Fighting Gender-Based Harassment in Schools Could Change Women’s Futures

“I am just so upset,” my friend told me on the phone. “I haven’t slept in days.” I responded while multitasking, as many mothers do—trying to check in on my loved ones while getting dressed and ready to take my daughter to nursery school. “What the heck happened?”

The story she told me in response made my stomach turn and my eyes well up with tears. I was suddenly struck by the intense awareness that my dear friend’s daughter, who I lovingly refer to as my niece, would likely bear the scars of the following events for the rest of her life.

An ordinary day of middle school took a drastic turn when my niece was summoned over by a group of boys in her art class.  When she asked what they needed, one of the boys handed her a slip of paper. It read: “You’ve been warned.”

Bewildered, my niece asked what he meant. The boy told her that she was receiving a warning from the “THOT Patrol.” (According to the Urban Dictionary, THOT stands for “That Ho Over There.”) That referred to a list of around 40 signatures from boys in the school, apparently for the purpose of this kind of perverse “patrolling” of their female peers. 

The boy went on to tell my niece that she must stop wearing Crocs shoes to school and change the way she wears her hair. When my niece refused, the boy told her that consequences for failure to follow the THOT Patrol’s directives might include tazing her three times in her stomach, killing her family over the weekend, shooting her or burning her to death. 

Upset and scared, my niece asked her teacher to excuse her to go to the school office. But after she recounted her traumatic experience to an administrator, she insisted that she hear “the boys’ side of the story.” Her requests to call home were denied. She was directed to return to class. When the school administrator spoke to the boy, he denied the entire incident; she then informed my niece that there had been a “misunderstanding.” 

Later, the actual THOT Patrol list of signatures would be recovered from the boy’s school belongings. But even afterward, my niece was forced to finish her school day, and she was never permitted to contact her parents. The local law enforcement authorities and city police were only alerted about the incident after my niece and her family filed a report. 

Unfortunately, my niece is not alone. Incidents like these are taking place in schools across the country—and being handled in equally inappropriate and insufficient ways by school administrations. 

According to a report by the Washington Post, female students at a Bethesda, Maryland high school were forced to demand more severe disciplinary consequences from school administrators after a group of male students created a ranking list of their looks. After the list was brought to their attention, the administration responded by issuing only one of the boys involved a one-day, in-school suspension. More appropriate measures were issued only after dozens of young women at the school stood up and insisted that disciplinary action be issued commensurate with the humiliation and degradation they had suffered. 

In 2016, the Aurora Sentinel reported that girls attending Regis Jesuit High School in the Colorado city staged a school walk-out after demanding that their school administration address severe online harassment and abuse by male students. Frustrated by their school administration’s lack of transparency, and its delayed response to a series of sexist tweets and videos from male students including references to rape and sexual harassment—and instructions for some of their female peers to “kill themselves”—young women wearing white held signs to protest gender-based harassment and walked out of their classes.      

Even having been a member of the “popular crowd” myself in high school—nominated for homecoming court more than once and being crowned the hometown beauty queen—weren’t enough to shield me from such comments. My male classmates remarked that I had “man legs” and resembled “a member of the Goof Troop.” I have no doubt that these comments were menial compared to some of the harassment other girls in my class inevitably endured—but such verbal and emotional abuse were so commonplace that we responded with either a polite smile or stoic silence while quietly swallowing our hurt and soldiering through.    

There is a reason that I am still able to recall the details of the remarks made at my expense, as well as the names of the speakers, with precision: These words hurt deeply. As women, we weather our pain over these injustices, but we don’t forget them. We remember them with clarity, because every time someone treats us as if our value, attractiveness and self-worth rest upon their approval or disapproval, we internalize it.The ideas that my legs were too masculine and my nose made me look like a caricature followed me well into adulthood. These encounters slowly and methodically chip away at young women, affecting not only how we see ourselves, but how we feel about our bodies, and for years to come.  

In a 2012 study published in the Encyclopedia of Body Image and Human Appearance, RM Calogero of Virginia Wesleyan College concluded that the “extreme and pervasive tendency to equate women with their bodies” starting at a young age leads to “self-objectification,” where women grow up to disproportionately focus on and monitor their bodies and physical appearance.  Calogero argues that undue emphasis on and preoccupation with our physical appearance is one of the most powerful limiting forces on our opportunities and potential. Yet rather than address the age old epidemic of young men policing and critiquing the bodies of young women, girls are taught not to “make a big deal out of it.” 

“Sticks and stones,” we’re told. What’s worse, we’re frequently faced with the suggestion that perhaps we might have “misunderstood” what a boy said, or met with the idea that he “didn’t mean it that way.” According to a study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, these responses—ones that minimize, undercut and excuse objectifying behaviors—teach young girls to dismiss their hurt by normalizing and underestimating the seriousness of such incidents. 

These reactions condition us for the responses many of us will later receive if we find ourselves involved in a “misunderstanding” over the fact that we did not consent to sex. Perhaps he misunderstood that “no” didn’t mean “yes,” or thought that our protesting was really just a ruse to preserve the precious image of female modesty that only he could see through. These incidents, and the subsequent responses young women receive when they conjure the courage to report them, socialize us to keep quiet, to shut up and take it, to grin and bear it, to eat garbage and say “thank you” when it’s over.

These are the seeds that sow rape culture, and ensure the need for a #MeToo movement for generations.  

According to a 2017 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Making Caring Common Project,” despite increased opportunity and gains in equality for American women, the cultural climate for young girls is potentially more difficult than ever and may be getting worse instead of better. If the story of the THOT Patrol tells us anything at all, it’s that young women in our society are the casualties of a cultural epidemic of young men who believe, even in their early teenage years, that women’s bodies and appearances are acceptable fodder for their public critique and comment. This phenomenon has persisted across generations, and will persist for generations to come, unless and until we start to take a long hard look at the ways in which we socialize our sons.  

As the mother of a daughter and two sons myself, I understand the difficulties that raising healthy, happy and whole children presents, regardless of gender. I understand that all of my children will surely falter and make mistakes I’ll wish they hadn’t made, but the mistakes of my sons cannot be allowed to come at the expense of my daughter—or anyone else’s daughter. 

My niece will not be the last girl whose sense of self gets chipped away by a boy at school—but we could all take this opportunity to finally decide to do something about it. We must teach our sons that girls are not objects whose quality and worth they may casually and callously assess, but that they are human beings, intellectual peers and equals in every respect. The cult of masculinity in American culture and society can no longer be allowed to thrive on the pervasive objectification of women and girls.

Enough is enough. The experiences of young women being scrutinized and picked apart until the fragile fabric of who they are slowly and systematically erodes cannot continue. We owe it to our daughters and our sons to do better. 

About

Ashley Jordan is a feminist writer, activist and organizer and a licensed attorney and former prosecutor who specialized in domestic violence cases. She has taught Gender and Women’s Studies courses at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois and researched and written extensively on issues of feminism and gender equality. She is the founder of Women Activists, a women’s rights activism group in Wisconsin, and the feminist blog FashionForwardFeminist.com. You can find her @feministforward.