MORE THAN TWO years have passed since the New York Times and the New Yorker first reported allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. This week a jury in Manhattan may deliver a verdict for the disgraced film producer, on charges that include rape, criminal sexual assault and predatory sexual assault. Much has changed for Mr Weinstein since allegations against him emerged, sparking a global reckoning over sexual abuse by powerful men. He and his film studio face a $25m bill to settle civil lawsuits brought by his alleged victims. If convicted in his criminal case, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
But have views on the treatment of women changed in the wake of #MeToo? In October 2017 The Economist commissioned YouGov, a pollster, to survey 1,500 American adults about their attitudes towards sexual harassment. Respondents were asked whether 12 different acts—from “asking for a drink” to “requesting a sexual favour”—constituted harassment. The exercise was repeated in October 2018 and again last year.
The results suggest that there is just as much disagreement about the boundaries of acceptable behaviour today as there was before Mr Weinstein’s fall. On the one hand, men seem more aware of the problem: since 2017 the share of male respondents saying the acts covered in our survey qualify as harassment has jumped by eight percentage points, on average. On the other hand, the divide between men and women observed in our survey two years ago remains unchanged, at around five percentage points, which is beyond the margin of error of plus-minus two points. This average encompasses much variation: there is little difference between the sexes over asking a woman out for a drink (mostly OK) or flashing (almost never OK). There are more marked differences on other acts, eg, sexual jokes and grinding in a club. The most striking disagreement concerns looking at a woman’s breasts, on which the gap is 24 points.
Disagreement over what is acceptable does not only divide men and women. There is also a split along educational lines. For example, 82% of college-educated men think sexual jokes constitute sexual harassment, whereas only 69% of men without a college degree think the same. For wolf-whistling, the impact of education levels is striking, even between the two sexes: 71% of college-educated men say that it constitutes harassment; but only 53% of women without a college degree feel the same way.
Whether Mr Weinstein is found guilty or not, the nature of his alleged crimes is pretty clear-cut. But the rules of everyday behaviour remain much less so. Judging by our survey’s findings, society will be arguing over them for years to come.
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