These students mostly explained their behavior as either not a 'big deal' or an attempt at humor.
Allegations of sexual harassment have plunged Herman Cain into a public relations disaster. Less than six months ago, when the online sexual escapades of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner went public, the ensuing media storm permanently marred his career and ended his term.
But a new study conducted by the Association of American University Women reveals that sexual harassment is not just found on the Hill or at work, but in middle and high schools all over the United States.
Titled "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School," the study reports that nearly half of all students polled experienced sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year. These students were girls and boys, in public schools and private schools, with different socioeconomic backgrounds, from 7th to 12th grade. Eighty-seven percent of these students reported negative effects of sexual harassment, including inability to sleep, stomach pain, and increased truancy from school.
Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post explained the definition of sexual harassment used in the study, which qualifies as: unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you; unwelcome sexual touching; receiving or being the subject of unwelcome electronic sexual comments, pictures, jokes, or rumors; having someone expose themselves to you; being negatively referred to as gay or lesbian; or being physically intimidated in a sexual way.
The study emphasizes that these occurrences are common enough that they are no longer shocking, but just another hard thing a junior high or high school student endures today. Witnessing sexual harassment over the past school year was reported by 33 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys surveyed.
Additionally, 18 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls admitted to harassing other students. These students mostly explained their behavior as either not a "big deal" or an attempt at humor. Interestingly, a large majority of these students (90 percent of girls and 82 percent of boys) had experienced peer-to-peer sexual harassment themselves. The survey included a 9th grade girl was called a whore by her classmates for having friends who were boys, reports the New York Times. And peers spread rumors about a boy being gay because he played on the basketball team.
The Associated Press reports that Catherine Hill, one author of "Crossing the Line," referred to this phenomenon as "somewhat of a vicious cycle," reiterating that "[sexual harassment has] reached a level where it's almost a normal part of the school day,"
One significant finding of the study was that girls were subject to sexual harassment more often than boys by a significant margin, 56 to 40 percent. This was true of harassment that occurred both in person and electronically. And while 87 percent of students polled said that they were negatively impacted by sexual harassment, the repercussions for girls were generally larger.
The New York Times reports that according to the study, "37 percent (of girls) said they did not want to go to school after being harassed, versus 25 percent of boys. Twenty-two percent of girls who were harassed said they had trouble sleeping, compared with 14 percent of boys; 37 percent of girls felt sick to their stomach, versus 21 percent of boys."
The study also mentions that according to this and earlier research, girls tend to be sexually harassed in more intrusive and physical ways. These disparities between girls' and boys' experiences highlight a key emphasis of "Crossing the Line": the fact that sexual harassment is a gender-based issue, distinct from bullying.
Bullying has recently been discussed more openly in the wake of several bullying-related teenage suicides. The authors of "Crossing the Line" argue that while bullying and sexual harassment can overlap, the latter is prohibited under federal legislation known as Title IX.
The nonprofit organization Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) explains on their website that the legislation is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, "which prohibits any person, on the basis of sex, to be subjected to discrimination in an educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Furthermore, schools are required by Title IX to have and publicize policies against discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender.
The AAUW study makes clear that addressing bullying while ignoring sexual harassment is both illegal and harmful, as the latter's effects are at least as damaging. In fact, another study released in 2008 concluded that while bullying is more common than sexual harassment, it is harassment which takes a more serious toll on victims -- and especially on girls, who suffer from lower self-esteem and poorer health, both mentally and physically.
And sexual harassment is now an issue online as well as in the hallway, with "Crossing the Line" reporting instances of harassment via text, Facebook, email, and other virtual pathways. The Associated Press reports that according school safety expert Bill Bond, this sort of verbal abuse is uniquely painful.
"Words can cut a kid all the way to the heart," he said. "And when it's on the computers and cell phones, there's no escape. It's absolutely devastating and vicious to a kid."
Most problematic of all is the evidence that few students subjected to sexual harassment — girl or boy, in class or on Facebook — report their experiences. The study summarized these results: " The prevalence of sexual harassment in grades 7–12 comes as a surprise to many, in part because it is rarely reported. Among students who were sexually harassed, about 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school (12 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys). Just one-quarter (27 percent) of students said they talked about it with parents or family members (including siblings), and only about one-quarter (23 percent) spoke with friends."
But students themselves have provided the authors of the study with some possible solutions for schools to implement. The most popular recommendations were an anonymous method of reporting harassment problems and a clear punishment policy for harassers.
Students are not the only ones with responsibility for coming up with ideas to combat the issue. AAUW Director-at-Large Sandy Camillo wrote on the organization's blog, "Harassment has no boundaries of gender, race, age, or socioeconomic standing. Anyone can become a victim. It is up to each of us to convince our educational institutions that harassment will not be tolerated."