#MeToo makes a difference in sex-crime reporting, study shows

A police incident report with a #MeToo post it note
(Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual misconduct and exposed several high-profile cases of predatory behavior by powerful men — and also driven a significant increase in the reporting of sex crimes in the United States and abroad, according to a study by Yale researchers.

Ro’ee Levy and Martin Mattsson, doctoral candidates in Yale’s economics department, have published a working paper showing that #MeToo caused a 7% increase in sex-crimes reporting in the United States from October to December 2017, the first three months after the movement launched on social media. This increase accounted for the reporting of about 4,600 additional crimes and was spread evenly across racial and socioeconomic groups.

The researchers also examined the movement’s effect in 24 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — a forum of democratic nations with free-market economies — and found that the movement caused a 14% increase in sex-crime reporting during that initial three-month period, representing an additional 11,600 reported cases in countries with strong #MeToo movements, such as Canada and Sweden. The movement’s effects persisted in the United States and internationally through 2018, according to the study. 

The #MeToo movement began with a social-media campaign in October 2017, following reports of sexual abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. It is distinct from other major social movements in that it is not primarily focused on achieving major legislative victory, but rather seeks to alter social norms and change people’s behavior, the researchers said.

Our analysis refutes the argument that the #MeToo movement, although important, only affects high-profile people and has had little impact within the general public,” Levy said. “Our analysis demonstrates that it has substantially and persistently altered public behavior, which has led to significant increases in sex-crime reporting. This result aligns with the movement’s emphasis on speaking out and holding people accountable for their bad behavior.”

Levy and Mattsson analyzed crime-reporting data from police and statistical agencies in 24 nations included in the current version of their working paper. To disentangle the #MeToo movement’s impact on the increase in sex-crime reporting from other potential causes, they made three comparisons: the difference in sex-crime reporting during the periods before and after the movement started; the differences between countries with strong #MeToo movements and those where interest in the movement was weak; and the differences in the reporting of sex crimes versus other types of crime.

They determined the movement’s intensity in a given country by measuring the number of Google searches for #MeToo-related terms there immediately after the movement launched. They identified the strongest movements in Sweden, Canada, France, Finland, the United States, and the Netherlands. The movement was weakest among OECD countries Japan, Mexico, Colombia, and Slovenia, according to the analysis.

Using incident-level data from seven U.S. cities with a combined population of 16 million people — Denver, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, New York, and Seattle — the researchers found that the #MeToo movement’s effects were consistent across racial and socioeconomic groups.

That was one of our more surprising findings, since the media frequently portrays the movement as largely upper class and white,” Mattsson said. “We found no differences in reporting by white and black individuals or between individuals in wealthy and low-income neighborhoods. It suggests that the movement has raised awareness across class and racial barriers.” 

The researchers could rule out policy changes as a cause of the increase in reporting because no major legislation targeting sex crimes has been enacted in the first six months after the start of the movement. The increase in reported cases did not coincide with a proportionate increase in cleared cases — those in which police made an arrest, issued a summons, or identified a suspect but couldn’t make an arrest for reasons out of their control, such as when a suspect has died — according to the study.   

Levy and Mattsson plan to update the working paper to include additional data from OECD countries as well as long-term data on case clearances. Their work is supported by the Tobin Center for Economic Policy at Yale, a research institute that advances rigorous, nonpartisan economic research that defines and informs domestic policy debates. 

These Yale economists are asking hard questions: Do movements matter? Has #MeToo not only spotlighted an epidemic long in the shadows, but also changed behavior?” said David Wilkinson, the Tobin Center’s executive director. “When most people think about economics, these aren’t the type of questions that come to mind. Economics is an increasingly empirical field, looking at new questions and new data that can help us better understand society, make smarter policy, and improve the world. In this case, it is helping people see that their voices are making a difference.”

The researchers also received funding from the Department of Economics and the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale (Y-RISE).

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324