Opinion: Prevention is Key to Halting #MeToo Across Generations in California

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Stories of sexual harassment and assault permeate our society as the #MeToo movement gives rise to women and men who had previously remained quiet about abuse.

No occupation or industry appears to be immune, including my own: academia. Leaders at illustrious universities in our state have been forced to step down, due to abuse they perpetrated or due to their turning a blind eye to the abusive behaviors of others. Two high profile allegations made by professors in California against political figures have brought even more attention to this issue.

Certainly, I have not been immune to sexual harassment and to the decision to say nothing about it. I expected (and ignored) sexual harassment on the street and in bars, but when professors in my graduate program sexually harassed me, I was at a loss. I stayed quiet because I felt I could lose more than I gained by bringing forward any claims.

Then I learned that my daughter had been sexually harassed at 14 by a group of boys while she walked from her high school to the local library. After that, she stopped walking to the library from school, and I began to question the value of my silence.

When my daughter first told me what had happened to her, my first thought was, “so soon?” instead of, “how could this happen?” Only then did I realize that I had seen and tolerated sexual harassment in public spaces and in my training institutions for so long that I had lost sight of the fact that these behaviors are intolerable.

They were intolerable when my first kiss was from a man I did not know that walked by me at the state fair when I was 12 years old. It was intolerable when I heard a science fair coach jokingly speak of taking advantage of me sexually when I was 14. And it is most intolerable that nothing has changed as my daughter endures the same thing. Sexual assault and harassment is not inevitable, but we know it happens and we know that it’s an issue in California. 

Anita Raj

As a researcher and as someone who, like many in my generation, has faced sexual harassment on more occasions that I care to consider, I hope my research team’s new study, “Measuring #MeToo in California,” will help show how prevalent sexual harassment is, so we can work to end it. Is the first state representative study on sexual harassment in California, jointly released from the UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Center for Gender Equity and Health, where I am the director, and the nonprofit organization California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

In California, 86 percent of women and half of all men have been sexually harassed. This includes harassment that is verbal (unwanted sexual remarks, homophobic remarks), cyber (unwanted sexual texting), and physically aggressive (stalking, unwanted rubbing against someone sexually).

While these figures are staggering, equally shocking is the percent of people—female and male—who report that they were sexually harassed at school. It was disturbing to see that 39 percent of women and 23 percent of men reported this.

A more detailed analysis of the data on sexual harassment from elementary to high school further indicates a dramatic increase in experiences from elementary to middle school, and escalating verbal sexual harassment for girls as they move from middle school to high school. Further, the findings show that cyber-harassment and more physically aggressive forms of sexual harassment, while overall are more likely for women than men, are more likely for males than females in high school.

These findings highlight the need for greater focus on prevention of sexual harassment in youth, and greater recognition of forms of sexual harassment that disproportionately affect males, particularly in school.

Youth who experience sexual harassment—either directly or by watching it happen to someone else—may learn to tolerate these behaviors or become confused about what constitutes abuse. The evidence suggests that this leads to continued sexual harassment or even assault in adulthood.

The key to stopping sexual harassment and assault is preventing the generational transmission of sexual harassment acceptance.

In California, there are examples of comprehensive programs, such as the California Department of Public Health’s Rape Prevention and Education program, but it is necessary to bolster these efforts to make a significant impact. To fulfill the goals of the #MeToo movement, we must step up prevention among young people.

Strong prevention efforts would have made a difference for me when I was growing up. For my daughter and for generations to come, we need to do better.

Anita Raj is the director of the UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Center for Gender Equity and Health and a professor in the department of medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

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