Understanding the Me Too Movement: A Sexual Harassment Awareness Guide

The “Me Too” movement, which focuses on the experiences of sexual violence survivors, has earned a large response precisely because sexual harassment and sexual assault impact people every day. By sharing their own experiences, the movement’s proponents hope to show just how common sexual harassment is. The hope is that, if people are more aware of sexual harassment and how casually it is sometimes treated, then tolerance for it will decrease and support for victims will rise.

What Is the Me Too Movement?

The Me Too movement is an effort to effect social change, organized primarily through social media, where it is often expressed as #MeToo. Originally founded in 2006, it became prominent both online and in the mainstream in late 2017, when multiple high-profile actresses opened up about their experiences with sexual harassment in the film industry. Since then, the movement has provided a source of solidarity for women from all backgrounds who have experienced sexual harassment, most often, though not always, perpetrated by a male colleague.

Me Too Movement Founder: Tarana Burke

The Me Too movement can trace its origins to 2006. At that time, Tarana Burke, an American social activist, began to use the phrase “me too” on the Myspace social network to highlight the occurrence of sexual harassment, particularly as it targeted women of color. Burke argues that the Me Too movement works on empowerment through empathy, by showing the world just how common sexual harassment is and by telling survivors that they are not alone and are supported.

Popularization of #MeToo in 2017

In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano magnified Burke’s rallying cry, turning it into the popular #MeToo, which is still trending on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Milano’s actions came in response to a number of women in Hollywood opening up about their own experiences, many involving sexual harassment at the hands of well-known film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Although Weinstein’s accusers helped to start the movement, and Milano’s use of Burke’s phrase may have been a powerful catalyst, today the movement is still a source of solidarity for victims of sexual harassment. The fact that tweets and Instagram posts bearing the hashtag #MeToo are still posted daily serves as a reminder of just how widespread sexual violence still is.

Sexual Harassment Definition: What Is It?

The Me Too movement is primarily concerned with two types of behavior: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Although the precise legal definitions of these terms may vary from state to state, they are generally understood as referring to specific inappropriate sexual behaviors, especially in the workplace or at school.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment consists of “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Legally, sexual harassment in the workplace is covered under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the behaviors characteristic of sexual harassment are inappropriate and wrong, no matter where they’re being exhibited.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • One coworker making repeated unwanted sexual advances toward another, especially after being told to stop;
  • A superior asking for sexual favors from an employee in exchange for some benefit in the workplace, such as a promotion or a raise;
  • One employee touching another inappropriately;
  • A superior threatening an employee based on their unwillingness to engage in sexual or romantic activity with that superior.

Because sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment, all instances of sexual assault are also instances of sexual harassment. However, not all instances of sexual harassment are severe enough to qualify as sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault is characterized by sexual contact of any kind without the consent of the victim. This could include rape or attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, or forcing another person to perform sexual acts against their will. Sexual assault often includes the use of force, but force doesn’t have to be physical. It’s still sexual assault if a victim is coerced or manipulated into unwanted sexual behavior.

Examples of sexual assault:

  • The perpetrator sexually penetrating the victim, otherwise known as rape;
  • A professor threatening a student’s grades if that student doesn’t engage in certain sexual behaviors;
  • Someone touching another person sexually, without that person’s explicit consent. For example, one person groping another on a crowded train.

The above are just some examples of sexual harassment and sexual assault. These behaviors take many forms, and they are never acceptable.

Perpetrators of Sexual Harassment

There are no definite rules about whose actions can be classified as acts of sexual harassment. Although it is often characterized by one individual in a powerful position — such as a film producer or business executive — using their power to sexually abuse others, it’s still possible for anyone to engage in wrongful harassment, no matter their position.

In addition, it’s important to note that perpetrators often know their victims. As the Me Too movement has shown us, sexual harassment is often perpetrated by a coworker of the victim. It would be a mistake, then, to assume that sexual harassment generally occurs between random strangers, although these sorts of cases of sexual harassment do certainly happen.

Similar to perpetrators, there is no qualification for who can be the victim of sexual harassment. Although women have been the most visible voices in the Me Too movement, men have also been the subject of harassing behavior. Men and women can both be harassed by someone of either the same or opposite sex, so neither gender nor sexual orientation prevents someone from becoming the victim of harassment.

Sexual Assault Statistics

According to RAINN, millions of Americans have been affected by sexual violence. In particular:

  • The majority of sexual assault victims are younger people, with 54% of victims falling between 18 and 34 years of age.
  • Women and young girls are the most frequent victims of sexual violence; 82% of all juvenile victims of sexual assault are female, while 90% of adult rape victims are female.
  • Transgender people (and especially students) suffer higher rates of sexual violence than their cisgender peers.
  • Although men are less likely to suffer from sexual violence, millions of men have still been victims of sexual assault. As of 1998, 2.78 million American men were victims of rape or attempted rape.
  • According to the National Women’s Law Center, black women experience sexual harassment in the workplace at nearly three times the rate of white women.
  • Sexual violence often stays with a victim for a long time after the actual incident. 94% of women who have been raped experienced post-traumatic stress disorder following the rape. Seventy percent of sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, which is more than victims of any other violent crime.

Populations at Higher Risk of Sexual Violence
As noted above, certain populations are much more likely to be targets of sexual harassment. These at-risk populations may need additional support and resources to help prevent and understand sexual violence.


Women and girls are overwhelmingly the targets of sexual violence. This includes sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and rape.

College Students

Not all sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. It’s also possible for a professor or someone else in a position of power over students to abuse that power and engage in sexual harassment. Students may also be less aware of the resources available to them for pursuing justice following sexual harassment at the hands of a professor or mentor, since many are living on their own for the first time. However, every student has the right to seek justice following an incident of sexual violence, and such incidents can be reported to the school’s HR department, campus police, or other law enforcement, depending on the specifics of the case.

Members of the LGBTQ Community

Members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to suffer from sexual harassment compared to their straight and cisgender peers. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has detailed the rates at which LGBTQ people suffer from sexual violence:

  • 44% of gay women and 61% of bisexual women have suffered sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner. 35% of heterosexual women have experienced the same.
  • 46% of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17% of heterosexual women.
  • Among the LGBTQ community, transgender people are especially at risk of suffering from sexual violence. 47% of transgender people report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
  • Being an LGBTQ person of color increases the risk factor for sexual violence. For example, 65% of transgender American Indians have been victims of sexual assault.
  • The HRC points out that members of the LGBTQ community are also less likely to seek support or notify law enforcement following an instance of sexual violence, fearing discrimination from police, hospitals, or rape crisis centers.

Women of Color

Women of color suffer from sexual violence at higher rates than their white counterparts. As noted above, black women suffer from workplace sexual harassment at three times the rate of white women. Meanwhile, according to RAINN, Native Americans are twice as likely to experience sexual assault compared to all other races.

Male Sexual Assault

Although men experience sexual harassment at much lower rates than women, male sexual assault is still very real. Sometimes sexual violence against men is ignored altogether and male victims of sexual assault are discouraged from reporting what has happened to them, for fear of being told they are unmasculine. Instead of shaming men who have been the victims of sexual violence, RAINN recommends listening seriously to the experiences of male victims, expressing your concern and love for them, and validating their experiences.

Preventing Sexual Harassment and Assault

No one has ever asked to be sexually assaulted or harassed, and the responsibility for any instance of sexual harassment always falls on the perpetrator — not the victim. When considering how to reduce rates of sexual violence, it’s important to identify risk factors for sexual assault, find ways of stopping violence before it happens, and to make sure that victims have the support and resources they need to report abusers before they can strike again.

Stand Against Sexual Violence

Sometimes, preventing sexual assault is just a matter of standing up at the right time. If you spot suspicious behavior in public or among your friends, it’s better to confront the individual before the situation escalates into sexual violence. This could mean alerting someone if you believe that their drink has been spiked with a date rape drug, or could even be something as simple as calling out a friend for insensitive or hurtful comments. Just because you’re not in a criminal justice field doesn’t mean you can’t take a stand against criminal sexual behavior. Ordinary people can and should speak up about sexual violence whenever they encounter it.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that perpetrators of sexual violence can lead otherwise normal lives. If someone you know frequently talks about hurting others or makes abusive comments, tell them to stop. Explain to them why what they’re doing is wrong before their behavior escalates out of control.

Teach Prevention Techniques

There are a number of things everybody can do to help prevent sexual harassment. Employers should focus on adopting clear sexual harassment policies, identifying inappropriate behaviors, and giving employees the tools they need to report instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Companies can also provide sexual harassment training to employees. This training should explain what sexual harassment is, give employees the information they need to recognize sexual violence, and help them understand what they can do to respond to sexual harassment when they see it. This responsibility especially falls on managers, who may benefit from additional training about what constitutes inappropriate conduct with a subordinate, as well as how to identify sexually abusive behavior in the employees they oversee.

When speaking with individuals about sexual harassment, it’s important to discuss what healthy relationships look like. Talk to individuals about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate courtship and stress the importance of communication skills and education in the workplace to prevent awkward situations from escalating into instances of sexual harassment.

Empower At-Risk Groups

Some groups, such as members of the LGBTQ community, may be less likely to report instances of sexual harassment for fear of discrimination from law enforcement, support groups, their own workplace, and other institutions that often work with harassment victims.

A critical part of sexual harassment prevention is to empower these communities to protect themselves against sexual harassment and to report harassers before they are allowed to hurt someone else. Institutions that work with sexual harassment victims should be explicit about their support for marginalized groups. In addition, encouraging and empowering members of these at-risk populations to pursue leadership training and positions can help other marginalized individuals to feel safer in their environment and more confident about coming forth with information about a harasser.

Create Safe Environments

Safe spaces allow survivors of sexual assault to talk about what has happened to them in candid terms, without fear of judgment or retaliation. The creation of such safe spaces, whether they exist at school, in support groups, with a trained psychologist, or in the workplace, is essential for survivors to come to terms with the sexual assault they suffered. Ultimately, helping survivors to feel more safe and supported will encourage more people to come forward and identify the perpetrators of sexual violence.

Believe and Support Victims

Victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault may feel anxious about coming forward with their experiences, because they fear the reaction of their peers. They may be afraid of being called a liar, of being told they are exaggerating, or, even worse, of retaliation from their abuser.

For this reason, it is essential to believe and support survivors of sexual violence when they do come forward with their stories. When talking to survivors of sexual violence, show them that you care about their experience by taking their reports of sexual misconduct seriously and placing blame on the perpetrator, rather than on the victim.

Steps to Take if You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted

If you are a victim of sexual violence, there are steps you can take to make sure you are safe, as well as to ensure that your attacker is brought to justice.

Ensure Safety

If you have been attacked, your first priority should be to find safety. It’s important to get away from your attacker and, if possible, find someone supportive who will be with you until you’re comfortable taking the next steps.

Go to the Hospital

Once you are safe, it’s critical to go to the hospital immediately following a sexual assault. If you sustained any injuries from your attacker, they will need to be treated. However, even if you are not physically injured, a hospital can still collect evidence related to your assault. It may be difficult, but you should avoid washing your clothes or body until after you have been to the hospital. Doing so could result in the destruction of evidence which could later be used to prove your attacker’s guilt in court.

Going into a strange environment so quickly following a sexual assault may be difficult, but you can take comfort in the fact that many registered nurses are trained to provide care to survivors of sexual assault. They will treat you and support you.

Make a Police Report

If you are comfortable doing so, you should file a report with the police. Filing a report does not necessarily mean that you have to press charges. However, filing a report shortly after the crime will help for the collection of evidence in case you do decide to press charges against your attacker at a later date. While you are filing a police report, a criminal justice professional may be able to advise you on how to proceed, whether you are interested in pressing charges or not.

Get Help

Mental trauma can stay with sexual assault survivors for many weeks, months, or even years following an attack. It’s imperative to seek out mental health resources to help you come to terms with what has happened and learn about how you should proceed. For students, this may include mental health resources provided by their school. Working professionals may want to speak with their HR department to learn about the available resources. Anyone can speak to a counselor to help them through the recovery process.

Reach Out

The Me Too movement has shown that sexual assault survivors are not alone. Reaching out to people you can trust — whether they are family members, friends, loved ones, or mental health professionals — can help you to build a support network. Having this kind of supportive environment can help you to recover from the sexual assault. However, it is also a valid decision not to speak with anyone about your assault.

These are your experiences, and it is your choice what to do with them. No matter what, always remember that you do not have to suffer through this alone.

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