Are sexual harassment and sexual assault as common now as they were in the early 1990s?
The research suggests that sexual harassment and sexual assault still happen at alarming rates, but assessing change over time is complicated.
In terms of sexual harassment, a detailed 2016 report by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission summarized decades of research, including studies that found that 85 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Across studies, researchers have found that the more blatant forms of sexual harassment, such as threats or coercion, are somewhat less common than when Anita Hill accused Thomas, while the hostile work environment forms, such as sexist and sexualizing comments and sidelining of women, still abound.
These studies show that sexual harassment rates remain particularly high for women of color and for women who are isolated, economically vulnerable, or in settings where more traditional beliefs about gender roles are held – or a combination of all those factors. Not much seems to be changing in terms of these dynamics. But survey studies do not tend to look at incidence year by year.
Data about legal claims provide some insights about change over time. There were 10,500 reports of sexual harassment filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1992, the year after Hill testified; 11,300 such cases came before the commission in 2011.
In terms of sexual assault, the Department of Justice estimates that rates have fallen 63 percent since 1993, from 4.3 assaults per 1,000 people in 1993 to 1.6 per 1000 in 2015. But it's important to avoid confusing this reduction with "problem solved." One recent poll reveals that about 25 percent of college-age women reported being sexually assaulted in 2015.
The findings summarized above do not lead to a definitive conclusion that harassment has gone up or sexual assault has gone down. There are at least two complicating factors.
First, in what seems like a contradictory finding, reports often go up, not down, following interventions designed to reduce sexual harassment. Rather than signaling spiraling incidence, increased reporting is often intertwined with increased awareness of what constitutes unacceptable behavior.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years with reports rising to over 15,000 per year in the late 1990s after Anita Hill's testimony. It would not be surprising if the number of cases goes back up in the next few years after the past year's events. And such an upsurge may well represent progress because it may say more about changing norms about how women should be treated than about the incidence of harassment and discrimination.
Researchers have also found that saying "yes" to a survey item that simply asks "have you ever been sexually harassed" hovers in the 25 percent range. However, many of the same respondents who say they have not been "sexually harassed" will say yes when asked whether they have been "threatened if you did not cooperate with a bosses' sexual advances."
Second, the risk of relying on formal reporting, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Department of Justice data, is that this only captures the cases where women filed a formal report. This brings us to question number two: Are women now more likely to report to authorities?