A new study has found that over half of girls, and many boys, experience sexual harassment in middle or high school. And although some might claim that's just "kids being kids," victims suffer many ill effects.
According to the Times, the study of almost 2,000 kids in seventh through twelfth grade found that 56% of girls and 40% of boys had experienced sexual harassment at some point in the previous school year. Forty-six percent of girls and 22% of boys reported "unwelcome sexual comments, gestures or jokes," while 13% of girls and 3% of boys mentioned unwanted touching. Three and a half percent of girls and 0.2% of boys were forced to perform a sexual act, and an equal share of boys and girls — 18% — were called gay in a derogatory way. Students said "pretty girls, ugly girls" and "girls whose bodies are most developed" were most at risk for harassment — so basically, girls who have a physical appearance. Also at risk were boys perceived to be feminine.
Many adults remember middle and high school as a time of rampant bra-snapping, boob comments, so-and-so-is-gay accusations, and all-around assholery. And though much of this may have been extremely hurtful — many carry the shit they got in middle school with them for a long time — there's long been a sense that it's just part of growing up. I can't say I was surprised by anything in this study, except perhaps for the relatively low rates of harassment against boys, whom I remember being the primary targets for "pantsing," in which the perp yanks the victim's pants down and runs away laughing. In middle and, to a lesser extent, high school, my peers and I viewed this and various other assaults on our dignity as painful but normal.
The study makes a persuasive argument that this is the wrong attitude. Thirty-seven percent of girls and 25% of boys said harassment made them want to avoid school — 22% of female victims and 14% of male ones reported trouble sleeping. Those numbers jump even higher among kids who were harassed both online and in person — 46% of these victims didn't want to go to school anymore, while 44% of them felt sick to their stomachs and 43% had trouble studying. Clearly, harassment isn't something kids just shrug off — it affects not just their school performance but also their health. Given this, it shouldn't be treated as a normal rite of passage.
The study authors point out that unlike non-sexual bullying, sexual harassment is actually prohibited by federal law. Title IX is supposed to protect students from harassment that interferes with their education, but not every school makes this clear to students. According to the AP, the study authors have recommendations for the enforcement of Title IX:
The [...] report said all schools should create a sexual-harassment policy and make sure it is publicized and enforced. It said schools must ensure that students are educated about what their rights are under Title IX, with special attention paid to encouraging girls to respond assertively to harassment since they are targeted more often than boys.
Students also had some ideas — a majority wanted "systematic punishments for harassers and [...] a mechanism for reporting harassment anonymously." Whatever action schools end up taking, they need to understand that students deserve a learning environment where harassment is a punishable offense, not something they're just expected to deal with.
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