If you believe unwelcome sexual attention seems confined to the adult world, think again. An alarming recent study by the American Association of University Women showed that more than half of all female students from grades seven through twelve were sexually harassed at what’s supposed to be a safe haven: school.
What is sexual harassment? Catherine Hill, Ph.D., who coauthored the study, defines it as unwanted sexual behavior, including harassment based on sexual orientation or gender norms. “Unwelcome sexual comments or rumors, unwanted touches or gestures, being shown graphic images that you didn’t want to see, being called ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ in a negative way—these are all forms of sexual harassment,” Hill explains. While 40 percent of boys experience sexual harassment at school, girls’ experiences with it tend to be more physically intrusive and have longer-lasting effects. And though it’s typically depicted as a male perpetrator victimizing a female, sexual harassment also involves females harassing one another.
Lindsay*, fifteen, experienced firsthand the painful effects of sexual harassment starting in seventh grade. “I was flat-chested when other girls started to develop, and I was told that I wasn’t a girl,” she says. While boys made plenty of nasty comments, other girls were cruel, too. “As I was getting ready for a school dance, girls came up to me to ask how I could hold up my dress when I didn’t have breasts and said maybe I was really a lesbian,” she recalls.
The relentless remarks were humiliating. “They brought insecurity about my body to the surface,” Lindsay says. “It can make girls feel like they should do something to prove the comments wrong—like stuffing their bra or going further sexually with a boy than they normally would in order to prove they’re a girl.”
hough Lindsay felt alone, she has plenty of company, according to Hill. “Physical development during puberty spurs lots of unwelcome sexual comments,” she says. While late bloomers commonly have their gender and sexual orientation questioned (being called “lesbian” in a derogatory way is all too common), girls who develop early or even “on schedule” also face ridicule, often by being called “sluts.”
Beth, 26, a researcher on teen sexual harassment, was the subject of false rumors at school starting in junior high, when classmates taunted her about going further with her boyfriend than she actually had. By high school, people assumed she was hooking up with older guys simply because she was seen speaking to them.
“Girls who seem popular with boys or appear attractive to them are easy targets for sexual harassment,” Beth notes. Why? According to Maureen McHugh, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has studied “slut bashing,” girls who get attention from boys are perceived as a social threat. Spreading rumors that someone is sleeping around, one example of slut bashing, is used as a weapon to try to knock girls off a perceived pedestal. “It attempts to level the playing field in the game of competing for male attention,” explains McHugh.
And it can have disastrous effects: One danger is that the rumors can become reality. “I was repeatedly called a slut,” Beth says. “After a while, I started to think something was actually wrong with me and that if people already assumed I was doing things with guys at school, what difference did it make if I actually did?” Beth admits the taunting led her to engage in promiscuous behavior that only reinforced the rumors as true, creating a vicious cycle that ultimately damaged her self-esteem.
Self-destructive patterns like Beth’s are precisely why harassment must be taken seriously. Avoiding school, difficulty studying, anxiety, depression, insomnia, self-harm, and, in the most extreme cases, thoughts of suicide are all part of the emotional toll sexual harassment can take on its victims.
Dealing with harassment is tricky, too. Researchers recommend speaking to your parents, a guidance counselor, and a teacher you trust, since school officials either have or can put in place procedures to deal with offenses. But some school environments are slow to change, and Hill points out that sexual harassment is widely underreported. “Girls still hear ‘Boys will be boys’ when they speak to some educators about harassment,” she says. Part of the solution must come from students themselves. Pulling a friend out of an uncomfortable situation, asking the victim how you can help her, or formally reporting sexual harassment can go a long way. Ignoring it, on the other hand, can disempower victims and “implicitly suggest approval” of the harassers’ inappropriate behavior, Hill adds.
And while Hill notes that the majority of harassment still happens face-to-face, texting and social-media websites like Facebook and Twitter allow rumors—or incriminating images— to spread faster and reach larger groups of people, often having a bigger impact.
A pending rape case that rocked a high school in Steubenville, Ohio, offers a horrifying example of how social media can be abused as a tool for harassment. After a teenage girl who drank too much at a party was allegedly sexually assaulted by high school football players, onlookers posted on Instagram an image of her unconscious and being carried by her wrists and ankles. Others continued the harassment online by live-tweeting the incident with hateful messages like “Song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana” and “Some people deserve to be peed on.”
Because harassment often occurs in groups, where harassers can have more impact, bystanders can help by speaking up. “Two boys at a party started making loud gay slurs on the porch of a friend’s house, and everyone was uncomfortable,” says Nicole*, 20. “But when my friend spoke up and asked the guys to be respectful, we knew it was the right thing to do.”
Students should also find out what their school’s sexual harassment policy is and how it’s enforced. If none exists at yours, encourage administrators to adopt one with a reporting mechanism to investigate harassment claims. School officials took action at a high school in northern California after a widespread “fantasy slut league”—in which male athletes earned “points” for their sexual activity with female students, similar to fantasy sports leagues—was exposed. The principal issued a letter alerting students and their parents to the activity and addressed it in a schoolwide assembly as well as classroom discussions to help put an end to the harassment.
“The best way to help stop sexual harassment is to start talking about it,” Beth says. “Break the silence about this unacceptable behavior, starting with your friends, and challenge yourself to create a culture of respect.”