In the United States nearly 9 in 10 young women have been sexually harassed. In this world virtually no woman is safe from the threat of sexual violence, unwanted advances, and crude remarks. Many people would agree that women aren’t safe, but a new Harvard report on young people and sexual harassment and misogyny reveals women are in even more danger than we may have thought.
The report states that 87 percent of women between 18 and 25 had also experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives. This number represents the tragic degree to which our society has been overtaken by misogyny, and the massive amount of work we as a society face to educate all young people about misogyny and gender violence, and try to mitigate the problem.
The report, the result of several years of research by a team at the Graduate School of Education, interviewed some 3,000 high school students and young adults about romantic relationships, gender roles, and sexual harassment. The research reveals not only shockingly high levels of sexual harassment, but also that educators and parents shy away from discussions with young people.
The study reveals that young people are confused and wholly unprepared to navigate romantic relationships. Parents and other trusted adults aren’t having discussions with teens and young adults about healthy, mature relationships, young people navigate this difficult arena without guidance. 70 percent of the young adults surveyed said they wished they’d had more advice from older adults to address their anxiety about love and relationships.
While emotional and social problems were found among both men and women, sexual harassment is largely shouldered by young women, who experience violence at in far higher numbers. A 2011 study published in the journal Society and Mental Health found that sexual harassment in the workplace and early on in a woman’s career can cause long term depression. Other studies have shown that sexual assault causes enough psychological distress that women underperform at work and lose income. Some cases result in PTSD.
All the while, women who speak out publicly about harassment are further dismissed and diminished.
The internet is overrun with examples of women advocating for their own safety and sexual autonomy. Gamergate was an internet controversy when women gamers, who started calling out the sexism within the gaming community, were met with everything from disbelief to death threats. Some men even kill women who reject their sexual advances. This deadly outcome of misogyny is enabled by a society that does little, if anything, to educate men of any age about sexism and gender violence and hold them accountable for their actions.
A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center indicates the high levels of sexist denial: 56 percent of men do not believe women still face significant barriers when it comes to “getting ahead.” Given the alarmingly high sexual harassment statistics, this number shows that the majority of men are totally disconnected from the reality of women’s lives. Put simply: men are unaware about what women go through. One can imagine these are the same men that call women liars when they report sexual harassment, or are brave enough to report a rape.
Many people are likely to have heard a horror story about a rape survivor who nobody believed. Audrie and Daisey, the recent Netflix documentary, is about two high school girls who were relentlessly shamed and abused by their communities. Both girls had video evidence of the attack by boys at school, and were tormented by their classmates who chose instead to support the assailants.
There exists an education and understanding gap not only for men, but among young women too. Another depressing finding of the Harvard study is that many young people, including women, do not see many forms of gender-motivated degradation as a problem.
Among survey respondents, 48 percent said they agreed or were neutral that our society has moved beyond double standards for women. Of the men surveyed, a third said they thought it was appropriate for men to have a “dominant” role in a relationship with a woman. A concerted, universal effort to educate all genders about is required. A world where 87 percent of young women are sexually harassed is in fact one where double standards exist, and where dangerously exert their power over women.
And that Pew report about whether or not women still face barriers in society? 34 percent of women agreed with the majority of men that the women are now equal to men. Denial and thus inaction come disproportionately from men, but plenty of women are yet to acknowledge inequality.
The Harvard study recommends that parents and educators need to step up and have what may seem like uncomfortable conversations with the young adults in their lives. These talks need to be ongoing throughout adolescence: in class, over dinner, during car rides, when a kid starts bringing a new significant other around the house.
Regardless of how difficult these conversations may be for the older adults, fixing misogyny requires taking on the headspace of men who view themselves as dominant, and taking care of women who have almost certainly been harassed. Simply asking what young adults think about respect and love, and challenging them to course-correct when their responses sound unhealthy or sexist could make all the difference.