OU blog

Personal Blogs

Sexual Harassment, Psychology and Feminism – A new book

Visible to anyone in the world

In a new book, Dr Lisa Lazard from the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University explores #MeToo and how women’s assumed empowerment in contemporary culture has shaped understandings of sexual harassment and social responses to it.

This book explores how the phenomenon of sexual harassment has been made sense of and understood, both in psychology and in popular culture, over the last forty years. #MeToo, as the most recent public challenge to sexual harassment, received an extraordinary amount of public support in comparison with how the phenomenon has been treated in the not so distant past. Historically, there have been periods in which sexual harassment, and those who have experienced it, have been trivialised and even vilified. While the support #MeToo received can be seen an evidence of progressive social change, it is also the case that #MeToo highlighted tensions and contradictions in conceptualisations of, and practices around, gender equality.

That so many individuals, particularly women, continue to experience sexual harassment in their everyday lives is, in many ways, surprising because the idea that women are now empowered has become highly visible and taken for granted in contemporary culture. Feminism has become undeniably popular and mainstream over the last decade which has contributed to the impression that gender equality has been achieved. That #MeToo became a viral phenomenon seemed to unsettle ideas of women as empowered sexual subjects and, men as able to easily embrace softer ‘inclusive’ masculinities. #MeToo certainly contrasted with postfeminist ideas which suggest that gender equality has been achieved and as such is no longer needed (McRobbie, 2004; Gill, 2016). These tensions have arisen in contexts heavily shaped by neoliberalism which suggests that individuals are freely choosing subjects who are responsible for their own decisions and the state of their lives. Neoliberal subjects are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and to work on themselves (both at work and in their personal lives) to become ‘better’ – to achieve and succeed (Scharff, 2016).

This book explores the cultural landscapes that have come to shape and frame contemporary resistance to sexual harassment. Using insights from discursive, feminist and intersectional approaches in psychology, the book examines dominant understandings of gendered sexual subjectivities, relationships and notions of equality that are relevant to sexual harassment dynamics and how these intersect with other relationships of power, particularly race and class. A key theme of the book is the examination of persistent longstanding discourses around gendered sexual subjectivities in which women are relatively passive in relation to men as active sexual subjects. These discourses, for example, suggest that men are naturally compelled to seek sex with women. Women, on the other hand, are seen as pursued for sex rather than the pursuers of it. These gendered discourses have been seen to support and enable the sexual harassment of women by men (e.g. Gavey, 2018; Lazard, 2009). The book examines how these ideas co-exist with discourses of women’s empowerment and gender equality in neoliberal contexts and how the ideas shape victimisation and perpetration.

The sexual harassment of women by men has been represented as a particular problem in the workplace, in both psychological research and feminist activism.  Indeed, it was Weinstein’s use of the Hollywood casting couch which prompted actress Alyssa Milano’s Me Too tweet that became the viral hashtag.  Chapter 2 explores how new modes and ideals of work (e.g. working for yourself, entrepreneurship, flexible working) and workers (e.g. autonomous and competent) have shaped how sexual harassment is understood and dealt with. The chapter argues that the widespread traction of #MeToo was supported by neoliberal feminist discourses  in which sexual harassment becomes understood as constraining neoliberal subjects’ ability to achieve, succeed and better themselves.

Chapter 3 discusses the construction of victim identities in feminism activism and popular culture since the 1970s. Victimhood has been much maligned in popular discourse because of its association with powerlessness and passivity. Drawing on media reporting of the sexual harassment of singer Taylor Swift and actress Ashley Judd, this chapter explores how notions of empowerment may offer new possibilities and complexities for positively claiming victim identity. While Chapters 2 to 4 are primarily concerned with the sexual harassment of women, Chapter 5 examines the sexual harassment of men. In Chapter 5, I explore the circumstances in which men are accorded or denied speaking rights as victims. This chapter presents an analysis of media coverage of celebrity men that joined #MeToo as victims. This includes the sexual harassment of the following celebrity cases: Anthony Rapp by Kevin Spacey; Jimmy Bennett by Asia Argento; and Terry Crews by Adam Venit.

The final substantive chapter of the book considers the popularisation of the term ‘sexual predator’ to refer to perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Within the sexual predator discourse, sexual offending is treated as symptomatic of individual’s abnormal psychology. These abnormalities are seen as a fixed and stable part of identity (Taylor, 2019). The sexual predator discourse presents barriers to perpetrator speaking rights as well as for being heard. This is explored through the examination of media coverage of celebrity perpetrator apologies for sexual harassment during the galvanisation of #MeToo. The media reporting treated perpetrator explanations as excuse- making and further evidence of individual pathology. The pathologisation of perpetrators provided the basis to dismiss their accounts. The implications that the sexual predator discourse has for intensifying vilification of particular groups (e.g. racial minoritized groups) and for fostering positive social change is discussed.


Gavey, N. (2018). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. Routledge.

Gill, R. (2016). Post-postfeminism? New feminist visibilities in postfeminist

times. Feminist Media Studies, 16(4), 610–630. https://doi.org/10.1080/


Lazard, L. (2009). Moving past powerlessness? An exploration of the heterosexualisation

of sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Section Review, 11(1), 3–11.

McRobbie, A. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media

Studies, 4(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468077042000309937.

Scharff, C. (2016). The psychic life of neoliberalism: Mapping the contours of

entrepreneurial subjectivity. Theory, Culture and Society, 33(6), 107–122.

Taylor, C. (2019). Foucault, feminism and sex crimes: An anti-carceral analysis.

Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429429866.


Read about Lisa Lazard's work here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/lml279

Share post

The importance of art and film for psychology

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 22:38

A new publication from the School of Psychology and Counselling challenges psychologists to take art and film seriously, especially during times of crisis when people go through 'liminal experiences'. 

The article is the result of a collaboration between Professor Paul Stenner from the Open University and Professor Tania Zittoun from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The online first version has just appeared in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. 

Tania Zittoun is well known for her work on how people use 'symbolic resources' - such as films and novels - to help them through difficult times of transition, and the paper integrates her approach with Paul Stenner's recent work on liminal experiences. These are experiences during which transformative events can leave those going through them in an 'in-between' phase in which they are no longer what they were (in the past) but not yet what they may become (in the future). In such situations people are, in short, suspended between worlds. These experiences can vary from being limited to the individual (e.g. loosing a job at a crucial moment, suffering an intimate bereavement) to society level phenomena (as many from the UK experienced during the height of uncertainty around Brexit), and they can even be global - as shown by the disruptive and transformative effect of the current corona-virus pandemic.    

The new paper, however, does not simply argue that film and other symbolic resources can be helpful to people going through important changes. It also shows that films and art-works more generally can contain valuable insights for all who are interested in psychology

Stenner and Zittoun approach these two related issues in an innovative way through a socio-cultural analysis of a major film: Inception (directed by Christopher Nolan). Their analysis shows how the film stimulates and draws upon imagination just at the moment that it is most needed, due to the way in which transformative experiences can erode the difference between reality and appearance. A person's capacity to imagine a new future is most needed precisely when their future is cast into doubt, and their capacity to re-imagine the past is most needed when a gulf seems to separate what they were from what they now are. But how can psychology - which tends to start with an assumed distinction between objective fact and subjective fancy - cope with these high levels of contingency and uncertainty that are so characteristic of liminal occasions?  

The article shows how Nolan's movie - and art more generally - works dynamically with tensions between fact and fiction, taking these as part of experience, and - if all goes well - providing a space for re-imagining collective and individual existence. Art alone is, of course, not enough: but it can play a vital role. In other recent publications and talks, Professor Stenner has shown how comparable findings extend also to novels (like the Magic Mountain) and plays (like Hamlet), and Professor Zittoun has written extensively on the nature of the imagination.


Stenner, P and Zittoun, T (2020) On taking a leap of faith. Art, Imagination and liminal experiences. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. March, online first.

Stenner, P. and Greco, M. (2018). On The Magic Mountain: The novel as liminal affective technology. International Political Anthropology, 11(1): 43-60.

 Zittoun, T and Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. London: Routledge.

You can read more details about the paper here: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fteo0000148

 An interview with Paul Stenner from The Psychologist in which he talks about the concept of 'liminal hotspots' can be accessed here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/march-2018/incitement-become-different-can-be-both-thrilling-and-terrifying

"This incitement to 'become different' can be both thrilling and terrifying" | The Psychologist

Talk to me about circles. The German poet Rilke, who was a bit of genius, wrote ‘I live my life in ever widening circles’. I think we all ‘move in circles’… within circles of friends and acquaintances, and between cycles of activity and routine that more or less repeat, like having breakfast, travelling to work, writing a report, trying to persuade our kids to do their homework.




Share post

Artificial Intelligence and rationality as psychological issues

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 26 Sept 2019, 16:22

Psychologists are interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its possibilities, as discussed, for example, in the Level 2 module Living Psychology. This week there are news reports of successful experiments with the use of AI for medical diagnosis, but also warnings of the potential for ‘spectacular and unpredictable’ failures https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/24/ai-equal-with-human-experts-in-medical-diagnosis-study-finds

In a new psychology blog, Dr Lee Curley discusses the widespread fears of AI as involving the loss of ‘our special human capacity of rationality’.  

Our fear of Artificial Intelligence once related to the terminator and Skynet, but in a time of economic uncertainty and mistrust over how artificial intelligence uses human data on the internet, new fears are more related to employment and human rights. Some people see the development of AI as a process in which we recklessly hand over our special human capacity of rationality to machines, condemning ourselves to low paid jobs, or even unemployment. In this week’s blog, I explain why psychologists are interested in rationality. I present the fable of Prometheus, the great titan who was punished for passing on his godly skill of rational thought. I highlight the lessons that can be learnt from this story when considering potential implications of artificial intelligence.  

Rationality or the ability to integrate information to choose an option with the most utility, is a cognitive ability that may be at the heart of what makes us human: the very meaning of the term Homo sapien even means “wise man”. Rationality has become such as constant in human behaviour that the pillars of society (law, economics and medicine) all assume that decision makers employ rational processes when faced with an option. This blog will delve into how the ancients viewed rationality, how modern cognitive psychologists view the term and how rationality will shape the future.

However, rationality has been studied by more than just cognitive psychologists. Mathematicians, philosophers, social psychologists and psychoanalysts have all studied rationality, each with different viewpoints on rationality and the extent to which humans participate in rational behaviour.   

In Ancient Greece, the world was explained in terms of symbolic entities (gods, deities and titans) that represented observable phenomenon. For instance, Gaia represented the earth, Poseidon the seas, and the almighty Zeus was symbolic of the heavens above. Some of these powerful beings, however, represented very human traits. Prometheus (meaning forethought) and Epimetheus (meaning afterthought) represented the rational and non-rational (or intuitive) part of the human mind, respectively. Once these titans fell out of favour with the Olympians, however, their roles of rationality and intuition fell to the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Prometheus was the champion of thinking ahead and choosing the long term right path, despite the negative short term effects for himself. This is evidenced in the story of Prometheus where he steals fire for the ancient humans, against Zeus’s instructions, and is punished until he is freed by Herakles. Despite the negative ramifications for himself, he metaphorically, and literally, ignites rationality, abstract thought and logic into the minds of Homo sapiens; thus simultaneously making humans more like the deities they worshipped, and the gods less special. The creation of the Prometheus myth shows that rationality is a key aspect of humanity, and that the ancient Greeks were aware of the power of rationality.

During the Renaissance, there was a reawakening of rationality, with mathematical (or normative) concepts, such as probabilities, essential to modern mathematical and psychological theories of rationality being invented. With rationality and probability becoming interlinked, humans were viewed to be “Laplacean demons”. In other words, ‘we’ were viewed to be rational beings, who had unlimited cognitive capacity and were not influenced by the limitations of the mind. In association with this development in rationality and mathematics, institutions such as law, medicine and economics were all developing fields and were influenced by the perspective of the time (i.e., to be human was to be rational).

This was the main viewpoint until the cognitive revolution in psychology and the seminal work of Tversky and Kahneman. They conducted a number of experiments in the 70 and 80’s (and even won a Nobel Prize) for highlighting that although rationality should govern our minds when making decisions, that instead, individuals sometimes deviate from rational principles and make decisions based on intuitive cognitive short-cuts called heuristics (Greek for find or discover). Their research showed that humans are flawed and that we can make biased decisions.

This perspective has dominated the majority of the last 50 years of work in the field of decision science. Contemporary decision scientists, however, see intuitive thought and rationality as brothers (similar to the Greek myths surrounding Prometheus and Epimetheus). The dual process model of decision making suggests that two different modes of cognition (system 1 and system 2) governs our decision making. System one is an intuitive mode of cognition with a plethora of heuristics making up the components of said system. System two on the other hand is the rational part of the mind, which may be unique to humans. System two is believed to be more effortful and conscious than the primitive system one mode of cognition. The modern mind-set of rationality is that it is possible to make rational decisions, but that it is difficult and effortful, thus researchers believe that humans much prefer to default to system one.

This flawed perspective of human rationality has led to rationality, the very essence of humanity, becoming synonymous with artificial intelligence and robotics. Normative (mathematical) models of rationality have been shown not to reflect the entirety of human behaviour, whereas artificial intelligence (AI) may be a new frontier to apply these classical models of decision making. Unlike human beings, artificial intelligence can be programmed to accord with rational principles and statistics.  Therefore, what classically was seen as something unique to humans, the thing that made ‘us’ special, may in the future become a robotic trait. This mirrors Prometheus’s gift to ancient humans which lead to deities becoming less godlike, and humans becoming more like their creators.

Now computers are powerful enough to win against a human at chess, and it is estimated by researchers that AI will exceed human ability in a number of tasks (e.g., language translation) in the next 10 years. It is even believed that by 2053 AI could replicate the abilities of a surgeon. This speculation suggests that the expansion of artificial intelligence into the realms of rationality may cause humans to become obsolete, with more rational, consistent, and efficient computers replacing biased and flawed humans. This could cause a number of occupations traditionally employed by humans to be performed by complex AI.  

Others, such as Peter Fleming, instead argue that AI will cause an increase in poorly paid jobs, as he argues that an important factor in AI being utilised in a profession is, will it be economically viable? Therefore, Fleming suggests that low skilled and low paid jobs will not be replaced. He expands on this point by suggesting that AI that partially automates a job though an app will also reduce the skill required by the employee, thus decreasing the relevant pay required for the service (e.g., Uber driver with app vs. traditional taxi driver that receives training). Furthermore, contrary to contemporary belief, the age of the AI may have a negative effect on human standards of living. Humans, like Prometheus, may suffer the negative consequences of passing on the sacred flames of rationality to an intelligence that ‘we’ created.

In summary, rationality has always been viewed by humans as a god like ability. The story of rationality is the story of humanity, the way we view rationality changes how we view ourselves, and ‘we’ are becoming increasingly closer to mirroring the story of Prometheus and igniting the flame of rationality in non-organic decision makers, and thus decreasing the specialness of humanity. By giving this special ability to AI, we may be condemning ourselves to low paid jobs; or even unemployment. Further bringing to life the story of Prometheus, as the great titan who was punished for passing on to humans his godly skill of rational thought.



If you are interested in artificial intelligence, check the following webpage for more information on Living Psychology (DD210): http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/dd210.

Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 270971