#MeToo or to not #MeToo

Guest author: Kimberly Bourne, Lab Manager of the Intergroup Studies Lab at Davidson College.  To learn more about Kim’s research, see her lab website, or check out the references she provided below!


#MeToo or to not #MeToo 

“I’ve had multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault, and I don’t speak about them very often, but after hearing all the stories these past few days and hearing these brave women speak up tonight, the things that we’re kind of told to sweep under the rug and not talk about, it’s made me want to speak up and speak up loudly because I felt less alone this week than I’ve ever felt in my entire career…For the young women in this room, life is going to be different because we’re with you, we have your back and it makes me feel better…If we can raise consciousness and really help create change, that’s what’s going to change this industry and change society.”

– Reese Witherspoon in response to the #MeToo movement

The explosion of the #MeToo movement in the last year not only highlighted sexual assault but also demonstrated the prevalence of sexism in women’s everyday lives. As social psychologists in the Davidson Intergroup Studies Lab, we have been working to understand the motivations behind confronting sexism, and the ways in which people confront and respond to being confronted. So, how do these social psychological concepts apply to the #MeToo movement?

Reese Witherspoon mentions experiencing harassment and sexual assault on multiple occasions but not speaking up about them often. For many women this is a very common experience as confronting sexism can be difficult, and costly. People who question victims of sexual assault or harassment ask why nothing was said: “Why didn’t you say no?” “Why didn’t you report them?”  Or “Why didn’t you speak up or stand up for yourself?” Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect in people’s beliefs about what they imagine they would do when encountering sexism, and what they realistically do. In a study by Woodzicka and LaFrance (2001) women imagined being interviewed by a man for a job in which they were asked a sexually harassing question. Sixty eight percent of the women said they would refuse to answer the sexually harassing question, but in reality when a separate group of women was actually put in this exact situation, no one refused to answer. This points to a troubling reality, that the costs associated with confronting often outweigh the benefits; discouraging women from speaking up. Perceived costs such as being disliked, impolite or perceived as a complainer, having ones’ value dismissed, social sanction, and getting fired are common reasons women do not confront. For women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace a severe perceived cost of confronting is retaliation (Fitzgerald, Swan & Fischer, 1995). With all of the costs associated with confronting, what was different about the #MeToo movement?

In contrast to direct confrontation, the #MeToo movement provided a safe way for women to voice their experiences without necessarily risking the physical, emotional or work related costs of directly confronting their perpetrators. In this way, it could have buffered real or perceived costs of confronting and boosted the perceived benefits. Like Reese Witherspoon described, hearing women speak up, and the idea of creating lasting change for future generations of women motivated her to speak up. Benefits to confronting are varied – financial remuneration, policy change, self-satisfaction, improved interpersonal interactions – but the most motivating benefit is that confronting will make a difference and stop future sexist acts (Good, Moss-Racusin, & Sanchez, 2012). For Reese Witherspoon, a self-identified feminist, this was likely motivating. The more a woman identifies as a feminist the more likely she is to confront sexism (Ayres, Friedman, & Leaper, 2009). And if you are an activist whose goal is to educate perpetrators by confronting, you are more likely to respond more assertively to sexist incidents than those less identified as activists (Hyers, 2007). The motivation to make a difference by preventing future assaults, improving the work place environment, working towards social equality, etc. is a clear benefit to confronting sexism. For feminists and activists, the guilt associated with not confronting could also have been a factor in motivating those to contribute to the #MeToo movement. On social media seeing women posting their own experiences associated with #MeToo, may have given women who are less identified as feminist a feeling of security that motivated them to share their story. Whereas for women who are more identified as feminist seeing all of those posts on social media may have motivated them to share their experiences as a way to maintain their self-image of being a good group member in addition to wanting to make a difference.

Editor’s Note: I love Kim’s post because, aside from the obvious benefit her research gives women who experience sexism, she shatters our stereotypes of what a scientist is. The scientific method is useful in the way we traditionally think of it- developing drugs, understanding natural phenomena, etc., but can also be exceptionally powerful when we apply it to study human social interactions or behavior.


Ayres, M. M., Friedman, C. K., & Leaper, C. (2009). Individual and situational factors related to young women’s likelihood of confronting sexism in their everyday lives. Sex Roles, 61, 449-460. doi: 10.1007/s11199-009-9635-3

Elle. (2017, October 17). Reese Witherspoon Reveals She Was Assaulted by a Director at 16. Retrieved from https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a13032565/reese-witherspoon-assaulted-by-director/

Fitzgerald, L. F., Swan, S., & Fischer, K. (1995). Why didn’t she just report him? The psychological and legal implications of women’s responses to sexual harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 117–138. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01312.x

Good, J. J., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Sanchez, D. T., (2012). When do we confront? Perceptions of costs and benefits predict confronting discrimination on behalf of the self and others. Psychology of Women Quarterly 36, 210-226. doi: 10.1177/0361684312440958

Hyers, L. (2007). Resisting prejudice every day: Exploring women’s assertive responses to anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, and sexism. Sex Roles, 56, 1-12. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9142-8

Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00199


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