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Measuring #MeToo: more than 80 percent of women have been sexually harassed or assaulted

A new survey asked Americans about sexual harassment and assault. The results are disturbing.

Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles in November 2017
Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles in November 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images
Anna North covers care work and education in America, including the politics and policy around child care, schools, reproductive health care, paid leave, and more. She came to Vox from the New York Times.

Your mother. Your best friend. Your daughter. Your boss.

For many people, part of the current #MeToo moment has been learning that some of the people closest to us have been through sexual harassment or assault, experiences many never talked about until recently. In the past few months, the sheer prevalence of such experiences has been a surprise for some — and for others, a bittersweet confirmation of a problem too long swept under the rug.

But broad data on how common sexual harassment really is has been difficult to come by. That changed on Wednesday when the group Stop Street Harassment released a nationwide survey on harassment and assault.

According to the survey, which used a nationally representative sample of about 2,000 adults, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lives. People with disabilities were more likely than others to report experiencing harassment and assault, and gay and bisexual men were more likely to report these experiences than straight men.

A significant portion of people who were harassed or assaulted experienced depression or anxiety as a result. Overall, the survey paints a picture of a problem that is near ubiquitous for women and distressingly common for men, and can cause real and serious harm to the people it affects.

A majority of women, and many men, reported some form of sexual harassment

In the past, research on sexual harassment has tended to focus on specific scenarios — like harassment in public spaces — or demographic groups, according to the Stop Street Harassment report. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers a broader view but focuses on physical experiences.

The Stop Street Harassment survey, meanwhile, looked not just at the prevalence of harassment and assault overall but also at different types of experiences as well as different locations, like home, work, or school. Respondents had to choose whether they identified as female or male, though they were also asked a separate question about their preferred gender identity — 13 people identified as transgender, 5 as other, and 63 did not respond to the gender identity question.

The most common type of harassment was verbal, according to the survey, with 77 percent of women and 34 percent of men reporting that they had experienced it at some point in their lives. Sixty-two percent of women and 26 percent of men reported physical harassment, including unwelcome sexual touching (51 percent of women and 17 percent of men), being followed (34 percent of women and 12 percent of men), and being shown someone else’s genitals against their will (30 percent of women and 12 percent of men). Forty-one percent of women and 22 percent of men reported harassment by text, phone, or online.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported experiencing sexual assault.

Chart depicting prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the United States Courtesy of Stop Street Harassment

The most common place to experience sexual harassment, according to the survey, was a public space like the street or a store, with 66 percent of women and 19 percent of men reporting harassment in such places. Workplace harassment was less common, with 38 percent of women and 13 percent of men reporting being harassed at work. Thirty percent of women and 14 percent of men reported being harassed in primary or secondary school, while 16 percent of women and 6 percent of men said they were harassed at a college or university.

When the survey’s authors broke down their results by race, they did not find significant differences in the prevalence of sexual harassment or assault among women. Hispanic men, however, reported experiencing more harassment and assault than either black or white men.

Lesbian and bisexual respondents did not experience significantly more sexual harassment than straight female respondents, but they were more likely to have experienced sexual assault, with 48 percent of lesbian and bisexual women reporting assault compared with 25 percent of straight women. Meanwhile, 42 percent of gay and bisexual men reported physically aggressive sexual harassment, compared with 25 percent of straight men, and 19 percent of gay and bisexual men reported sexual assault, compared with 6 percent of straight men.

People with disabilities were more likely to report all forms of sexual harassment and assault than people without disabilities, according to the survey. For instance, 69 percent of women and 39 percent of men with disabilities reported physically aggressive sexual harassment, compared with 59 percent of women and 23 percent of men without disabilities.

When the survey’s authors asked about the impact of sexual harassment and assault, the results were sobering. Thirty-one percent of women and 20 percent of men reported feeling anxiety or depression. Twenty-three percent of women and 12 percent of men said they changed a regular routine or travel route. Less than 10 percent of both women and men said they had filed an official complaint or report about the experience.

Chart depicting the impact of sexual harassment and assault Courtesy of Stop Street Harassment

A survey focusing on Hollywood reveals additional disturbing results

Another survey, released this week and conducted by USA Today in partnership with the Creative Coalition, Women in Film and Television, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, looked specifically at sexual misconduct in Hollywood. Of the 843 women in entertainment who responded — actors, producers, editors, and others — a full 94 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment or assault at some point in their Hollywood careers. Meanwhile, 21 percent reported being forced to perform a sexual act, and 10 percent reported being unexpectedly ordered to appear naked for auditions.

The USA Today survey was conducted on a self-selected sample — women who responded to emails inviting them to participate — and is not necessarily representative of the industry as a whole. But like a recent survey on sexual misconduct in academia, it sheds some light on an area that needs more research and may inspire more rigorous work in the future.

In recent months, public reports of sexual misconduct by high-profile people have given Americans some sense of the scope of the problem. But those reports don’t tell us how many people have been affected by harassment and assault as part of their daily lives — how many people have been targeted for abuse at work, at school, on the street, or in their homes. Thanks to the Stop Street Harassment survey and other efforts, we’re now beginning to get a sense of those numbers, and they aren’t encouraging. But understanding just how big the problem is may be the first step to solving it.