Photo by Petr Kratochvil, CC

Nearly two years after the rise of #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment continue to surface across media headlines. Whether writing about the uptick in sexual assaults or the most recent sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the media often emphasize changes in complaints or reports of law violation. Yet, the process by which individuals learn that assault and harassment can be reported in the first place remains crucial to understanding shifting complaint levels. Sociologists of law have used legal consciousness to explain how people first perceive an act of discrimination as wrong and worthy of complaint.

Legal consciousness refers to the ways individuals make sense of law and legality within everyday contexts. Beyond its formal legal institutions and processes (such as courts), the law more generally guides how we understand what is and what is not legal. We learn about legality through legal images displayed across television, news media, films, cultural practices, and social relations. These cultural ideas of law and legality shape whether and how we come to view an act as a breach of law or a discriminatory practice. Once individuals reflect upon legality, Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey suggest that they may “engage, avoid, or resist the law and legal meanings.” But when marginalized groups experience crime and discrimination, they often have fewer resources for mobilization at their disposal.
For example, growing public awareness of workplace sexual harassment — one form of gender discrimination — has shifted attention to how women come to define unwanted sexual attention as harassment. After experiencing sexual jokes, solicitation, and sexually explicit material in the workplace, women use several frames to understand what they experienced. They may simultaneously view these incidents as forms of gender discrimination and blame themselves, brush off men’s sexual comments, downplay own their harm relative to more serious forms of harassment, or even participate in the sexual banter to bond with male coworkers. Research shows that even in incidents where women felt violated, they did not necessarily define that violation as meeting the legal definition of sexual harassment, which for them included more intrusive behaviors, such as physical contact.
Relatedly, some groups are more likely than others to define harassing workplace behaviors as sexual harassment. In particular, men and older cohorts of women who began working before sexual harassment came to public attention in the 1970s are less likely to recognize forms of unwanted sexual attention as sexual harassment. Once people are conscious of a phenomenon, they may “mobilize” the law in response. Mobilizing responses included filing a formal complaint, telling bosses/supervisors, and confiding in close friends, partners, and family members. The reactions of family and friends, in particular, often become learning moments, in which individuals come to see and define the issues they experience as legal problems.