Metro

Millions of women say ‘Me too’ about sexual harassment

Said Brandeis University professor Anita Hill: “The more women who come forward will help us to sear in the public imagination the experience of harassment, as well as the horror of it.”
Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe/file 2014
Said Brandeis University professor Anita Hill: “The more women who come forward will help us to sear in the public imagination the experience of harassment, as well as the horror of it.”

One woman recalled a man in a park jamming his hand down her pants when she was 16. Another said she was accosted by her resident adviser in college. Still another said her boss told her he would give her a raise in exchange for oral sex.

Millions of women have come forward on social media to tell their stories of sexual assault and harassment since Sunday, when actress Alyssa Milano suggested that victims post “#metoo” on social media to show the magnitude of the problem.

Some were famous actresses, including Debra Messing and Anna Paquin. Others were Web developers, photographers, and self-described soccer moms. Some recalled horrific accounts of rape; others told of attempted assaults and sexual comments muttered in the office.

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Their voices represented a rallying cry, borne of anger and frustration, and a statement of solidarity after accusations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and President Trump, to name just a few.

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And their voices quickly dominated social media. More than 550,000 #MeToo tweets were sent Monday, and some 4.7 million people commented or engaged in other ways on Facebook.

Women’s advocates said they hoped the public airing of survivors’ experiences would help shift the conversation about sexual harassment, nearly three decades after Anita Hill, a little-known lawyer, brought the issue to national attention when she accused her boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.

“It is a moment for change, and there is a lot of energy there,” Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, said Monday.

“It makes it harder for people to just deny that the problem exists,” she said. “In 1991, there were so many people who just didn’t believe there was a problem. We’re building on that now, and the more women who come forward will help us to sear in the public imagination the experience of harassment, as well as the horror of it — that it’s not just harmless flirtation — it is impacting people’s lives and their ability to work.”

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Martha Coakley, a former Massachusetts attorney general, said the outpouring of women sharing their experiences of harassment represents progress because it “shines a light on something particularly ugly that people know about, but nobody wants to do anything about.”

But it’s not enough, she said.

“Unless there is fairness for women in education, government, nonprofits, and the corporate world, it will potentially be a flash in the pan,” she said. “All of these things are a step forward, but they have to be supplemented with real change for girls and women to have clout.”

Research has shown that an estimated 87 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have experienced some form of harassment, such as catcalls, being touched without permission by a stranger, or being insulted with sexual comments.

Yet upwards of 85 percent of people who experience sexual harassment at work never file a formal legal charge, and about 70 percent of employees never complain internally, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws.

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Nancy Ryan, who was director of the Cambridge Women’s Commission for 25 years, pointed out that women are often reluctant to come forward when they are harassed because they don’t want to believe it happened, feel badly about themselves, or fear losing their jobs or career status.

‘The more women who come forward will help us to sear in the public imagination . . . that it’s not just harmless flirtation.’

Anita Hill, Brandeis University professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment 

But the revelations about actresses and models being harassed by Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, are emboldening more women to step forward, she said. The disclosures were first reported by the New York Times on Oct. 5 and have led many prominent women, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, to recount their own allegations of harassment by Weinstein.

“I think this has unleashed the memories and the horror of the experiences that just about every one of us – myself included — have faced being harassed, or touched, or ogled by strangers, by bosses, by people you know,” Ryan said. “It really has unleashed a kind of recognition of how awful this is, and how prevalent this is.”

She said she hopes the flood of online testimony can change the culture.

“I think the outpouring of experiences is going to make it possible for more and more women to speak out, and more men to understand the impact of their behavior, because a lot of these behaviors we’ve taken for granted,” she said. “I think this will prompt more and more people to say, ‘I’m not going to take this. I’m going to report it.’ ”

Others cautioned that unless the issue remains front and center and prompts changes in workplace policies and culture, it could evaporate like so many other ephemeral statements of solidarity posted online after mass shootings.

“There is a danger of this having a flavor-of-the-month quality,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer in education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who has researched romantic relationships, sexual harassment, and misogyny among young people. “[Accountability] has to be built into our institutions, schools, colleges, and workplaces.”

Courtney Bither, 22, a Harvard Divinity School student, posted #metoo on Twitter on Monday, but said she did so with mixed emotions. She said she doesn’t believe it should be the job of victims to spread awareness, but she recognizes that their voices are crucial.

“When you’re a survivor, you’re in this tension: Am I allowed to log off?” she said. “Do I have to read all these stories? If I don’t contribute, am I leaving myself out of the community that I feel a responsibility for?”

Samantha Oliver, a 31-year-old recruiter for the startup incubator Cogo Labs, posted #metoo but did not share her own experience of being sexually assaulted. She said she’s been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder since 2011.

“It’s a big part of myself I can’t share with other people,” Oliver said. “It makes men uncomfortable, and women in tech have had negative reactions when I try to talk about this.”

Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, also tweeted #metoo. She said the problem of sexual harassment will only change once people recognize how widespread and overwhelming it is.

“I think it’s hard to look at the scale and the scope of the violence against women and vulnerable people,” she said. “But I also think we have a moral obligation to sit in the discomfort and not look away.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.