Is a lack of understanding the crux of the sexual harassment dilemma?

According to an Ipsos MORI poll, less than a third (30%) of people in Britain think that nowadays, reports of sexual harassment are generally ignored. But is this really the case? Ilya Cereso reflects on a widespread lack of understanding around what constitutes sexual harassment, and its prevalence.

The author(s)

  • Ilya Cereso Ipsos Public Affairs, UK
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According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, less than a third (30%) of people in Britain think that nowadays, reports of sexual harassment are generally ignored. Recent allegations against a number of high-profile men have brought the subject back into the media – but what happens after this immediate media focus on these events dies down? The move on to new issues of the day arguably perpetuates a lack of awareness of sexual harassment and thus ignorance around the issue. Could this ignorance stop further victims from coming forward to get the justice they deserve?

Awareness is lacking

Data from the Ipsos MORI Gender Perils of Perception study in February 2018 shows Brits lack awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment. For instance, when asked how many women out of 100 had experienced any form of sexual harassment, the mean given by men was 52% and by women was 58%. In reality, 68% of women in Britain say they have experienced sexual harassment. By comparison, Americans are more likely to estimate the figure accurately; women on average estimated 64% and men estimated 49%, with the actual figure 60%.

More recent research by Ipsos MORI suggests that lower levels of awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment could lead to the issue not being prioritised. The results of our 2019 survey on attitudes to gender equality, in collaboration with International Women’s Day and King’s College London, found that Brits see the top three issues facing women and girls as equal pay (29%), domestic abuse (20%), and sexual harassment (20%). Globally, however, sexual harassment was seen as the biggest issue (30%). The perception that there are more important issues to tackle in the UK arguably leads to the issue not receiving the necessary focus.

There also seems to be a worrying lack of awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, with a quarter (24%) of Brits agreeing that nearly all instances of sexual harassment would end if the woman told the man to stop. That’s a fairly large number who fail to understand the power plays often at work in harassment, and deems the victim responsible if they fail to speak out.

A vicious circle

And herein lies the vicious circle. If we do not fully understand the scale and nature of sexual harassment, it will neither give the issue the attention needed nor create an environment in which women feel supported enough to report sexual offences. The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW 2018) estimated that just 17% of rape victims reported it to the police, and while no data is collected on other types of sexual offences, reporting rates for these are likely to be lower still. Several reasons dissuade victims from reporting, including a belief that the perpetrator would not be prosecuted, embarrassment and / or thinking that they will not be believed. And this fear is not unjustified: just 1.7% of rapes and 3.8% of sexual offences reported in England and Wales in 2018 led to a charge or summons.

Victims fear they’ll get the blame

A widespread lack of awareness around sexual harassment is not the only factor in a victim’s decision to come forward – victims also fear public scrutiny, threats and abuse. ‘Victim blaming’ is still prevalent; for example, a survey carried out for the Independent found that 55% of men and 41% of women believe women are more likely to be sexually assaulted if they are wearing revealing clothes.

The need to #PressforProgress

All is not doom and gloom. There has certainly been progress in the level of understanding around the issues of harassment, in part due to #MeToo and the International Women’s Day campaign #pressforprogress. This is also likely to affect how seriously accusations of harassment are taken. Brits have noticed positive changes in the past five years - in 2018, 30% thought that reports of sexual harassment were generally ignored, far lower than the 65% who say they think reports were generally ignored five years ago. While these figures suggest positive change, public ignorance and fear of victim-blaming remain key factors in a victim’s decision to report sexual harassment, especially when the accused is in a position of power. This suggests that many more may be guilty of sexual misconduct without facing consequences. The question of what it will take for accusations of sexual misconduct to be taken seriously remains unanswered.

The author(s)

  • Ilya Cereso Ipsos Public Affairs, UK