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Inside the newsroom: How do you bridge the sexual harassment gap between men and women

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017.  (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
FILE - Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017.
Damian Dovarganes

WASHINGTON — The question came near the end of a 90-minute presentation and panel discussion of The Deseret News American Family Survey at the Brookings Institution on Friday morning.

The event, livestreamed and available at detailed the highlights of the fourth annual survey showing dramatic differences in how men and women respond within personal interactions, including if verbal consent is needed to hold hands, kiss, "check someone out" and engage in more intimate activities.

The question from the audience was this: Now that we see such a difference in the way men and women see sexual harassment (greater than 10 percentage point differences), how do we close the gap? In other words, in the age of #MeToo, is there a way to come to a uniform standard of behavior acceptable to men and women?

It's a great question, and is illustrative of the reason the Deseret News has teamed up with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and scholars from both Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute to each year survey the country on a variety of issues that impact the family unit.

It's a way to get real data about real problems affecting families. Perhaps more importantly, it has helped us determine what we have in common as Americans. We have learned where both Republicans and Democrats agree and that can be a starting point for engaging in productive dialogue toward solutions that can help a family prosper.

Among the highlights of this year's survey:

• Individuals feel good about their own marriages but much less optimistic about the marriages of other people. As I noted in brief remarks at Brookings, this is a finding that's been consistent over the years and may have foreshadowed some of the tribalism the country is experiencing; there's a sense that "my ideas are OK but the rest of the country has got it wrong."

• Family is still key to how people identify themselves. Those surveyed said family relationships (70 percent) are far more important to one's identity than their religion is (43 percent), career (37 percent), community (30 percent), race (29 percent) or political party (28 percent).

• When it comes to the most important issues facing families, Democrats tend to focus on economic issues, while Republicans prioritize cultural or social issues. But both emphasize the need for greater discipline of children (usually for other people's kids). Building integrity and respect in children, then, can be worked on together, across party lines.

• At a time when the birthrate is falling and adults are waiting longer to have children the survey reveals that the perceived cost of raising a child is the most common reason given for not having children. Helping couples overcome economic hardship would likely increase the likelihood of bringing children into a home.

In addition to the above points, we also discovered interesting data on what parents are concerned about today for their children. When I was a child, parents' fears for their children focused on drugs, alcohol and sex (teen pregnancy). Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" echoed through junior and senior high school hallways.

Today, from a list of 15 choices, parents said theirtop three concerns for their children are first, technology, second, bullying, and third, the mental health of their child. The Deseret News work on bringing the issue of anxiety to light in our series of stories titled "Generation Vexed" made that list less surprising to the journalists who worked on it. What was surprising in that list of 15 things of most concern to parents is that sexual abuse was number 15, behind not enough meaningful work opportunities and navigating sexual identity.

Which brings us back to the question about closing the gap on sexual harassment. Young men and young women need to understand what is appropriate (not just illegal) behavior. If women believe verbal permission is needed for a kiss and men think non-verbal communication is enough, then we better start having a conversation about that in junior high and high school.

The American Family Survey, conducted on our behalf by YouGov is a start, with four years of data to explore. We will continue to mine the data and bring those conversations forward. Protecting children and families is protecting society.