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  • Mathieu Provencher

Sexual Harassment and Economics

Hi again guys! I am going to talk about something a bit different this time: Let's talk about something that is purely Microeconomics and let's see how Economists see the world (how exciting... I can't wait... hummmm)

Interesting fact: In a relatively recent research, Lima was found to be one of the most unsafe city for women taking public transport while New York was one of the safest (if not the safest). By "unsafe", the authors looked at actual physical dangers (like being mugged) but also sexual harassment, which I presume would be more common.

Economics has a lot to do with it (not that Economists are responsible, but we can explain it)... Remember that Economics is NOT about money! We learnt in class that there is a marginal benefit and a marginal cost (including the opportunity cost) to every choice. As long as the marginal benefits are higher than the marginal costs, an individual should continue what they are doing in order to maximize utility (or profits in the case of firms).

Let's contemplate these marginal changes for the choice of sexual harassment of women by men (in buses for example)...

Benefits: Men would clearly benefit from sexual behaviours (such as looking, flirting, and touching for example) by feeling virile or powerful towards the other sex. This benefit comes from two main sources; (1) our primal instincts that push us towards reproduction, and (2) our social baggage and cultural perception of what gives us pleasure and makes us feel good or important.

Costs: Most men (I hope) should receive negative utility from such actions because of a variety of things. One set of costs associated with sexual harassment would be the feeling of shame from treating another human being as an object of pleasure (without her consent in this case). Another set of costs could be related to peer pressure, which could make the person feel he has acted against the good of society. A last set of costs would be the actual physical and/or monetary punishment that may come from such actions (if put in prison and/or forced to pay a fine).

Now, here comes the Economist in me: As far as my profession is concerned, I don't care if this is morally correct or not. As long as the (private) benefits outweigh the (social) costs, these individuals should continue sexually harassing women (if we could redistribute some of the extra benefits to those that lost... we call this Pareto Optimal Redistribution, which is not possible in this case). The benefits are (supposedly) received by the men doing that while the costs are (supposedly) received by these same men as well as the rest of us... those that receive these treatments (women) and those that find it inappropriate (or disgusting).

However, as far as these men are concerned, the rest of us are not important... which means they will only look at their own personal benefits and their own personal costs. Men from Lima (on average) may have higher benefits from engaging in sexual harassment because of their culture (they may be more prone to seeing women as pleasurable objects as opposed to simply other human beings). At the same time, men in Lima most definitely have less costs from these activities. Less costs because other Peruvians may not show their disapproval as much as in New York for example (where you can be shouted at at best or punched or stabbed at worst) or also because the police is simply not protecting women's right to be treated equally. This difference between the benefits and the costs can explain quite a lot of what is going on...

What do you guys think? Have you seen or heard anything like that in public transportation? Do you know anyone who have been treated with sexual disrespect? Economics can explain almost everything regarding human choice but we can't do anything about it... it's your job to decrease the benefits of sexual harassment (with the help of education and information campaigns for example) and increase its costs (by making sure they understand it's not acceptable and by forcing your governments to pursue anyone that does it).

Today I was downtown and I saw an event at Plaza San Martin. It was information and events related to our topic: the place of women in society. I found their slogans very nice: "La Mujer No Es Un Objecto" and "El Control No Es Amor". It seems to me that the first one is aimed at men while the second at women (mainly). I was feeling fairly optimistic at that point... up until I saw something else just a few blocks away from there. An older woman was completely naked (really, she had absolutely nothing on her at first) and seemed lost... I don't know if she was on any drugs or if she was mentally ill (or diminished because of malnutrition or anything else). That by itself was a very shocking experience but seeing how people around her, people that are part of the same culture and same country, were reacting really blew my mind off... They didn't seem to mind much, they didn't seem to care much... how is that possible? No one seemed to be calling the police or any government branch that could have taken her to a warm place where she can receive clothes, food, and a place to sleep at night... no one seemed to think she should be helped and at the very least checked by a doctor. This goes right in what we were discussing guys: taking care of the vulnerable part of society. Whether they are women, children, older people, men... we should care for others that had less opportunities than us or that are targeted by other groups. I was just able to provide a bit of money but Peruvians should have been able to direct her or help direct her to the right place to be cared for... no? Maybe I live in a different universe...

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