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How Sex Scandals Impact the Popularity of Names

When it comes to ‘name contamination,’ women have always had a tougher time than men

It was a rough year for “Harvey.”

First, a hurricane named Harvey swallowed Houston.

Then the #MeToo movement swallowed Harvey Weinstein.

And to think, the name had actually been on an upswing: After steadily declining in popularity since the mid-1900s, the number of American boys named Harvey rose by more than 300 percent between 2010 and 2016.

“Trends in baby names are a fun way to get people to think sociologically,” says Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, who’s helped me make sense of everything from the Marlboro Man to man caves to the #MeToo movement.

Take “Adolf,” he suggests, among the most popular names from the year Hitler was born until the end of World War II. But Hitler “contaminated” it, Bridges explains, which is when a name becomes rapidly less popular following a negative association with an event, person or place. Or more specifically, it means something way different to name your kid ‘Adolf’ today than it did in the early 1900s.

Will Harvey Weinstein similarly contaminate the name Harvey?

Could what we choose to name our children be an indication of our investment as a society in not holding men accountable for sexual indiscretions?

In a paper co-authored with the University of Maryland’s Philip N. Cohen, Bridges studied four names implicated in previous sex scandals: Bill (Clinton), Monica (Lewinsky), Clarence (Thomas) and Anita (Hill). In both cases, the women’s names took a hit. The men’s, not so much…

In 1998, the American public learned that the President of the United States had a consensual sexual relationship with a 21-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The name “Monica” was contaminated following the mass publicity of the scandal, Bridges explains, but Bill (William) was not. We simply stopped naming daughters Monica with the same frequency. The president’s name, however, saw no such contamination — the scandal had an impact on her name, but not his.

“This is one way we might be able to see that, as a society, we’re more likely to let men off the hook for their participation in sex scandals when compared with the women involved,” Bridges explains. “Women become stigmatized for their involvement in a way that men do not.”

Toward the end of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991, a law professor named Anita Hill alleged Thomas sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the Department of Education, sparking a media frenzy. As Bridges explains, following Hill’s testimony, the name Anita dropped slightly faster in the rankings than the name Clarence (though both names were already declining in popularity in 1991, so he says this case is less clear than with Monica/William.)

“The name Anita might have experienced some contamination,” Bridges says, “but only slightly, and possibly not at all. This shows us that when it comes to high-profile sex scandals and sexual harassment and assault, women’s names are sometimes stigmatized, but men’s names don’t ever appear to be.”

Harvey, Louis and the rest…

Both the man’s and woman’s names were widely known in the above examples. In the #MeToo movement, however, most cases involve single men committing sexual violence against numerous victims (e.g., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., etc.). Since there isn’t a single woman’s name to associate with the allegations, Bridges says it’s not possible to make the same kinds of comparisons. If he had to guess, though, he expects to see “Harvey’s” popularity slowing down and possibly reversing. “It’s an interesting case. Will we collectively hold Weinstein accountable by considering his name ‘contaminated’ when deciding what to name our children?”

“Louis” is safe, though, he predicts. That’s partially due to multiple pronunciations of the name (i.e., “Loo-ee” v. “Loo-is”), so people may not even make the connection. (Also, the name isn’t very popular to begin with.)

Broadly speaking, Bridges doesn’t expect any of the #MeToo men will have their names contaminated. “We tend to think of men’s sexual violence and misbehavior as biologically hardwired. And when we do that, even when men get caught committing criminal acts of sexual violence, we have a built in excuse for them if we think they’re working against their biology to do anything different.

“If ‘Harvey’ does decline, I’d blame the hurricane before Weinstein.”