Poll: Americans Overwhelmingly Support 'Zero Tolerance' On Sexual Harassment

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on December 14, 2017 8:32 pm

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans believe that "a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in our society."

At a time when partisan opinions are so polarized on a range of issues, Republicans and Democrats are relatively similar in believing that society should crack down hard on sexual harassment, a new poll from Ipsos and NPR suggests.

About three-quarters of Democrats and about two-thirds of Republicans agreed, for example, that "pretty much every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment in her life." And around 6 in 10 Democrats and 7 in 10 Republicans agreed that "it can be hard sometimes to tell what is sexual harassment and what is not."

While the differences between parties' beliefs in many cases were modest, they were still significant on some questions.

For example, 35 percent of Republicans agreed with the idea that "nearly all instances of sexual harassment would end if the woman simply told the man to stop," compared to 20 percent of Democrats.

Those differences on some issues come out most prominently among a couple of demographics in particular.

"Those groups for sure — Republican men and Democratic women — are driving the effects big-time," said Janine Beekman, associate research scientist at Ipsos.

For example, on some questions Democratic women and Republican men occupy two ends of an opinion spectrum, with the other two groups floating in the middle. Fifteen percent of Democratic women believe that "nearly all instances of sexual harassment would end if the woman simply told the man to stop." Forty-three percent of Republican men agree with that statement.

And Democratic women seem to be leading the charge on having many conversations about sexual harassment. Roughly half of Democratic women said they're talking "a lot" or "some" about sexual harassment with their families, compared to around one-third of Republican men, Republican women and Democratic men.

Likewise, Democratic women report talking with their female friends about the topic "a lot" or "some" at significantly higher levels than the other groups do (the differences were less clear for the question about people talking with their male friends).

Abstracts vs. Particulars

One way to interpret the relatively modest partisan differences on some of these questions is that both parties can agree in the abstract but not on particulars.

For example, Democrats and Republicans broadly agree on some ideas, such as the idea of a zero-tolerance policy, and they are largely conflicted between believing the accusers and those who are accused.

Around 80 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike agreed that both the accuser and the accused "should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise."

But when it comes to particular cases, like those of Roy Moore or Donald Trump, many Americans seem to have partisan responses.

A late-November Politico/Morning Consult poll suggested this reaction is particularly prominent among Republicans. Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to believe allegations against prominent right-leaning figures, like Bill O'Reilly, Moore and Trump. But when it came to Democratic figures like Al Franken and Bill Clinton, Democrats and Republicans were roughly equally likely to believe sexual harassment allegations.

There's also the possibility of what pollsters call "social desirability bias" corrupting some of the results here — that is, that a respondent (of any party) might have given answers they thought sounded good. For example, a person might have thought it sounded like a better answer to say they were talking a lot with their friends about harassment, or to say that they want to give more people the benefit of the doubt.

"Any time we're talking about sex or drugs or any kind of any kind of ism that you want to talk about — racism, sexism — we're going to have issues with this," Beekman said.

Changing times

The survey also indicates that Americans have felt a seismic shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment in recent years. For example, about one-quarter of Americans agreed that "these days, reports of sexual harassment are generally ignored." But about two-thirds agreed that "five years ago, reports of sexual harassment were generally ignored."

Likewise, 44 percent of Americans agreed that today, "a woman who reports being sexually harassed is risking her career." But 74 percent said they thought the same was true five years ago.

Importantly, this doesn't capture actual trends in beliefs. However, it's a start at capturing people's perceptions of how quickly society's willingness to deal with sexual harassment — to believe and not punish accusers, to take allegations seriously — have changed in the #MeToo era.

The NPR/Ipsos poll of 1,133 adults was conducted online between December 8 and 12, 2017, and has a credibility interval of +/- 3.3 percentage points for the full sample. Credibility intervals are +/- 5.6 percentage points for Democrats, +/- 6.1 points for Republicans, and +/- 6.8 percentage points for independents. The interval was +/- 7.2 percentage points for Democratic women, +/- 9.1 percentage points for Democratic men, +/-8.4 percentage points for Republican women, and +/- 9.0 percentage points for Republican men.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


The climate surrounding sexual harassment has changed drastically in the past few years, and Americans overwhelmingly favor a zero-tolerance policy. Those are findings of a poll NPR conducted with the firm Ipsos. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is here with more on that poll. Hello, Danielle.


SIEGEL: First, how big was this poll, and how recently was it taken?

KURTZLEBEN: So it was an online poll of just over 1,100 people, and it was taken just a few days ago, December 8 through 12.

SIEGEL: And what did people say about a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. This is one of the most fascinating findings we had. Eighty-six percent of Americans - so an overwhelming majority - said that they agree with the statement that, quote, "a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in society." And I want to add, a lot of things today are polarizing by party. This is not polarizing by party. Nine in 10 Democrats and 8 in 10 Republicans agreed with that.

SIEGEL: How do attitudes toward sexual harassment or perceptions of what our attitudes are differ from, say, several years ago?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So people really do seem to perceive a seismic shift in how society treats sexual harassment right now. So for example, 1 in 4 people said that they agree that right now, allegations of sexual harassment are generally ignored - just 1 in 4. That's not many. So we said, five years ago, what do you think it was? And two-thirds said that five years ago, sexual harassment allegations were generally ignored. So importantly, this is not exactly a trend in attitudes.

SIEGEL: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: But it's people right now looking back and saying, hmm, I see a really big change.

SIEGEL: Things are different now, they're saying.

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Did you find any significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in the poll?

KURTZLEBEN: We did find a few. Here's one in particular. We presented people with a statement. Nearly all instances of sexual harassment would end if the woman said stop. Thirty-five percent of Republicans agreed with that to some degree. Twenty percent of Democrats agreed with that to some degree. That is a significant difference. But once again, it's also a minority in both cases. So it's not as if Republicans and Democrats are living on entirely different planets on this according to this poll. Really what is kind of striking is that Republicans and Democrats didn't differ on a lot of these questions in our poll.

SIEGEL: You asked people about their own personal experiences of sexual harassment. What did you hear?

KURTZLEBEN: Fifty-nine percent of women said that they have personally experienced sexual harassment, and 27 percent of men said that they have experienced sexual harassment.

SIEGEL: Twenty-seven percent of men said they've experienced sexual harassment.

KURTZLEBEN: Right - a big gap but, once again, not absolutely huge. It's not that they're on two different ends of the spectrum.

SIEGEL: One difference I see in one of the charts from your poll is that among Republican men, 48 percent say that they are not currently talking about the issue of sexual harassment with their family - not at all - whereas 22 percent of Democratic women say they're talking about it a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. So when we did have partisan and gender differences, fairly often Democratic women and Republican men were at two different ends of the spectrum with Democratic men and Republican women somewhere in the middle. That is one big one. It really does look like Democratic women are having more conversations about sexual harassment right now than many other Americans.

SIEGEL: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben talking about NPR and Ipsos' new poll on sexual harassment. Thanks.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.