Sexual Harassment, Social Norms and Creative Writing: An Interview with Melissa Burkley Ph.D.

There has been a flurry of sexual assault and sexual harassment claims recently, with more and more disgraced public figures coming to light in the past month. I only have to mention certain celebrities’ names – Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K, Terry Crews – and many many others, for you to realize the sheer magnitude of developing narratives and stories. More and more people are coming forward with their stories, not least of all due to the incredible success of the #MeToo campaign.

Melissa Burkley Ph.D received her doctoral degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For over a decade, she has worked as a professor conducting research on sexism, racism and social interactions. Additionally, she has authored various chapters for several of the “Psychology of…” series, including the Psychology of Twilight, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Dexter. She has also co-authored a motivation book, “Motivation Science”, published by Pearson.

After reading a couple of her articles on Psychology Today, namely ‘Are Men Socialized to Prey on Women?’ and ‘Describing Sexual Assault in a Language Men Can Understand’, I sought out her perspective on current issues we find ourselves discussing and striving to learn from.

Melissa, firstly, thank you for agreeing to take part! You’ve worked as a professor for over a decade, conducting research into sexism, racism, and social interactions. What specifically are you currently looking at, and what’s been the most interesting thing you’ve discovered whilst conducting research? (If you can’t decide, feel free to include several!) 

My work generally falls into two types. My first area is concerned with designing techniques to measure implicit (or unconscious) prejudice. It’s a challenge to measure sexism and racism because I can’t just walk into a classroom and say, “Raise your hand if you are racist.” If I did, I doubt I would get even one person to admit it. Part of the reason is that racist people don’t want others to believe they are racist. But the more difficult problem is that racist people often don’t even fully know they are racist. Our own thoughts and attitudes seem normal to us, and it is only when we are forced to compare them to others that we see how we stack up. So prejudice researchers have to get creative. One measure I’ve worked with a great deal is the Affect Misattribution Procedure. It uses something akin to a Rorschach test to assess people’s biases. The only down side to this technique is it requires computer programing to run, so I am currently developing a “low-tech” version to make it more user-friendly.

My second area is designed to understand prejudice from the victim’s perspective (an approach often referred to in psychology as the study of “stigma”). Historically, most research on sexism and racism focused on the perpetrator of the harmful attitudes, not on the people impacted by them. Reading these articles as a young female graduate student, I felt they failed to capture my personal experience. So when I started doing my own research, I examined the flip-side of the coin. For example, I’ve done research looking at how women respond when they are stereotyped and how it can lead to both positive and negative consequences. I’ve also published several articles on the impact of Native American stereotypes, which is a racial group that, unfortunately, receives little attention in psychological research (or any research). So if you are a student and don’t see research that resonates with your experiences, I would encourage you to talk to your professors, get involved in a research lab, and start conducting research that you can relate to.

You combine psychological science with fiction writing, and you’ve written chapters for many of the “Psychology of…” series. That must be fascinating! Do you find yourself analysing every character you see onscreen or read in novels? 

Stephen King (my all-time favorite author) wrote in Misery that when his main character decided to become a writer, he’d “condemned himself to a life of dissection.” I completely agree with that sentiment. As a writer, I find it impossible to read a book or watch a movie and not think, “I wonder how they’re going to end it,” or “This is how I would’ve done it differently.” And as a psychologist, I’m constantly thinking, “That’s not how a person would truly respond in that situation.” My husband is also a psychologist and fiction writer so there is A LOT of analysis going on in our household J But I think that is the case with anything you love, be it music, painting, science, cooking, etc. That’s how you know you’re passionate about something and are following the right career path. You just can’t turn it off, no matter how hard you try.

That’s why projects that combine my two passions—psychological science and creative writing—are my favorite things to work on. The chapters I wrote for the books The Psychology of Twilight, The Psychology of Dexter, and The Psychology of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are excellent examples. More recently, I’ve combined these two passions into my new blog “The Writer’s Laboratory” (see details below).

You also run a blog called “The Writer’s Laboratory”, which discusses how authors can improve on their creative work by including psychological principles. Your first blog post discusses how authors need to be ‘honest’ in the way they portray their characters and how they respond to events in their worlds. Do you think some psychologists are at a major advantage in this respect if they choose to pursue creative writing? 

Yes and no. Being a psychologist seems to use a completely different part of my brain than being a fiction writer.

Being a scientist is a very left-brained endeavor, relying on critical thinking and rationalism and skepticism. And writing for scientific outlets requires you to strip down all the fluff and just get to the heart of the research study. Conversely, writing fiction is both a left- and right-brained endeavor, especially if you write supernatural and speculative fiction like I do. When you start, you have to rely heavily on your creative side. You have to force yourself to set aside skepticism and rationalism and criticism and allow yourself to follow the idea wherever it leads, without question. To borrow a metaphor from Stephen King, you have to write your first draft with the door closed. But once you have the story sketched out and words down on the page and are ready to revise it, that’s when it becomes more left-brained. At that stage, you have to open the door and let in your skeptic and your critic to make sure your grammar is correct and your characters are fleshed out and your plot doesn’t meander.

I think the training one receives to achieve a PhD in psychology (or any science) has a tendency to push out the creative side. That’s why most scientific writers do not make good creative writers (although there are definitely exceptions). Similarly, most creative writers are not trained to pay careful attention to what people in the real-world actually say, think, feel, and do. This is why aspiring writers often take an Intro to Psych course, in hopes that they will learn some valuable insights to add to their work. But you can quickly see the problem here. A left-brained psychologist is trying to teach a right-brained writer and as a result, a lot is lost in the translation.

In my opinion, what is needed is a translator. Someone who knows both sides of the equation. That’s why I created my new blog “The Writer’s Laboratory”. In each post, I pick a fascinating psychological concept, briefly discuss the research behind it, then offer suggestions on how to use this information to improve your own writing (be it fiction or non-fiction) and provide examples of how other writers have done so. This approach allows me to teach writers how to use psychological concepts in their own work. After all, stories are essentially about human behavior and emotions (even when they are cloaked in non-human characters like animals or robots). So the more a writer knows about how people actually respond, the more they can become honest writers.

But the blog isn’t just for writers (or aspiring writers). Because I use vivid examples from popular novels, movies, and TV shows, it makes it easier for anyone with an interest in psychology to learn about a new concept or a new research experiment.

What initially got you interested in 1) psychology and 2) creative writing? Were they two entirely separate things or were they inextricably linked, or perhaps even the same thing? 

I have always had a passion for both psychology and creative writing (I actually convinced the nuns at my Catholic school to let me do book reports on Stephen King’s work when everyone else was reading the assigned books!).

But then it came time to choose a career. To become a psychologist, I had to earn an undergraduate and graduate degree. During those years, I had to set aside my creative writing because there just wasn’t enough time to do both. But once I became a professor, I started revisiting my creative side and carved out time to write several novels and am working with my literary agent to get those published. In between writing novels, I also wrote a handful of short stories. All of this has left me feeling more balanced in my life. I believe my psychological knowledge makes me a better (and more honest) writer. But I also believe my creative writing side makes me a better educator because it allows me to teach about psychology in a way that is fun and exciting and relevant. And running “The Writer’s Laboratory” blog allows me to have the best of both worlds!

The next few questions are linked to your article “Are Men Socialized to Prey on Women?”

Would you suggest there is a somewhat murky line between the definitions of unwanted romantic advances and sexual harassment? If so, do you think there ought to be more clarity in our understanding of these terms? If not, where would you draw the line?

I think open communication is the key to ensuring romantic advances don’t bleed into harassment. But that means that everyone needs to feel free to openly say, “I don’t want that.” What these recent examples of sexual harassment demonstrate is that the perpetrator may perceive that his target has that freedom, but the target clearly doesn’t. A good example is the stories of young women being invited to a journalist’s or producer’s or comedian’s room and find the man standing there naked. The man in power may think, “I’m not forcing her to do something sexual. If she doesn’t want it, she’ll just say no or leave.” But what he doesn’t realize is those women are not on the same power level as him. These men had a huge sway over the trajectory of these women’s career, and so they felt like they had little choice in the matter.

So I think it is important that people in power (be they men or women) recognize how their position affects those around them and restricts those people’s choices and freedoms. That piece of advice applies to sexual harassment, but it also applies to things like racism, classism, heterosexism, etc.

Some would argue that drawing a line and creating a protocol for romantic/sexual etiquette would devalue the individualistic nature of relationships. For example, some might suggest that some women actually desire a man who is persistent – I myself have overheard stories where the woman has repeatedly rejected the man, only to later agree to go on a date because ‘he didn’t give up’. Doesn’t this make enforcing generalized, blanket rules and protocol incredibly difficult? Is this actually a case of subjectivity? How would we manage that? 

I don’t think rigid protocols are the answer. Often such protocols end up backfiring and restricting or punishing the less powerful group (in this case women). History is filled with examples of this. Instead, I think open communication (as mentioned above), education, and a system that doesn’t allow harmful behavior to go unchecked are the key.

I made this point in one of my Psychology Today posts when I stated, “Although the majority of women experience sexual harassment, the majority of men are not sexual harassers. This means that in order for the majority of women to be victimized, all it takes is (1) a few perpetrators and (2) a situation that allows these perpetrators to go unchecked. Most men don’t contribute to the first cause, but they may unknowingly be contributing to the second.” If a woman has been sexually harassed, she needs to be able to lodge a complaint in a way that is swift, easy, and doesn’t involve having her character assassinated.

That is why the current public discourse and the #MeToo movement is so different from before. Female and male victims are coming forward with their stories and instead of being chastised and questioned, they are being applauded for their bravery. Not only do their stories inspire others to come forward, they are also leading to major changes in the ways harassment is reported and dealt with in Hollywood, Capitol Hill, and businesses and universities across the world.

It’s a very difficult subject for many people to discuss. For many years, sexual harassment has been an insidious behaviour which has been thrust into the limelight in recent times due to the success of the #MeToo campaign. The alarming results of the study you conducted (noted in your article), do not portray men in a positive light at all. (I’ll include the results here). Do you think that men are brought up, through the dating metaphors of hunter-prey, through media representations and other external cues, to see themselves as sexual predators and women as sexual prey? Or do you think this is an individual problem? Fundamentally, I think the question is: Do you think men are entirely at fault for their actions, or are external cues such as media portrayals swaying factors which alter their belief systems? 

Ah, this is one of the oldest questions in psychology: Is the person responsible for his/her actions or is it the situation? After decades of research, the answer is “both”.

On the one hand, people have free will and self-control. They can choose to behave in a good or bad way. On the other hand, humans are not raised in a vacuum. All of us—both men and women—are raised in a world that teaches them on a daily basis how they should behave. And the truth is that even in 2017, men and women get taught a different set of rules (i.e., different gender roles)

So are men who engage in sexual harassment or assault responsible for their own actions? Yes, without a doubt. But are there factors in the environment that may unknowingly nudge men (especially men who already have some predilections for sexual misconduct) closer to the line of inappropriate behavior? Yes. My research on men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphors is just one tiny piece of that puzzle (for more information on this research, see this post). There are certainly lots of other environmental factors that contribute to sexual misconduct.

But even though both personal and environmental factors lead to such behavior, there is good reason for us as a society to focus more on the environmental factors. One of the most studied and replicated findings in my field of psychology (which is social psychology) is the Fundamental Attribution Error. Here is an excerpt from my textbook entitled “Motivation Science” that briefly explains this concept:

Situational circumstances have a powerful impact on our lives, yet people generally fail to take them into account. This tendency to overestimate the power of internal influences (like personality) and underestimate the power of external influences when explaining other people’s behavior is so fundamental to human nature that psychologists call it the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

So the FAE states that when we try to explain the cause of someone’s behavior, we focus more on the individual and less on the situation. For example, if someone cuts you off on the highway, you are more likely to yell out a comment that suggests a flaw in their personality (e.g., “you jerk” or something even more colorful). What you are not likely to do is think, “Wow, that person must be in a real hurry. I hope they’re not rushing to the hospital or late for an interview.” Thus, we blame people’s behavior on their flawed personality rather than the constraints of their environment.

Since it is human nature to assign blame to the person first and the situation last, it takes extra effort for us to identify the situational reasons why someone acts the way they do. That is why we need more discussions and research on the situational influences that contribute to sexual misconduct (and racism and sexism and…the list goes on and on).

One of the suggested reading articles you attached to your article was striking (Rudman & Mescher, 2012). It discussed the correlation between men’s dehumanisation of women and the likelihood of sexual aggression. Do you think it’s as simplistic as that, or are there more factors, do you think? If there are more factors, what are they? 

As I suggested above, there are lots of factors that contribute to the objectification and dehumanization of women. Some we know about and others we have yet to discover. But the Rudman research does make an important point. The more any group is dehumanized and seen as more animal than human, the easier it is to rape or torture or kill that group. History shows us that such dehumanization can fall on women, racial minority groups, religious groups, social groups, etc. Thus, the only way to combat this type of thinking is to focus on the fact that we are all human beings. Our differences are minuscule compared to all the things we share in common.

But such a mindset it difficult to create and maintain. Research shows it requires a lot of mental resources and self-control to be egalitarian. It’s hard work, but it’s work that is well worth it.

The next few questions predominantly focus on your article, “Describing Sexual Assault in a Language Men Can Understand”.

You detail how female victims’ stories of sexual assault often fail to resonate with men. Has there been any research conducted into this? Terry Crews’ story came as a shock to many. Why do you think it takes someone like Terry Crews to come forward with his personal story for some men to understand? 

I’m not aware of studies on this exact topic, which means we need researchers to conduct those studies right now. What I do know is that people find it easier to empathize with another when they share similarities. When someone has the same gender or race or background experiences as you, it is easier for you to put yourself in their shoes. Psychologists call this process “identification” and research shows that you actually become more transported into a story and moved by it if those similarities exist. This is why it is hard for a white person to fully understand what it means to be a racial minority in the modern world, and why it’s hard for a man to understand what it means to be a woman in the modern world.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s impossible for Whites to sympathize with Blacks or men to sympathize with women, it just means it’s more difficult. It takes more work to do so. So when a “guy’s guy” like Terry Crews comes forward and tells his experience with sexual harassment, it has the potential to reach an entirely new audience. Men listening to his story might find it easier to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and in doing so, get a taste of what women experience on a regular basis.

Often with reports of sexual assault / harassment, there appears to be a discrepancy of narratives between men and women. We’re discussing sexual assault and harassment in a predominantly heteronormative space, but that does not mean sexual assault does not occur within the LGBT community, obviously. Transcending the sexual preferences domain, however…do you think actually articulating how you feel about what is happening in cases of sexual assault / harassment is necessary now, in order to make things absolutely clear? It appears there is clearly a breakdown in communication in some stories, and, this is by no means normalising their behaviour or condoning it, but perhaps in some perpetrators’ minds, their victim’s silence is complicit? 

I don’t think it is so much about discrepancies between male versus female narratives. Rather, I think the discrepancy is about narratives of those in power versus those without (which in most societies, often comes down to men versus women). In psychology it is well-known that those at the top of the social hierarchy rarely recognize the power they have. One of the biggest challenges I have as a teacher is convincing straight, White men that they have affordances and privileges given to them automatically that other groups do not. This is because when you are on the receiving end of those privileges, you don’t see them. For example, a White man doesn’t see all the times a cop passes him and doesn’t pull him over because the color of his skin. But a Black man who is constantly pulled over by the police for no reason can’t help but see. So those in power rarely recognize how much power they have, whereas those without power can’t help but see the inequity.

This is where education and communication come in. Because the more the people with power are able to recognize their privileged status, the more sensitive they will become to the plight of those who do not have the power. Changes shouldn’t just come from the bottom of the social hierarchy. They also need to come from the top down. If you are lucky enough to belong to a privileged group (e.g., male, White, wealthy, heterosexual, celebrity), try using that privileged status for good to enact change in the status quo.

Judith Lewis Herman wrote, “In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.” Do you think this is still the case, or are we changing the goalposts to a more progressive narrative, where victims are believed? 

 I think we have a long way to go when it comes to how victims of sexual assault are treated. When a man is mugged on his way home from the pub, no one asks what he was wearing or what he did to invite the assault. Such is not the case for a woman who is raped on her way home from the pub.

I thought Terry Crews hit the nail on the head when he said that sexual harassment makes you a prisoner. It comes with such shame and anger and criticism that it can take years, even decades, for the victims to finally feel free enough to come forward and share their stories. And just when they have escaped their prison, they are met with condemnation.

But I do think we are making progress. The fact that so many victims, both women and men, felt empowered to finally come forward and share their stories indicates we are headed in the right direction.

One final question. 

What do you plan to be working on in the future? Are there any plans for future publications? Perhaps keeping up with your creative writing blog? 

First, I am putting more energy toward educating people about psychology through digital channels and social media. Currently I run two blogs. The first is at Psychology Today (entitled “The Social Thinker”) and it allows me to teach people about psychological research and help them see how it relates to everyday events. My second, and more recent, is “The Writer’s Laboratory” where I demonstrate how psychological findings can be incorporated into fiction to create work that is more honest and has more depth. This blog is new and only has a few posts right now, but I have many more planned so I encourage people to check back regularly.

Secondly, I’m challenging my own inner writer by trying out new formats. I started out as a novelist first, so condensing stories into 5,000 words or less is difficult for me. But recently I went a step further and pushed myself to try micro-fiction (< 500 words). A few days later I had two completely new stories that I never would have written before because they weren’t big enough to justify a longer piece. So who knows what challenge I’ll try next! And of course I already have several more novels in my head that are just begging to be written!

I would like to thank Melissa once again for participating in this interview. 

N.B: Melissa’s article, ‘Are Men Socialized to Prey on Women?’ , makes some very interesting points about dating metaphors, with women depicted as prey and men as predators (in a heternormative sense). Do you think these metaphors provide a harmful message, or should we not take too much notice of song lyrics? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. I was surprised that you didn’t bring up discrmination of disabled and trauma-survivors.
    The power wielded over survivors of childhood trauma when in hospital and therapists office is also often very misused, and led by ignorance or desire for punishing the easiest ‘prey’ with an obvious perfect crime. “Crazy” people don’t warrant being believed or protected.
    Being in a locked ward at my own request for protection, I have been assaulted, blamed disbelieved and exposed to horrors that no trauma-survivors deserved. Then there is the cover up……
    I understand that the interview focused on sexual harassment, however, this omission tells me that you haven’t tried on a point of view that many psychological and psychiatric professionals direly need to. Talk about opportunity for power-differential-abuse!


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