It could be a text message that starts a rumor. Or maybe a name — “You’re gay” — yelled across a soccer field. Or an unwanted touch as two students pass in the hallway.
Around the time the news was covering sexual harassment allegations against then-candidate Herman Cain, a lesser-known but important report was published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). “Our report showed how sexual harassment doesn’t just happen in the workplace, but it’s also happening in our nation’s middle and high schools,” says co-author and AAUW program manager Holly Kearl.
In fact, almost half of seventh- through 12th-graders experience sexual harassment. Crossing the Lines, the AAUW’s nationally representative survey of almost 2,000 students, found that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys had been sexually harassed during the past school year.
The harassment these students endured was almost exclusively at the hands of their peers, and most students who admitted to harassing others said they themselves were also harassed.
Rumors, photos and more
So what exactly counts as harassment? Unwelcome sexual jokes or comments were the most common (experienced by 46 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys). Students were also harassed online, shown sexual photos, or were themselves the subject of photos or rumors spread to others. Twenty percent of both girls and boys were called gay or lesbian in a negative way, and a small number experienced physical harassment, such as unwanted touching.
Some schools may talk about sexual harassment as a type of bullying, but the AAUW report cautions against this. “Distinguishing between the terms is important, because they have different definitions and are regulated by different laws,” the report says. “Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment.”
The study shows that failure to conform to gender norms is a key trigger for sexual harassment. When asked who was most likely to be harassed, students identified “girls who stand out as ‘too sexual’ or ‘too masculine,’” and boys who were not very athletic or masculine. “Girls find themselves in a precarious position,” the report says. “Those who fulfill feminine standards of beauty are at high risk for sexual harassment, yet girls who are viewed as too masculine or not pretty are also at risk.”
This trend can particularly hurt teens who are still developing their own sexual identity. “Youth who are ashamed of who they are, are more likely to succumb to the statistics,” says Jessica Johnson, a teacher and a volunteer at the Lambert House on Capitol Hill. The Lambert House offers support services and a safe community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) teens.
“LGBTQ youth often feel afraid of their peers and are minorities within their own families,” says Ken Shulman, Lambert House executive director. Shulman says these kids can become “socially and psychologically isolated,” which he describes as “a root cause of the high suicidality” among LGBTQ youth.
So what can parents and schools do?
Kelly Moore, Ph.D., has worked with adolescents for more than 20 years in both in-patient and out-patient psychiatry, private practice and currently as director of student support services at Eastside Prep in Kirkland. She cautions against the overuse of big terms like “harassment,” worrying that the weight of such a heavy phrase can dissuade girls from coming forward. They might not think their issue qualifies for the title of sexual harassment.
“I wouldn’t want girls to have to define something that bothers them as sexual harassment. I want them to have a voice right away, to be able to say, ‘I don’t know what that was, but it was bothering me.’ As educators and parents, we need to teach girls how to be direct and firm.”
The AAUW report encourages parents to show an interest in their child’s day and talk to them about healthy relationships.
Showing kids support is important. “Parents supporting their LGBTQ youth without expecting them or wanting them to change is the single biggest protective factor against all of the associated risks that face LGBTQ teens,” says Shulman.
Of course, parents also might find themselves with the kid who’s doing the harassing. “Usually the bully needs as much compassion as the victim,” says Moore. She recommends parents take a look at their own behavior. “Make sure you aren’t belittling your own kid or modeling belittling in your home.” Also, she says, “Do not argue about whether or not it is sexual harassment. If it’s a problem for someone else, it’s a problem.”
When the AAUW report asked students what schools could do better, only 12 percent thought their school was already doing enough. Students suggest schools should implement an anonymous reporting method, make designated teachers available to students, conduct more discussions and provide online information.
Lisa Love, a health educator at Seattle Public Schools, says Seattle schools have seen an increase in harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well as overall online bullying. “These situations can be difficult to track and monitor, but are taken very seriously,” she says.
Washington state law requires schools to use a specific reporting system for bullying incidents, and students have access to counselors. There is also an emphasis on prevention: The district’s Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH) curriculum begins in grade 5. Through FLASH, students are taught ways to address healthy relationships in age-appropriate ways. “These conversations should continue into middle school science and high school health classes,” says Love.
Kearl agrees with Moore and Love about the importance of open conversation. “Creating a school environment where people know what sexual harassment is and that it’s not acceptable is the most important measure,” she says. “Schools can work toward that by publicizing a sexual harassment policy and educating students about what sexual harassment is, why it’s not OK, what to do if it happens and what the consequences will be.”
Our culture seems to foster sexual harassment, Kearl says. She argues for a national discussion to change that.
Wendy Lawrence is a longtime educator and former middle school head at Eastside Prep in Kirkland. Lawrence blogs about parenting and books at The Family That Reads Together.