It seems like just about every day, we hear about another case of sexual assault or harassment perpetrated by powerful men from Hollywood to D.C. to New York. The Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal has drawn renewed attention to older scandals, like the ongoing sexual harassment case against Bill O’Reilly, and has helped to unearth new ones. While overly explicit at times, the media's coverage of these cases is as important as the #metoo social media campaign in giving victims a voice and exposing their victimizers. But lasting cultural change ultimately depends on the next generation—the young men and women coming up behind us, our sons and daughters—and how they respond.
Are the women and men of tomorrow prepared to combat sexually degrading behaviors and attitudes in the workplace, the classroom, and elsewhere—or will they accept these behaviors and attitudes as normal?
It's an important question we need to be asking, according to Harvard University senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd, the lead author of a recent report that warns that acceptance of sexual harassment and misogyny may be increasing among teens and young adults.
“Pervasive sexual harassment and misogyny are certainly not new, but we seem to be making frighteningly little progress in preventing it,” Professor Weissbourd, the faculty director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, told me in an email. “It’s widespread among teens and young adults, yet both parents and educators tend not to engage young people in serious conversations about why it’s so troubling and what they can do to stop it.”
This past May, the Making Caring Common Project released a report that sheds some light on the attitudes of young people regarding these issues. The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment is based on findings from a national survey of about 3,000 18 to 25-year-olds that was conducted by Weissbourd and his colleagues.
One of the report's most disturbing findings is that “misogyny and sexual harassment" are prevalent among young people. As one 16-year-old high school student from California told the researchers:
One thing that I think all girls go through at some age is the realization that their body, seemingly, is not entirely for themselves anymore...the unfortunate thing is that we all just sort of accept it as a fact of life.
The report cites one national study from 2011 that found that “nearly half of students in grades 7-12 reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous year.” Likewise, the Harvard survey of 18- to-25-year-olds found that:
- 87% percent of young women reported experiencing at least one of these behaviors in the past: being catcalled (55%), touched without permission by a stranger (41%), insulted with sexualized words (e.g., “slut,” “ho,” etc.) by a man (47%), insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42%), and having a stranger say something sexual to them (52%), and having a stranger tell them they were "hot" (61%).
- Half of the young men reported harassing a woman in at least one of these ways.
Equally troubling, is that “many young people don’t see certain types of gender degradation or subordination as problems.” For example:
- 82% of males and 76% of females either agreed or were neutral that, “Women are turned on/find it sexy when men get a little rough with them.”
- 48% either agreed or were neutral that “society has reached a point that there is no more double standard against women.”
- 39% either agreed or were neutral that it’s “rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television.”
So how do we explain young people’s attitudes about these issues? One culprit, according to the report, is the prevalence of sexually explicit media, where examples of "misogyny and sexual harassment" can be found in everything from music lyrics to video games. The report continues:
Terms that many boys and young men use to describe sex these days—‘I hit that,’ ‘I nailed that,’ ‘I crushed that’—are unnervingly degrading and violent…Lifestyle magazines that are popular among young women are often astonishingly creative in finding new ways to instruct females on how to sexually please males. Males as young as middle school are now often saturated with porn, which itself is steeped in misogyny and reinforces all sorts of pernicious ideas about sex—that women want what men think they want, that seeking to dominate is a sign of strength rather than fragility, and that women enjoy domination and degradation, and that real intimacy is unerotic.
When I asked Professor Weissbourd about the role of porn in distorting young people’s attitudes about sex, he said, “Porn fuels all sorts of degrading images of women and troubling ideas about sex, but we aren’t talking to young people about it.” While he doesn’t believe “we can stop teens from watching porn,” he said “we should be trying out a variety of messages and strategies in schools and homes that seek to reduce porn watching. And educators, parents and other adults should be discussing with teens why porn is troubling.”
Although research consistently shows that parents remain the greatest influence on teens when it comes to sex, sadly, many parents are not talking to young people about how to form healthy relationships, including how to combat sexual harassment and assault. For example, 76% of 18-to-25-year-olds in the Harvard survey said they had “never had a conversation with their parents” about how to avoid sexual harassment. Furthermore, 61% of respondents had never spoken with their parents about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex,” 48% had never discussed with their parents the importance of assuring your “own comfort before engaging in sex,” and 57% had never discussed with their parents the “importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex.”
So why aren’t more parents having these important conversations? According to Weissbourd, “many parents aren’t confident that they have the skills to guide these conversations effectively, and many parents believe, often wrongly, that their teens can’t handle these conversations.”
“But parents should be seizing many moments to engage their teens about sexual harassment, misogyny, and healthy love,” he added, noting that the Weinstein scandal presents a prime opportunity.
The good news is that young people want to hear more from their parents and other trusted adults about healthy relationships. For those of us who want to talk about these issues with our kids but don’t know where to start, The Talk report contains some helpful resources. This includes the following tips for parents:
- Clearly define sexual harassment and degradation.
- Step in and say something when you hear or observe a sexually degrading or harassing comment or behavior from your child.
- Teach your children to be critical consumers of media and culture.
- Talk to them about what to do if they are sexually harassed or degraded.
- Encourage and expect young people to protect themselves and others.
- Ensure that they have multiple sources of recognition and self-worth (beyond their peers).
To defeat the Harvey Weinsteins of tomorrow, we must pro-actively combat the sexually degrading and objectifying messages young people are absorbing from the culture today. Instead of allowing popular culture to shape the sexual values of future generations, we have a responsibility to talk often with our children about healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors, including the benefits of delaying sex for as long as possible, ideally until marriage. Along with teaching our sons and daughters to respect their own and other people’s bodies, we must equip them to speak up whenever they witness another person being victimized. Sexually degrading and abusive behaviors thrive in silence, which is why we can't afford to remain silent on these matters any longer.
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.