It’s been two years since Alyssa Milano’s incendiary tweet calling on women to voice their experiences of sexual harassment through the hashtag #MeToo. While the rallying cry has entered the lexicon, what has the movement really changed?
Our recent work for the OSCE reveals the extent of sexual harassment in European countries. The survey found that on average, 45% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment since the age of fifteen, which corresponds to more than ten million women.96 Worryingly, it is students – generally considered society’s most ‘woke’ and forward-thinking about gender equality – that are at highest risk of experiencing sexual harassment, particularly from fellow students (68% identify a peer, friend, acquaintance or neighbour as someone they have been sexually harassed by). Indeed, two-in-five (40%) say they have had at least one experience of sexual harassment in the twelve months prior to the survey.
The data also shows that sexual harassment is generally not a one-off experience. Looking at the most common forms of sexual harassment measured, women are equally likely to say that it happened to them six or more times as they are to say it happened once. This may be revealing of women’s raised awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, and lower tolerance of things which may previously have been disregarded as ‘normal’. Like the Pandora’s box of sexual harassment, things which were previously engrained as a normal part of life are suddenly being called out for what they are.
These figures may seem distant or even irrelevant to a reader in the UK or the US. In fact, they are highly relevant, and serve as a testament to the global nature of the problem. Sexual harassment continues to be widespread in both countries, even if their respective residents underestimate just how many women it affects. When asked to provide an estimate of how many women in Britain have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15, our average guess was 55%.97 In reality, nearly seven in ten women in Britain (68%) say they have experienced sexual harassment.98 Perhaps unsurprisingly, male guesses were further off. In Britain, men are 16 percentage points below the uncomfortable truth, while in the US, this gap is a little narrower, at 11 percentage points.
Reports of sexual harassment scandals at work are almost commonplace. A recent study by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that nearly six in ten women (57%) in the UK who are or have been in formal employment say they’ve experienced sexist behaviour or sexual harassment at work.99 The survey suggests that such behaviour is even more prevalent in Spain and Germany, where respectively 66% and 68% of women surveyed say they have been victim to this at some point in their career. In Britain, more than one in twelve NHS staff say they were sexually harassed in the past twelve months, including being groped, upskirted, or even raped while at work.100
Women may be trying to break free from traditional gender norms and the value placed on their bodies and physical appearance, but is it making a difference when sexual harassment still affects women and girls on a daily basis? For meaningful societal change, men must join the battle against sexual harassment – and here are two suggestions on how to do it.
First, research shows that men who identify with the strongest beliefs of ‘toxic masculinity’ (for example, the belief that men must act ‘strong’ even when they feel scared or nervous, or that men should never say no to sex), are nearly ten times as likely to have perpetrated sexual harassment than those who hold the most equitable attitudes.101 This calls for a profound change in the values that society instils in men from a young age around what it is to ‘be a man’.
Second, men do not always recognise the impact of their actions, even if the majority are committed to tackling the issue. In both the US and UK, 60% of men agree that women won’t achieve equality without their support.102 While it is reassuring to hear that both men and women are committed to creating a world where women are safe from violence and harassment, male actions speak louder than hashtags.