Want to Stop Sexual Harassment at Work? First Stop it in School!

Sexual harassment allegations by four women against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have made the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace headline news. What many people may not realize is that such harassment is a widespread problem in middle and high schools, too.

During the 2010-11 school year, nearly 48 percent of students in grades 7 through 12 in the United States said they experienced sexual harassment, according to a new nationally representative study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which I co-authored. Additionally, nearly one in three students (28 percent) said they had witnessed harassment that school year.

The forms of sexual harassment most often cited by students included someone making unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures; being called gay or lesbian in a negative way; and being shown or sent sexual pictures that the viewer didn’t want to see. About 30 percent of students said the harassment happened through text messages, emails and social media.

Even more alarming, 13 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys said they had been touched in an unwanted sexual way, and 4 percent of girls (plus 0.2 percent of boys) had been forced to do something sexual.

Since the report’s release, a few people have emailed us at AAUW wondering why this matters, while others have observed that the harassment is just “kids being kids” and that it is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Some readers here may have similar thoughts.

We disagree. This issue does matter and it should not have to be a rite of passage. Our students, our children deserve better.

Most students (87 percent) who had been harassed said it negatively impacted their life. Common reactions to sexual harassment included feeling sick to their stomach, having trouble sleeping and having a hard time studying. 12 percent of students said they had missed days at school because of sexual harassment and four percent said they had changed schools. Students should feel safe at school, and the learning environment should not include worries about sexual harassment.

With sexual harassment dominating the news, it is a perfect time to start a dialogue with youth about the issue. Age-appropriate discussions about consent, respect, personal boundaries and bodily rights are crucial, and can begin even before middle school. These are especially important conversations to have with boys, since the majority of students in AAUW’s survey identified a boy or group of boys as their harasser/s.

Speaking with students about sexual harassment and what to do about it can make young people better equipped to deal with it throughout their lives, and hopefully it can prevent would-be harassers from harassing in school and, later, in the workplace. Discussion of sexual harassment is exactly what many students said they wanted to see happen at their schools: 31 percent of students surveyed said they wanted to have in-class discussions on the topic, 24 percent wanted schools to hold workshops and 22 percent wanted to be able to access online information.

It’s important for educators and parents to know that a similar percentage of boys and girls in seventh grade (48 percent) said they had experienced sexual harassment. Much of this harassment was sexuality-based, where students said they had been called “gay” or “lesbian” in a negative way. It’s thus clear that in middle school particularly, efforts must include dealing with the harassment that boys face, too. This need was brought home by the other big headline of last week on the related issue of child sexual abuse involving young boys.

By high school, far more girls face sexual harassment than boys. In AAUW’s study, nearly two-thirds of twelfth grade girls (62 percent) had faced sexual harassment the previous year.

And that’s not all.

A look at the broader picture shows that high-school age girls face harassment in many places, not just on their campuses. My research on street harassment showed that, by age 19, nearly 90 percent of women had faced sexual harassment from strangers in public places. Even more alarming, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that girls ages 16 through 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. It’s crucial, then, for adults to talk to girls about not only what they may face at school but also on the streets and on dates.

If sexual harassment is addressed when students are in school, there is hope that the current generation of students will then face less sexual harassment in the workplace.
Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

Photo by flickr user csessums under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. It’s also crucial that:

    1) We start teaching boys that “no means no” way before it becomes a sexual issue. Ever witness a boy chasing a girl on the playground and not listening when the girl asks him to stop? I’ve seen it lots of times on the playground at my daughter’s elementary school. Some people are inclined to write this off as “boys being boys” and “playing”. I’m inclined to see it as teaching them from an early age that it’s okay to ignore it when a girl says “stop”.

    2) We start teaching girls to physically defend themselves. Of course, it’s never okay for men to persist in making unwanted sexual advances or be violent towards women, but some will always do it anyway. Girls and women would undoubtedly feel less vulnerable if they felt like they could kick some butt if they needed to, and I know I’ve seen stats that said women who fought their attackers felt better about themselves afterward regardless of whether the attack ended in sexual assault or not. But no one is born knowing how to fight and we do a terrible job of teaching females to defend themselves.

    • In addition to teaching boys, I agree self defense is crucial. My parents and grandparents raised me with the mindset that I had a right to defend myself. Unfortunately, I distinctly remember teachers always saying that if someone hit you or did something, and you fought back, you’d also be in trouble. I mean, I get it. They don’t want fights springing up..but at the same time they’re essentially telling kids they need to be doormats and take it, or else.
      I remember asking my parents about this, and they firmly told me that if anyone laid hands on me, I should defend myself, and they would stand by me regardless of what the school’s policy was. I was always a good kid (super nerdy and shy), and never started anything in my life (to this day). One day in elementary school (1st or 2nd grade? I can’t remember) there was a boy who had a crush on me, chased me around the playground, caught me, and wrapped his arms around me so tight that I could barely move. I remember how helpless I felt in his grip…but I had a trick up my sleave. I warned him he should let me go or I’d hurt him…I warned him *three* times!! Well, he didn’t let go, go I kicked backward really hard and nailed him right in the groin. He never bothered me again. I honestly can’t remember if I had gotten in trouble or not. I felt so bad afterward, but I did warn him, and he had made me feel SO uncomfortable!!

    • The thing is; people are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay to tolerant of boy’s bad behaviour (“Oh, they’re just boys!” “Come on son! Punch them in the face!”) and way toooooo restrictive of girls (“Oh, you shouldn’t watch that movie; it has too much violence in it!” “Act like a Lady, Dorothy!” “Let them have a turn!” “You shouldn’t be so bossy!”). Society totally socially grooms girls to be passive and relenting, and grooms boys to have way too much freedom to do what they want-regardless if it hurts other people. I’ve been begging for martial arts lessons from my parents for ten years now, ever since I was 4 years old, and they’ve never let me, due to the fact that I need ‘lady like pursuits’ and they’ve signed me up for ballet instead. (not that I have anything against ballet; I actually love it, but I still want karate lessons) Now, in highschool, I learn self defense via Youtube. That’s how much I want to learn. Self defense really develops a girl’s confidence and is actually very healing. If you’re ever faced with an obstacle regarding your gender, don’t let it stop you. Keep pushing on, and show the world what a strong, powerful, independent woman you are! Go Grrls!

  2. Oh my. Sexual harassment in the Birmingham, AL, Public Library continues year after year, victim after victim, and no one lifts a finger to stop it for fear of the … well, go see for yourselves:

    “Birmingham Needs Another MLK Moment; No Justice for Sexually Harassed Librarians”

    Now where did librarians learn to ignore sexual harassment, and where did communities learn to fear controlling those enabling sexual harassment? I think I know.

    • snobographer says:

      That figures librarians would be getting hassled regularly with all the porn tropes about them. I’m surprised that hadn’t occurred to me because they’re like the adult version of the Catholic or Japanese school girl.

      Sexual harassment starts in grade school. When I was a tater tot boys would chase girls around the playground trying to pull their skirts up to show their underwear. Those are the same boys went through adolescence asserting that girls were stupid while lamenting they didn’t have the girlfriend and regular “pussy” to which they were entitled and grew up to be the kind of men who view women to be not as good as men and even kind of embarrassing and say things like “feminism has gone too far.”

  3. Feminist Metalhead says:

    Agreed a major problem in Canada too. Luckily nobody is messing with the laws.

  4. tonya ramos says:

    When my daughter, now 25, was in kindergarten she told me the boys had what they called “Friday flip up day.”If a girl wore a dress or a skirt on Friday they’d flip it up. I talked to the teacher and a few other parents about it and one mother, of a boy, said Oh boys will be boys! I replied to her, “Are you gonna say that if he forces himself on a girl when he’s older too? It’s not ok.” She obviously thought I was overreacting. I told my daughter if anyone flips up your dress you hit them as hard as you can. And my son knew if he ever did this he’d be grounded for a month.

  5. My sister was sexually harassed in freshman year when a boy made unwanted advances & publicly made reference to her breasts in class, thinking the teacher didn’t hear, she told her what had happend. The teacher’s response was get used to it, while insinuating it only gets worse cause of her larger than average breasts. I couldn’t believe that crap. I was fuming & still am when I think about it. I’m mad my mom didn’t make a bigger scene about it cause that teacher has no right teaching if she lacks the common sense to know that is not right! Thats here in lasvegas

  6. two of my friends and i were harassed all through 4th and 5th grade by the same boy. he was actually a friend of mine, and i knew he had a crappy home life, so for a long time i felt too guilty to report him. he would pat and grab our butts, try to kiss us, back us into a corner and “playfully” not let us leave. finally he went too far when in 5th grade he tried to grab my breasts during PE (i was already a B cup). another boy saw and was so mortified he stood there apologizing repeatedly for what the kid had tried to do. i left the field immediately, grabbed my friends, and reported him to the vice principal. her response? “well if this has been going on so long why haven’t i heard about it until now? if he’s been making you so uncomfortable, i would think you would have come to me sooner.” i couldn’t even hand over my witness because he was new and i didn’t know his name. this woman actually tried to force us to apologize to the boy for making such a serious false accusation. my friends did, but i told her she could kick me out if she wanted, but i would never apologize for reporting the truth. who knows what this kid went on to do later in life?

    • Atta grrl! Its totally unbelievable how some ‘authority figures’ can be so blind, hypocritical and not at all helpful. I sympathize with your plight with the boy and the misogynist vice principal (its possible for a woman to be misogynist) and I hope you best of luck with raising awareness. We Women should really stand up FOR each other, not push each other down.

  7. This is just to share with you that the situation in educational institutes is no different in India. Every effort is made to suppress issues of sexual harassment at schools to protect the reputation of the school. At the same time, there is insufficient awareness and a tendency to sabotage even very progressive laws. I was lead instructing counsel in bringing a Public Interest Litigation to the Supreme Court of India resulting in what are known as the “Vishaka” guidelines. These are binding on all workplaces and educational institutes. Despite the law’s uniqueness, a case recently hit the headlines in India because a judge took pains to make a particular school accountable. Unfortunately the media went into a hype over the inclusion of “Bitch” as a falling within the definition of sexual harassment. I’ve written a post about this at http://www.nainakapur.blogspot.in/2012/04/raising-bar-educational-institutes.html

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