Do Millennials Have a Different Understanding of Harassment?

Sexual misbehavior may have existed for all time, but these days we’re seeing something different. Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and many more are finally being held accountable for their predatory actions, at least in the court of public opinion. Those whose allegations of sexual misbehavior are coming out now are facing far more popular scrutiny than those whose allegations came out one or two decades ago—think, Woody Allen or Bill Clinton. 

This is unprecedented in our sexually saturated culture. If we needed another sign of how things are changing, consider that now companies are buying insurance coverage to cover executives who sexually harass their employees. It’s not just bad private behavior anymore; it’s public and very bad for business.

What accounts for the change? Part of this shift is due to millennial culture and habits. Millennials grew up hearing anti-sexual harassment rhetoric in the 1990s, and today, they happen to be quite savvy with a tool that other generations didn’t have: social media. 

For many, sexual harassment entered the nation’s pop-culture consciousness on October 11, 1991, with headlines announcing that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was being accused of sexual harassment by a former employee, Anita Hill. On that day, Hill testified during Thomas’ confirmation hearing about his alleged conduct when they worked together at the U.S. Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This also coincided with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which included an expansion of the rights of women to sue and collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual discrimination and harassment. 

As an older millennial (b. 1982), I didn’t know what “sexual harassment” was at age nine, but I knew it was bad and have grown up with that belief as dogma ever since. Three years later, the Simpsons would also tackle this issue in the episode titled “Homer Badman,” in which Homer is accused of sexual harassment for grabbing the Gummi Venus de Milo off his babysitter’s jeans. It’s a very funny episode, even though harassment is not a funny matter. The underlying assumption was that sexual harassment was so unacceptable, only a fool would do it; a legal and cultural shift had begun.

Now that these millennials have grown up and become pioneers of the social media age, sharing anything and everything online, they have also harnessed its power to expose harassment. Not only are millennials quicker to identify and respond with outrage to allegations of sexual harassment, their responses spread like wildfire on social media. Like much of sexual misbehavior, harassment thrives in environments of shame and silence, but public sharing through campaigns like the #MeToo movement has brought to light behavior that used to be known only to a few.

What all of these factors together have created is an environment of greater accountability. As a psychologist, I can say that to some extent this follows principles of behavioral modification commonly used by parents training kids out of bad behavior. To change behavior, you first need to establish an expectation and standard of behavior. Then, you need a means of accountability to employ when those expectations are not met. Until the age of social media, women didn’t have much of a means to employ. Now, their voices cannot be so easily silenced, and after many women share their testimony of harassment, it is difficult to ignore. The result is victims now have more leverage, their power to hold perpetrators accountable is growing, even if mostly in the court of public opinion. Just look at how quickly George H. W. Bush apologized last month after being accused of harassment; he wanted to avoid getting lumped in with the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

One hopes that these changes also suggest that millennial men will improve upon the behavior of previous generations, even though they have their own problems with how they treat women. Older men may make lousy co-workers/bosses when it comes to harassment, but it would appear that the older generations of men are better at dating than their millennial counterparts. Of course, when it comes to workplace behavior, we cannot fully measure cultural progress until millennial men are in positions of authority since a common theme among sexual predators is often an abuse of authority. But it’s been more than twenty-five years since the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill headlines and the overall shift towards greater accountability is promising. The next twenty-five years will determine whether these gains last.

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