Accounts of sexual harassment and assault have toppled man after man in workplace after workplace as the #MeToo movement has taken hold, but quantifying its scope has often proved elusive or politically charged.
A new national online survey conducted in January seeking a comprehensive picture reported that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault over their lifetimes — higher than most other studies and polls have suggested.
Compared with several previous studies, this survey asked about a broader range of behaviors in multiple locations over a longer time span: on the street and public spaces, in workplaces and schools, online and in homes, said its principal author, Holly Kearl, a founder of Stop Street Harassment.
The largest continuing study available to date, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, focuses on physical more than verbal harassment. It reported that one in two women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence other than rape during their lifetime; one in 5 women and one in 67 men reported rapes or attempted rapes.
Another recent poll, from The Washington Post/ABC News, which reported that more than half of American women had experienced “unwanted sexual advances,” used a broader catchall term rather than the specific behaviors outlined in this survey, and so probably found lower numbers, said Anita Raj, director of the University of California, San Diego, Center on Gender Equity and Health, who analyzed the latest survey data. Researchers have generally found that studies that ask about specific behaviors or that cover longer periods of time tend to report more harassment.
Several other recent polls either limited their questions to workplace harassment or assault, or sampled a smaller segment of the population, Professor Raj said.
This latest survey asked 1,000 women and 1,000 men about verbal harassment, sexual touching, cyber sexual harassment, being followed on the street, genital flashing and sexual assault.
Among its findings:
Seventy-seven percent of women and 34 percent of men said they had encountered verbal sexual harassment. Fifty-one percent of women and 17 percent of men reported unwelcome sexual touching. Forty-one percent of women and 22 percent of men said they were sexually harassed online. A third of women and one in 10 men reported being physically followed, while 30 percent of women and 12 percent of men experienced genital flashing. Twenty-seven percent of women and 7 percent of men reported sexual assaults.
The survey deliberately included street harassment as well as other forms of abuse, Ms. Kearl said. “Sexual harassment is a human rights violation — whether it takes place on the sidewalk of a street or in an executive board room — because it can cause emotional harm and limit and change harassed persons’ lives,” she said.
The survey’s authors and sponsors say the results suggest that sexual harassment is more pervasive than people realize. “Existing data hasn’t been able to speak to the broad prevalence of many forms of sexual harassment and abuse,” said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
But the majority of women and men who experience sexual harassment and assault do not confront the harasser — fewer than 2 percent, the survey found. Instead, they choose avoidance: 23 percent of women said they altered their routes or daily routines to avoid harassment. One in 10 women and one in 20 men said they tried to change their job assignments or quit their jobs to avoid harassment. Only one in 10 women and one in 20 men filed an official complaint to an authority figure or the police about harassment.
Most women and men who experienced sexual harassment and assault reported encountering it in more than one place — most reported four or five locations. About two-thirds of the women surveyed said they experienced harassment in a public space; about a third reported harassment in the workplace.
Many encounter sexual harassment from a young age. More than half of the women and just under half the men surveyed said they had experienced some form of harassment or assault by the age of 17.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment — being pressed by someone to offer sex in return for something — was reported by 13 percent of the women and 5 percent of the men in the survey. This is one of two key legal prerequisites for being able to sue for sexual harassment, the other being a hostile work environment. Such quid pro quo behavior has figured prominently in the reports of sexual harassment and assault over the past several months.
The survey’s authors were not certain why this figure was somewhat low compared with other behaviors reported by the respondents. Ms. Kearl speculated that employers are aware of this legal liability and try to train employees to avoid it, even though the recent surge of complaints about such harassment shows that many men flouted these constraints.
The survey also broke down sexual harassment along demographic lines, income levels, sexual orientation and people with disabilities. While there were few differences by race and ethnicity for women who reported harassment, Hispanic men reported the most sexual harassment and assault in every category the survey recorded.
People who reported having a disability were much more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault, the survey found. Men earning less than $25,000 a year were more likely to report sexual assault. The survey also suggested that lesbians, bisexuals and gay men were more likely to experience sexual assault than straight women and men.
As many accounts have shown, the most common reaction to sexual harassment and assault is anxiety or depression; 31 percent of women and 20 percent of men reported these effects after incidents.
Raliance, a group of organizations trying to end sexual violence, also sponsored the study. The survey was nationally representative and conducted online, including cellphone-only households. Those without access to the internet were lent laptops to complete the survey.