An important empirical finding on #MeToo

A paper by Hart (2019) makes two empirical findings, one about bias against people who come forward as being sexually harassed and the other (more tentative) about the #MeToo movement’s effects on reducing stigma against sexual harassment victims. Here’s the abstract:

Although sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, it often goes unreported. This study employs causal evidence to evaluate one deterrent to reporting: bias against women known to be sexual harassment targets. I theorize about the form this bias takes and test the argument with a national survey experiment run in five waves from October 2017 to February 2018, where participants were asked to propose employment outcomes for an employee with one of four harassment experiences. Participants were less likely to recommend a woman for promotion if she self-reported sexual harassment relative to otherwise identical women who experienced nonsexual harassment or whose sexual harassment was reported by a coworker. The woman who self-reported sexual harassment experienced normative discrimination: that is, the promotion bias was significantly mediated by perceptions that she was less moral, warm, and socially skilled than the woman whose coworker reported her sexual harassment. These results indicate that women may hesitate to report sexual harassment because they rightly perceive that doing so could cause them to experience bias. Yet they also suggest that bias can be avoided if a bystander reports the harassment. Finally, exploratory analyses suggest that in the wake of #MeToo this bias may be fading.

And here’s the relevant bit about the #MeToo movement:

Although participants reported a lower likelihood of promoting the woman self-reporting sexual harassment in October, November, and December, the magnitude of this penalty decreased with each month, and in January and February participants no longer expressed bias. In addition, although participants did not express a preference for either employee who had experienced sexual harassment in the first months of the study, in the final months they were more willing to promote the employees who had experienced sexual, rather than nonsexual, harassment.

While this analysis cannot pinpoint the cause of the declining bias, the fact that these changes are specific to women who experienced sexual harassment, and particularly the woman who self-reported sexual harassment, suggests that social activism emphasizing the prevalence of sexual harassment may have impacted perceptions of sexual harassment targets. Most study participants were aware of the contemporaneous activism: When asked about the #MeToo movement, two-thirds of participants were familiar with it in November and more than three-quarters were familiar with it in the following three months. Indeed, some participants even suggested that the movement may be reducing stigma associated with sexual harassment.

An important caveat, of course, is that this paper simply identifies a correlation and notes a plausible causal link.

“Men’s rights” and male sexual assault

[Content warning: References to sexual violence, no vivid descriptions or imagery.]

[Epistemic status: I’m uncertain what the standard of evidence for believing sexual harassment allegations should be—I had a post arguing for a weak standard of evidence before, which has since been taken down because of increasing uncertainty. I should also note that the feminist movement has by no means been perfect in this respect, but my guess is that it’s been better than the men’s rights movement, on balance.]

[Update: The 2–10 percent statistic has serious problems, summarized here and here, and if I had the chance to rewrite the piece, I wouldn’t use it.]

My article for Feminism in India about how the men’s rights movement hurts male survivors of sexual assault has been published. You can view it here. Here’s an excerpt:

The same principles that these organizations apply to women and non-binary people, in terms of disbelief of accusations and outing their identities, also apply to men who have been sexually assaulted.


[P]atriarchal systems of oppression – which men’s rights movements declare as illusory or non-existent – also oppress male survivors of sexual assault. Masculine gender socialisation means that men are taught that they cannot be ‘vulnerable’ or ‘powerless’ and thus cannot be sexually assaulted. Pop culture displays male sexual assault as something to be mocked. A study by Whatley and Riggio in 1993 found that male survivors are likely to be blamed for what happened to them. In short, patriarchal norms of ‘masculinity’ and ‘aggression’ have spread myths about the existence of male sexual assault that make it hard for male survivors.