Sexual Harrassment Starts Early

There has been a lot of talk lately about bullying and the effect of the behaviours on both perpetrators and victims. Although not the same as bullying, sexual harassment can have similar effects. American Association of University Women (AAUW) has recently released a study by Catherine Hill and Holly Kearl titled Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School.

From the Executive Summary

Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools. Nearly half (48 percent) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010–11 school year, and the majority of those students (87 percent) said it had a negative effect on them. Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was far too common. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly one-third (30 percent) of students. Interestingly, many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person.
Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed, by a significant margin (56 percent versus 40 percent). Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent versus 35 percent) and via text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means (36 percent versus 24 percent). This finding confirms previous research showing that girls are sexually harassed more frequently than boys and that girls’ experiences tend to be more physical and intrusive than boys’ experiences. Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way is sexual harassment that girls and boys reported in equal numbers (18 percent of students).

Although only 16 percent of students admitted to harassing other students, the vast majority had been sexually harassed themselves (92 percent of girls and 80 percent of boys).

The reasons given for initiating sexual harassment

  • It’s just part of school life/  it’s no big deal.  44%
  • I thought it was funny.   39%
  • I was being stupid.  34%
  • I wanted to get back at the  person for something done to me.  23%
  • I was really angry about something  else going on in my life.  7%
  • I thought the person liked it.  6%
  • My friends pushed me into doing it.  4%
  • I wanted a date with the person.  3%

135 girls and 155 boys in  grades 7–12  who had admitted to sexually harassing other students. Categories were not mutually exclusive, and students could choose more than one reason.

The similarities and differences in victimization related to socioeconomic status are interesting.

AAUW found no statistically significant differences in prevalence of sexual harassment among students of different racial-ethnic groups, which may be due to the limited
sample size. In terms of socioeconomic status, students from upper-income households (with an annual income of $60,000 and more) and students from lower-income households (with an annual income of less than $60,000) were equally likely to report each type of sexual harassment, with one exception: Students from lower-income families were more likely to report being touched in an unwelcome way than were their peers from higher income households.

There is a gender difference in the impact of sexual harassment.

Girls are more likely than boys to say that they have  been negatively affected by sexual harassment, although the 2009 National School Climate Survey, by the Gay, Lesbian, and
Straight Education Network, found that the emotional toll can be high for boys who are not straight.
The gender of the harasser also affects outcomes….being sexually harassed by a boy was more strongly related to behavior problems for both male and female victims than was being sexually harassed by a girl. These emotional impacts often lead to educational problems, such as difficulty concentrating on schoolwork, absenteeism, and poor academic performance.

The impact of sexual harassment appears to vary by income as well as gender.

In nearly every category, students from moderate- or low-income homes were significantly more likely to say sexual harassment had a negative impact on them than were students from homes in which income was $60,000 and higher. For example, 38 percent of lower-income students but only 27 percent of higher-income students said they did not want to go to school because of a sexual-harassment experience. Of the 12 percent of students who said they stayed home because of a sexual-harassment experience,
two-thirds were from a household with an income under $60,000.

The report lists a number of things that school administrators can do to help alleviate the problem.

  • Create and publicize a sexual-harassment policy, and send a copy of it to parents.
  • Provide clear guidelines about how staff should handle sexual harassment when it is reported to them.
  • Provide staff with the time and financial resources necessary to follow school sexual-harassment guidelines.
  • Organize a school assembly on sexual harassment, and involve students in the planning and implementation.
  • Post or distribute information about sexual harassment, including what it is, what the school’s policy is, and what students can do if they experience or witness it.
  • Invite students to create posters, or use the ACLU’s fact sheet “Gender-Based Violence and Harassment: Your School, Your Rights.”
  • Designate a person to administer the school’s sexual-harassment policy and receive complaints. Let all students know who the person is, and tell students what to do if they experience or witness any kind of sexual harassment.
  • Provide training on sexual harassment for both staff and students.

Sexual harassment occurs when people deride others, either for their gender or for their sexuality. It can encompass unwanted advances or overlap with bullying in many areas, but especially so when attacking someone for their sexuality. The “It Gets Better” campaign is an example of support for people who are in this situation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always get better.

We often relate sexual harassment to the religious right with their regressive attitudes towards women and homosexuals. Certainly these contribute to some of the violence in society. If you believe your god and peers support abuse, you are more likely to commit or condone such actions.

However, the problem is much broader than religion. In atheist and skeptical circles, women are being attacked just for being women. There is a large amount of derogatory comments made on many media sites, but I have come to realize that the comments made toward female bloggers are orders of magnitude above what male bloggers experience.

Examples can be found of women speaking out on this issue around the web; the Guardian UK outlines a number of female bloggers and how they are speaking out about the violent misogyny they face on a daily basis.

Some of the quotes I have found:

“You’re gonna scream when you get yours. Fucking slag. Butter wouldn’t fucking melt, and you’ll cry rape when you get what you’ve asked for. Bitch.”

“Nina seems quite pretty. After we disband the Police, let’s see pretty Nina walk through a sh1tty estate in say Elephant n Castle, Camberwell, Tottenham, Brixton, Lewisham, Wembley . . . and see how well her idea works out when the Gangstas decide they deserve to have her as a toy.

“She won’t need to go for a walk — once the Slag realised we weren’t coming out of the nick, they’d go looking for her.” A third: “Without a big, tough man to protect her, all her idiotic blatherings and demands to be treated as an equal will be for nothing when she is getting used as a ganstas ‘toy’.”

One blogger reports:

I was sent an email directing me to a website advertising my services as a sex worker, with my address on the front page under the legend ‘fuck her till she screams, filth whore, rape me all night cut me open’, and some images of sexually mutilated women.

Some have had their address and workplace published and feel threatened, and the anonymous nature of the web makes defence against these attackers impossible. One of the Republican candidates in the US, Herman Cain, has been accused by 4 different women of sexual harassment and for some writers, the defence is to deny that the offence even exists.

These attacks make me ashamed to be male (at least I assume the attackers are male). They also make me wonder who among the people I have met actually feel this way about women. Are they a small minority, or do many people feel, as the paper by the AAUW states, a normal part of life and no big deal.  What the paper does emphasize is the need for attitudes to change at an early stage in life.

Sometimes clichés fit. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

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