In the weeks following the first sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which have been filled with equally disturbing stories about several other prominent men in entertainment, media, and politics, it’s become clear that men and women have very different ideas about what constitutes sexual impropriety. A new study from Barna supports that notion, revealing that 14 percent of men don’t think “touching or groping” constitutes sexual harassment, while 17 percent don’t believe “being forced to do something sexual” falls into that category, either. One in four men doesn’t feel exposing themselves qualifies, while only 32 percent feel making a sexual joke counts.
The study was conducted by the market research firm between October 19 and 25, just days after the initial reports about Weinstein were published in the New York Times and the New Yorker, sparking both collective outrage and an avalanche of other allegations against similarly powerful men. Barna surveyed over 1,000 American adults of both genders, asking them via web-based surveys not only what they consider sexual harassment to be, but whether or not they have personally witnessed or experienced it.
“The revelations surrounding celebrities and politicians have opened up a floodgate for women especially, but men too, to acknowledge the ways in which they have experienced both subtle and overt forms of harassment in their workplaces, churches and social circles. The data bears this out: Nearly half of all American adults admit to experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment at some point in their lives. Four in 10 women say they have personally been victims of it,” says Barna Group editor in chief Roxanne Stone in the report.
So how is it that in spite of the incredible prevalence of sexual misconduct, which we already knew was a thing, so many men don’t even have a solid understanding of what qualifies? I can understand some confusion around things like “pinching or poking” (68 percent of men believe this qualifies as harassment) or “making a kissing sound or action” (41 percent), but how can someone honestly believe that exposing themselves or groping someone doesn’t count as harassment? No wonder men are all so scared right now.
What’s equally alarming is that, according to the Barna study, Millennials and members of Gen X are twice as likely than Elders to say they have been sexually harassed, while Baby Boomers fall somewhere in the middle. This apparent increase could be because younger generations have a broader understanding of what constitutes harassment, but it also points to the fact that, after our collective attention shifts to some new controversy, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the sexual misconduct that has run rampant (and has apparently been on the rise) across offices, campuses, and public spaces for so many years is not allowed to return.
The study also reveals that the biggest reason people don’t report sexual harassment is a “fear of not being believed.” In fact, 30 percent of those who said they had experienced some kind of harassment cited this as the main reason they had for not reporting it, while 25 percent said they feared retaliation by the offender and 13 percent had a “lack of confidence in the system.” As fear of #MeToo backlash begins to build, and outspoken women like Rose McGowan find their credibility under attack, this is a crucial thing to keep in mind.
“Leaders in every level of society—from entertainment, to the marketplace, to politics, to churches—must honestly wrestle with this challenging issue and what it means for their institutions,” says Stone. “Pastors and spiritual leaders, especially, must be ready to talk with their members: to hear the stories of the victims, to offer counseling services, to speak from the pulpit on the respect and humanization that gender equality really requires.”