Opinions Gender violence

The Impact of #MeToo on Sex Crimes

, by Germain Gauthier
Looking at the data on late filings for gender violence, which doubled between 2010 and 2020 in various US cities, and relating it to the number of direct reports to the police, a doubly positive result emerges from the movement that brought millions of women to the streets

In October 2017, the Me Too movement led millions of women worldwide to protest against sexual violence. Enthusiastic commentators portrayed the movement as a game-changer in the history of women's rights. Others, more skeptical, raised concerns about false allegations, backlash effects, and socioeconomic and racial divides. Still today, the public debate remains lively and unsettled, with some suggesting the movement's advocates have gone too far.

This may seem surprising. After all, isn't quantifying the impact of the Me Too movement a straightforward endeavor? Simply look at the number of police reports for sex crimes before and after #MeToo went viral on social media. If we see an increase, the movement successfully increased reporting by victims. But as often, things are (much) more complicated than that.

In particular, there is one severe complication: most crimes are heavily underreported to the police. Criminologists refer to the share of crimes that are neither reported to nor recorded by law enforcement agencies as the dark figure of crime, and national surveys indicate this figure is particularly large for sex crimes. This means that, at any point in time, the number of complaints filed to the police for crimes is the product of (i) the offenders' probability of committing a crime and (ii) the victims' probability of reporting this crime. If both decisions vary over time, then reported crimes become very hard to interpret. For instance, in theory, if the Me Too movement successfully encouraged victims of sexual violence to report to the police and successfully deterred sexual offenses, the trend in reported sex crimes could remain entirely flat.

To say anything meaningful about the movement's impact, we thus need a way to separate offender from victim decisions over time. One way of doing so is to look at delayed reports. More than 50% of sex crimes are reported with a delay to the police. The data shows that complaints can occur days, months, years, and sometimes decades after the crime happened. If #MeToo has successfully increased reporting to the police by victims, we would see an increase in delayed reports for sex crimes that were committed before #MeToo. For these period of time, the number of crimes committed remains fixed and is unaffected by the Me Too movement. By looking at delayed reports, we are thus focusing solely on the decision of victims to report the incident to the police, and whether this decision has changed following #MeToo's sudden mediatization.

When conducting this exercise, the data unambiguously suggests that the Me Too movement had a positive impact and increased the probability that victims reported. In New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Cincinnati, delayed reports of sex crimes more than doubled between 2010 and 2020. The increase was particularly large after #MeToo went viral. If sex crimes had remained stable, we would also expect direct sex crime reports to have increased by a similar amount. Yet, they increased far less. This suggests that sex crimes decreased over the decade, particularly so after #MeToo's mediatization. In other words, the Me Too movement killed two birds with one stone: it jointly empowered victims of sex crimes and deterred sexual offenders.

Of course, beyond the Me Too movement, our societies still have a long way to go to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence. Looking ahead, these results imply that social movements and public awareness campaigns have an essential role to play in shaping the public's opinion on sexual violence, its severity, and the right of victims to see justice served.


Bocconi University
Department of Social and Political Sciences