From Hollywood to Washington, D.C., the #MeToo movement has brought light to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault that women experience across all realms of life — in the workplace, on the street and at school. However, in the absence of data to document the types and locations of these experiences, the scope and scale of the problem remains less understood.
A landmark study on sexual harassment and assault, released last week by Stop Street Harassment in partnership with our team at UC San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health, is a start. It found that both women and men are affected, and the figures are alarmingly high.
Nationally, the study found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men in the United States have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Harassment is most commonly verbal, but 51 percent of women and 17 percent of men reported being sexually touched in an unwelcome way, and 30 percent of women and 12 percent of men reported being flashed or shown genitals against their will.
Another 27 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported sexual assault, which we defined as forced sex acts; these rates are comparable to those seen in prior research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sadly, such abuse starts early.
Among those who had been victims of harassment or assault and could recall the first incident, two in five men and more than half of women reported first experiencing the abuse before they were 18 years old. More than one in ten of those reported being victimized at school. The fact that 49 percent of 18-to-24 year-old women and 22 percent of same age men also report a history of cyber sexual harassment underscores the difficulty of protecting youth from abuse.
These findings clearly document the widespread instances of harassment that women regularly face, as well as the commonality of it among men, and highlight the vulnerability of such abuses in our school-aged children. Historically, parents attempted to protect their children by restricting where they could go and when, but that clearly does not work given the rates of harassment experienced at school, online and via phone/text.
Another popular hashtag in recent weeks, #TimesUp, is a demand, from within Hollywood, to stop tolerating sexual harassment. We must support this shift in society and no long stigmatize victims of harassment and assault, nor make excuses for perpetrators. How do I know this? I learned it from my 18-year old daughter and her peers.
By adulthood and certainly by motherhood, I had grown immune to leers and catcalls in public spaces. I just pretended it hadn’t happened, crossed the street or walked the other way. I had approached it in a similar fashion when it occurred during my graduate training and early in my professional career, and altered where or how I worked, in order to avoid it.
But now, as I listen to my daughter and her friends, I find that they feel an entitlement to safety and respect at school, at work and in public spaces that I did not. This generation is unwilling to pretend that an abuse did not happen, unwilling to see abusers, harassers and bullies go unpunished, unwilling to make excuses for unacceptable behavior because someone is older or because it happened long ago, and they are unwilling to assume responsibility for someone else’s behavior against them.
I look at these harassment and assault cases in the media through the eyes of my 18-year old daughter, whom I want to protect and shield, and I realize that she is stronger and smarter than I in her analysis of them. I watch the students from Stoneman Douglas High School, and those who graduated from my daughter’s high school and took on the issue of sexual harassment, and I realize that while youth remain at greater risk for sexual harassment and assault — as has been the case for generations — this generation is tackling it better than mine.
I am learning through them that we must not tolerate these types of abuses, and it is time to start holding the perpetrators accountable. Time’s up.
Anita Raj is director of the University of California, San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health, Tata Chancellor Professor of Medicine and Professor of Education Studies. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.