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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Anita Hill: We can’t leave it to a woke new generation to end sexual harassment

Relying on Gen Zers and millennials to reform society in the future does not relieve older generations of our responsibility.

Anita Hill testifies at a Senate confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Anita Hill testifies at a Senate confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas in 1991.NTY
A copy of the book cover for Brandeis professor Anita Hill's new book, "BELIEVING." It is due out September 28.
Brandeis professor Anita Hill's new book, "BELIEVING," is due out September 28.Handout

In October 2017, sitting at my desk reading through some of the many stories being shared under the banner of #MeToo, I felt a sense of déjà vu. A similar groundswell of outrage and activism had followed the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, and many believed it would be a turning point, that sexual harassment and assault would finally be taken seriously by society and the courts.

We all hoped that the reports of long-standing abuses in Hollywood and other industries, and the flood of stories they unleashed, would usher in a period of reckoning. All seemed to agree: Time was up — needed to be up — for sexism and its insidious choke hold on everyone’s lives. Yet despite the progress made over the past few years, it’s become apparent that the reckoning that has materialized has in no way matched the volume of complaints. And disappointment is mounting in those who expected #MeToo to be the wake-up call our government needed to address gender-based violence. The truth is, I am not surprised. History has taught me that this problem will take more than mere testimony to solve.

The #MeToo movement did accomplish something that did not exist before 2017: It broke open a public conversation about the pervasive nature of gender-based violence. It also prompted a more nuanced conversation about all that falls under the gender-based violence umbrella and how it creeps into our lives at an early age and follows us from place to place. No longer could one credibly claim that the abuses a few had stepped up to complain about in courts were fictitious or overblown.

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One of the most troubling #MeToo revelations was how often and regularly young people experience gender violence. Survivors and victims of all genders described abuse that began when they were children and continued on a daily basis in our elementary, middle, and high schools, a generational wave after wave.

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With participants of all ages, the movement made clear that gender-based violence has existed for generations in precisely the same forms as it exists today. And that will continue to be the case until we let go of a persistent myth: that one day a generation will come along that will no longer tolerate it. It won’t magically disappear any more than pollution or poverty or racism or hunger or any of the other evils that are recurring features of our human experience.

I remember when it was thought that the baby boomer generation would be the one that would put bias aside, along with the violence prompted by prejudice and animus. We were the generation that criticized our parents for segregating housing, schools, and workplaces, and for tolerating glass ceilings and pregnancy or parental discrimination that blocked women’s success. But though boomers preached love and peace, they largely ignored intimate partner violence in our homes, sexual extortion on work sites, and sexual assault in our schools. It’s no surprise that we have now seen prominent baby boomers, including actors, politicians, and journalists, exiting the scene in shame.

It is true that Gen Zers and millennials are more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, less tolerant of racism, and more likely to say that sexual harassment is a problem, according to public opinion polls. And optimists, me included, would like to believe that a new generation’s thinking about differences will lead to a natural evolution of ideas and conduct in our colleges and universities, as well as in our workplaces, homes, and streets. We cite promising surveys providing proof that a higher percentage of Gen Zers and millennials think same-sex marriage is good for society, that people ought to avoid offending people from different backgrounds, and that online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than “man” or “woman.”

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We take comfort in statistics verifying that 91 percent of Gen Zers believe that everyone is equal and should be treated equally. We read articles declaring that because of these progressive attitudes, the youngest generation won’t tolerate sexual harassment in our workplaces. And thus, they represent our hope for ending gender-based abuses. So we tell ourselves that we need only wait for them to come of age or for a change of the guard — the tipping point when they will hold most government and workplace positions and can implement policies that reflect their progressive values.

More than polls, online activities of teens and tweens offer us a glimpse of how much we can count on a younger generation to evolve us into a society of egalitarianism. With the growth of the Internet has come the growth of the culture of gender violence. Chat rooms and other social media can offer young people a way to connect, find communities of peers with whom they identify, and even heal from school pressures and other challenges that teens and tweens face. However, these chat rooms also sometimes breed bad behavior of all sorts, including gender-based violence — bullying, spreading rumors, and harassment. Young girls have been targeted by older men pretending to be their peers. And not all millennials are on board with the #MeToo agenda of prioritizing anti-harassment efforts. According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, only 55 percent of men aged 18 to 49 considered sexual harassment a major problem — a 16‑point drop since 2017.

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No one generation is going to miraculously overcome the misogyny that has plagued the world from time immemorial. Millennials and Gen Zers did not invent the myth of the woke generation. Each generation before them has employed some version of it. Passing off the culture of gender-based violence that Gen Xers and boomers inherited to younger generations only delays progress. And relying on Gen Zers and millennials to reform society in the future does not relieve older generations of our responsibility to end the abuse happening in elementary and secondary schools throughout the country today.


Anita Hill is a professor at Brandeis University. This essay was adapted from the book “BELIEVING” by Anita Hill, to be published on September 28, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Hill. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.