, people are less likely to believe some of the myths. But I think people still do blame the victim. I hope it’s beginning to get better as more victims come forward. But I think one thing that some people still believe that is not fully supported in the literature is this idea that the perpetrators of these acts are deranged sociopaths – that they really are very different from other people. I think that’s potentially a dangerous myth, this idea that people who rape are these monsters, because I think it’s actually a more widespread problem than that myth would suggest. If we focus on perpetrators as these individual monsters, then we’re kind of ignoring the broader social problem.

You were quoted a couple months ago in a news story about Donna Karan referring to the way women dress in a defense of Harvey Weinstein. Do you feel like that sort of thinking is becoming less prevalent?

That’s hard to say. I think there has been some progress. I think people are less likely to reference the way a woman was dressed or reference her past sexual behavior as a way to blame her. And yet, it is still the case that when there are these high-profile cases, there are always a few people who come out publicly and make these sort of victim-blaming claims. These beliefs are hard to combat because I think they’re comforting. If men believe these victim-blaming myths, they feel safer because they can say, “Oh, the men who perpetrated this behavior are not so bad. They were just prompted into it by the woman’s own inappropriate behavior.” And it makes women feel safer. “If I behave correctly, then I’m safe from experiencing these kinds of things.” Because they are comforting to people, I think these myths are hard to completely get rid of.

What do you make of this moment that society is in?

I think it’s remarkable and really positive. I’ve studied this for a long time, and there has never been the kind of interest in this topic that there has been recently. I think it’s sort of a series of events that have caused it. My sense is that the media attention on sexual harassment and sexual assault started around some of the Obama administration’s action around campus sexual assault. They issued a Dear Colleague letter in 2011 that really instructed universities to take a more active, aggressive response to campus sexual assault, and that seemed to promote media attention on the problem and create public awareness that has continued even beyond that political action. That helped to set the stage for some of the attention and awareness about sexual harassment that’s happened more recently. Maybe because of all that, more victims have been coming forward and have been more comfortable and confident and have, I think, been believed more than victims typically have in the past. All of those things were interacting to create this current moment.

Are you optimistic that the level of awareness is going to help actually bring about some lasting change?

I really am. I do feel optimistic. I think people are more informed about the issue than they’ve ever been, and that can only be good.

Are you concerned that there will be a backlash with so many prominent men being brought down by allegations these past few months?

I have thought about that, and it is concerning, and I think it’s likely. I think whenever there is a big shift in public awareness and public perception around an issue, there is backlash in response to that. So I think that will happen, and I think you can already see the seeds of it. So many more victims are coming out, and I think being believed more than before, but we still hear those skeptical voices and the people who are kind of pushing back against those claims. I think that will inevitably happen. If we think about this in the context of the history of feminism, that certainly has happened many times in the past. Women make increased strides, and then there’s this kind of pushback. But I do think that ultimately gains are still made.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens
Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.