New surveys find Americans showing less support for survivors of sexual violence a year after #MeToo began — but experts say the reality is more complicated

  • A new poll from YouGov and The Economist found Americans, particularly women and those who said they voted for Donald Trump, showing less support for survivors of sexual violence a year after the #MeToo movement took root.
  • Another poll, conducted by NPR and Ipsos, found that 49% of Americans said the movement had gone “too far.”
  • Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who specialises in gender and sexual violence, told Business Insider that the reality was more complicated than surveys could capture.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought down dozens of powerful men and sparked a nationwide reckoning over issues of sexual harassment and violence, but those surveyed in a new poll by YouGov and The Economist were actually far less inclined to support survivors than they were one year ago.

YouGov polled 1,500 Americans on the same questions surrounding sexual misconduct in early November of last year, just a few weeks after The New York Times and The New Yorker reported on the sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. It polled them again in the last week of this past September.

From 2017 to 2018, the percentage of adults agreeing that false rape allegations were a bigger problem than sexual assault rose to 18% from 13% – including an increase to 35% from 20% among people who said they voted for Donald Trump.

While the percentage of adults agreeing with the statement “women who complain about sexual harassment cause more problems than they solve” changed by just a few points, the number of Trump voters agreeing jumped by 10 percentage points. The number of women agreeing increased by 4%, while the percentage of men agreeing remained more or less the same.

The starkest differences in opinion were the responses to the statement “men who sexually harassed women 20 years ago should not lose their jobs today,” to which 28% responded yes in 2017 compared with 36% in 2018. The number of women agreeing increased by 7 percentage points, and the percentage of Trump voters saying so jumped by 20 points.

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A similar poll released by NPR and Ipsos on Wednesday found that more than 40% of Americans said the #MeToo movement had gone too far.

While the poll didn’t define what “too far” meant, follow-up conversations found that respondents felt as if there had been a rush to judgment in sexual-misconduct cases and the threat of someone’s career being destroyed over unfounded allegations had become too high.

Party affiliation was a big factor in how people responded. While 85% of Democrats said accusers should be given the benefit of the doubt, only 67% of Republicans agreed. There was a similar difference when the 1,000 respondents were questioned about whether they thought false accusations were common. Seventy-seven per cent of Republicans said they thought false accusations were common, compared with 37% of Democrats.

Nicole Bedera, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on sexual violence, cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the YouGov survey because of its timing and the phrasing of some of its questions.

In an email to Business Insider, Bedera said that because the 2017 results were conducted a few weeks after the #MeToo hashtag first took root on Twitter, there wasn’t enough of a baseline result to accurately show how people would have responded to the same questions before #MeToo.

So while support may have decreased compared with last year, it still may be higher on net than it was before the movement started and dozens of men were toppled by sexual-misconduct allegations.

Bedera also said the results may have been skewed by the phrasing of some questions, a common obstacle in opinion surveys. She specifically pointed to the question on women reporting harassment “causing more problems than they solve.”

“Most organisations are very ill-equipped to deal with sexual harassment in any meaningful way,” she said.

“The result is that even people who support survivors of sexual assault would have a hard time seeing survivors as solving any problems by coming forward,” she added, saying “that isn’t so much a failing of survivors as the systems they report to.”

Party identification is often more predictive of a person’s opinion than gender

Bedera said that overall, the YouGov survey “captures the difficulty of holding a perpetrator of sexual assault or harassment accountable, particularly when that perpetrator is someone we might otherwise care about or hope will succeed.”

She added that the partisan divides in the results showed the “dangers of politicizing sexual misconduct: that when the person accused is someone on our side, we will be quick to look the other way – or even actively defend them.”

The Economist noted in its analysis of the data that the average size of the shifts away from believing survivors were larger among women than men, but both it and Bedera pointed out that party identity was usually far more predictive of a given person’s views of sexual misconduct – or any issue – than the person’s gender.

“Women are not a homogeneous group,” Bedera said. “White women in particular are divided on issues like sexual violence, largely along party lines. There is also a substantial political divide between single and married white women.”

This phenomenon is reflected in the survey data, with the gap between those who said they voted for Trump and those who said they voted for Clinton six times as large as the gaps in opinion between men and women for three of the questions.

“To understand why women are showing greater support for men accused of sexual assault or harassment, it’s important to note which women are expressing those values,” Bedera continued. “For example, mothers of college men accused of sexual assault often come to the defence of their sons, regardless of the credibility of the claims against them.”

These divides were also reflected in the public-opinion polling on Brett Kavanaugh, whose Supreme Court nomination became particularly polarising when two women accused him of sexual misconduct in the early 1980s.

While the gender gap on support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation averaged about 18 points the day before his confirmation, the partisan divide in support for Kavanaugh was a stunning 150 points, with about 75% of Democrats opposing his nomination and roughly 75% of Republicans supporting it, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.

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