Taking a Stand Against Teen Sexual Harassment

January 18, 2012 | Comments Off
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Has your child ever been sexually harassed? Would you know it if they were? Whatever your answers to these questions are, you might want to consider new research revealing that sexual harassment among teens is shockingly common, strikingly underreported, and that what we don’t know as adults is hurting our kids.

“Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School,” is a new report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The report has the most comprehensive research on sexual harassment among students in grades 7-12 and sheds light on the ways in which sexual harassment has become a normal part of teen life. The research reveals that nearly half of all students in those grades were sexually harassed last year and only about one-fifth of these teens told their parents.

Additionally, victimized teens report being distracted in school, feeling physically sick and not wanting to go to school, while many perpetrators of harassment are themselves former victims. This data serve as an unsettling call to action for anyone who cares about the well-being of today’s young people, because what we do or don’t do about sexual harassment among teens will determine whether patterns of victimization and perpetration persist and evolve as teens become adults.

You may be asking yourself, “If there is so much sexual harassment going on among teens, why don’t I know about it?” Sexual harassment is a silent epidemic because only half of teen victims tell others of their experiences. When asked to explain their behavior, most perpetrators of sexual harassment say it is “no big deal” and a “normal part of school.” This trivialization of harassment by perpetrators paired with the fact that victims often don’t know how to respond to harassment when it occurs illustrates the need for adult intervention to reframe sexual harassment as unacceptable and establish protocols for dealing with it when it occurs. Anything less corroborates the illusion already held by teens — namely that sexual harassment is inconsequential, that victims should not expect support, and that perpetrators will not be held accountable.

Responding to incidents of sexual harassment is important for victims and perpetrators alike. Teen victims of sexual harassment who remain silent also may not speak out if they are victims of further and more serious abuse later in life, while perpetrators who do not receive consequences may continue to victimize others. Additionally, victims may become perpetrators if it’s not made clear that sexual harassment is neither acceptable nor without consequence.

It’s critical that systems are in place to deal with sexual harassment among teens so they know about and feel empowered to use them. All adults can contribute to these outcomes. School administrators can play a key role by ensuring visibility for their school Title IX coordinator (the individual charged with attending to issues of gender and sexual equity in the school context) and making the identity and functions of this person known to students, parents and teachers. This establishes a go-to person when sexual harassment occurs.

Title IX coordinators in turn can create systems for reporting abuse and implementing consequences for perpetrators that take into consideration victims’ hesitance to share their experiences. Teachers can support the Title IX coordinators by educating students on what constitutes sexual harassment and teaching assertive ways to respond when they are targeted, or witness peers being victimized. Parents can further talk to their children about sexual harassment, respectful and appropriate behavior and action plans for responding when harassment occurs.

Most of all, adults need to recognize that sexual harassment among teens is a problem, and initiate dialogue with other concerned adults. As the “Crossing the Line” report illustrates, negotiating the teenage years is more complex than ever. Young people need to know that adults are aware of the challenges they are facing and that they are there for them.

Inga Schowengerdt is pursuing her PhD at the University of Cambridge in England and is a resident of Newburyport, MA and a member of the American Association of University Women. “Crossing the Line” is available online at www.AAUW.org.

This article is re-posted by permission of the American Forum.

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