In October of 2017, two words went viral. Millions of women participated in a #MeToo movement, telling their stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media—in some cases, after having kept silent for decades. Twitter had over 1.7 million tweets using that hashtag in one week. In less than 24 hours Facebook had over 12 million posts, reactions and comments from over 4 million users sharing their stories. By the end of the year, powerful men who had abused their positions were on the ropes and their accusers were part of the collective silence-breakers named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
What inspired these women from over 85 countries around the world, from every walk of life, to finally come forward with allegations of sexual harassment? And, what happens to them when they do?
We asked one of the nation’s leading researchers on sexual harassment, Dr. Amy Street ’93. She is acting director of the women’s health services division at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University.
Street explained why so many women are coming out of the shadows, how sexual harassment harms them, what they face when they make an allegation, and what the long-term effects of women coming forward might mean
for the nation.
STREET’S RESEARCH: She co-authored a study which found that attitudes toward women play an important role in explaining tolerance for sexual harassment. Work settings with a large proportion of male workers include a predominance of male supervisors, and those that represent traditional male occupations may be places in which there is greater tolerance for sexual harassment.
Q: Why have so many women come forward?
A: These things have been happening so frequently, for so long in women’s lives. And then, increasingly, these things are becoming part of the national conversation. So, certainly there was a lot around Bill Cosby, one of the first big stories that broke, and then during the election with the “Access Hollywood” tape. And then, certainly, once the Weinstein story broke, the floodgates just opened.
Listening to the stories causes many women to reflect and recognize their own experiences in what they’re hearing from other women. These experiences are so infrequently talked about, they’re so often kept secret. So, for many women who see the stories hitting the light of day, and then reflecting on their own experiences, it’s a very powerful motivator to want to share their own experiences in a way that maybe they haven’t felt like they’ve been able to do before.
I think we also see society responding seriously to many of these allegations. One of the reasons that women haven’t come forward about this experience historically is that they themselves experience a lot of negative effects—there’s nothing taken seriously, there’s nothing done—and so they think, ‘Why would I take on these costs if there’s nothing going to be done?’ But when you see examples of these claims being taken very seriously, that’s a motivator for women.
Street was the lead author on a study that looked at gender differences on the effects of being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment was associated with more negative current mental health among men and women—although, at higher levels of harassment, some negative mental health symptoms were stronger for men than women.
Q: Why are victims reluctant to report sexual harrassment?
A: Sexual harassment can be so broad—from things that are discouraging and unpleasant, but relatively common, through repeated harassment, very threatening harassment, up through sexual assault. Certainly, as we start talking about the more severe forms of these experiences, the more ongoing forms of these experiences, there can be a real significant impact on general mental well-being and general physical well-being. And then there are very notable career outcomes, financial outcomes for women. We know women in poorer socioeconomic classes are more impacted than women who are middle class or upper-middle class. The most vulnerable groups are often hit the hardest—the ones who can least afford to walk away from a job.
Street co-authored a study that found that women who were sexually harassed are more likely to have symptoms of depression and more likely to engage in problem drinking.
The most vulnerable groups are often hit the hardest —the ones WHO can least afford to walk away from a job.
Q: Do those effects decrease after women report the sexual harassment?
A: If women are validated and their claims are taken seriously and they’re not the subject of retaliations or threats, or negative career consequences, that actually can be quite a positive experience and quite good
for women’s recovery, and quite good for women’s well-being. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. Women experience negative events when they come forward. Either the harassment claims are not taken seriously, or they’re blamed, or they experience some kind of retaliation or some kind of negative career consequences. So, women will experience negative effects beyond just what they would have experienced if they hadn’t reported this, because the reporting process can be so painful and difficult for them that it really exacerbates the mental health effects of the harassment itself.
From my perspective as a mental health clinician, it’s pretty tricky because I believe, from a systems perspective, that it’s so important for women to come forward and talk about these issues, for us to be able to correct the problems and identify habitual perpetrators and take action against them. It really takes women coming forward to do that. But I also can appreciate that on an individual level, if it was my sister or my best friend who was trying to decide whether she was going to make a report, I would have to think long and hard about that because I know the reporting process often goes poorly for women.
We’ve done some qualitative data collection and asked women what were their barriers when they were thinking about reporting these experiences. And then we asked women who did report these experiences, what was that like for you. The kind of things women worry about happening are exactly the kinds of things that women experience. So women are making rational, reality-based decisions about this when they decide not to report.
I also think it’s incredibly courageous when women do decide to come forward because they know very well what risks they’re taking. And reporting, so often, it’s for the greater good. It’s not, “I’m not doing this for me; I’m doing this so that this person won’t go on and do this to many other people.”
Street co-authored a study on the effects on sexual harassment victims of reporting harassment. It found that making a formal report was not associated with well-being; but among those who did report, if they perceived that the report had resulted in the harassment being addressed by authorities, that was associated with better post-harassment functioning and fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. A victim’s perceptions of, and satisfaction with, the reporting process may impact the victim’s well-being more strongly than whether the victim made a report to authorities.
Q: Do women eventually recover from the harassment?
A: These experiences are incredibly common. Every woman I know, when the subject comes up, has got her story to tell. So, there are many women who are out there in the world without negative mental health effects from sexual harassment. At the severe end of the spectrum, there’s also a range of responses that women can have. It depends on if they report and how that goes; and what other kinds of social support they have in their lives; and if they have the ability to walk away from a job and still maintain a reasonable career; and how invested they were in their career and how negatively affected they were in their career.
For most women, there is a process of recovery that they may experience—although it’s never like you can undo that this happened to you; it’s always there, it’s always part of you. But certainly many women go on to function in very healthy ways. Some women may need therapy, they may need to process what’s happened to them and talk about these experiences in a safe setting. Other women may be able to use the support around them to process this experience for themselves and figure out how they’re going to move forward.”
Street was the lead author of one of the first studies, in 2013, looking at sexual harassment among men and women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. A mail survey of 1,207 women was done. About half of women reporting unwanted sexual experiences during deployment—of those, 50% reported experiencing non-assault sexual harassment, while 25% reported experiencing sexual assault.
Q: What will be the lasting effects of so many sexual harassment victims coming forward?
A: As a society, we’re learning how to talk about these things. And because these are things that have only been talked about in the shadows, we’ve never had a national conversation like this before. And I think a national conversation can help us all in thinking about how we best and most effectively talk about these things. So, that’s a potential lasting effect.
I think women seeing so many examples of incredibly courageous women who are coming forward and talking about their experiences in all different kinds of settings provide a powerful motivator for other women to feel able to do that for themselves.
And I think men—good men, who are not bad actors themselves, but may have been unaware of the depth and scope of this problem in our society, or may have understood that in a more abstract way before, now understand it in a much more concrete way. And I think men also have gained an understanding of how bystanders can play an important role in preventing these kinds of behaviors, or preventing them from becoming so habitual. I think that’s a really important change, as well.
On the flip side, there is a risk of some backlash. Some people may think this issue is getting too much attention now, or women can just claim anything and they’ll be believed. I think that’s how change happens: There is some movement forward and then some backlash. But I believe there are some very positive changes in our ability to just talk about this as a society that are going to be long lasting. It’s a great conversation to be having because we can’t solve problems if they’re secret.
Street was the lead author on a study that was the first to document high instances of sexual harassment and assault among military reservists. It concluded that the mental and physical effects of harassment and assault “have significant implications for the healthcare needs of military veterans.”
Tom Kertscher is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in “Making a Murderer.” He’s also the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and w@KertscherSports.