In one of the most comprehensive surveys to date, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) highlights the prevalence and widespread use of sexual harassment in middle and high schools in a new report.
The finding revealed half of students in grades 7 through 12 surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010-2011 school years.
The majority of harassment takes place in the form of unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures, according to the report, in person and via the internet. The authors note physical harassment often takes place.
Eighty seven percent of the students said sexual harassment had a negative effect on their well-being. One-third reported feeling sick to their stomachs and another third said they didn’t want to go to school.
The finding came as a surprise because few students report being sexually harassed. The survey found just 9 percent of students discussed the issue with an adult at school, though some discussed the issue with their parents or friends.
The report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, highlights the importance of vigilance among parents and school officials.
According to the report, 39 percent of students who sexually harass others thought it was just funny; 44 percent though it wasn’t a big deal.
AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman, CAE. "Many students feel sexual harassment is normal behavior, and often victims of sexual harassment in turn victimize other children. It's a vicious cycle that exacts an enduring emotional toll on students.”
One example cited in the report comes from a ninth-grade female who said she was called a whore, because she has many friends who are male.
Overall, 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys said they had been sexually harassed during the school year.
One boy had a photo circulated with his face attached to an animal having sex. The boy was in 12th grade.
A 7th grade girl was directed to view a website that landed her on a porn site. She said “it made me very upset.”
Authors Catherine Hill, AAUW director of research, and Holly Kearl, who authored the report also found girls were more negatively impacted than boys from sexual harassment.
Hill and Kearl cite a 2001 study that supports the toll sexual harassment takes on high school girls.
The authors write:
"Not only were girls more likely than boys to say sexual harassment caused them to have trouble sleeping (22 percent of girls versus 14 percent of boys), not want to go to school (37 percent of girls versus 25 percent of boys), or change the way they went to or home from school (10 percent of girls versus 6 percent of boys), girls were more likely in every case to say they felt that way for “quite a while” compared with boys.”
Gender stereotyping is also found to lead to sexual harassment. For instance, a boy wearing colorful clothes might be called gay – also found in the report to disturb high school boys the most. A girl who is active in sports might be called a lesbian.
The study authors and students themselves offer recommendations to help stop sexual harassment in schools, which can also be viewed as a form of bullying.
Students suggest the ability to anonymously report sexually harassing remarks or behaviors could help. Another way to curb the prevalence of the behavior is by holding workshops.
The study authors say school officials should designate an official to handle complaints of sexual harassment, which would require training.
Schools should have clear policies that they’re willing to take seriously and enforce. The authors say teachers should be role models, incorporate sexual-harassment issues into their curriculum and that schools should foster an environment of tolerance and acceptance for all.
The report highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment in middle and high schools that can have a negative impact on the well-being of students. Unfortunately, not enough students are talking about the problem.
The AAUW says, “We hope readers will be inspired to take new steps toward making schools free from sexual harassment.”