It’s Much More than Kids Being KidsNovember 12, 2011
This post is part of a series focusing on sexual harassment in middle and high school, launched in conjunction with the release of AAUW’s latest research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which was supported by the Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle and the Eleanor Roosevelt Fund. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for updates.
This week saw the release of our newest study, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, a comprehensive survey on sexual harassment in middle and high schools. So far, we have received excellent coverage for our work, and we are thankful for all the positive responses. Of course, with great publicity comes criticism, and there are some people who are eager to label sexual harassment not as a pervasive problem that needs to be addressed but instead as normal teenage behavior that has been happening for as long as anyone can remember (in other words, it isn’t really harassment).
Some people have addressed the issue of accountability, asking whether it is really fair to hold teenagers to the same expectations as adults. Unwanted touching is one thing, but calling someone “gay” or a “whore” — aren’t these just the misguided actions of young people who don’t know any better, who are just beginning to navigate the realms of sexuality and proper adult conduct? If we label all these behaviors as sexual harassment, don’t we risk minimizing more severe incidents like groping or threats?
First of all, we can’t measure the pain of someone’s experiences. Who is to say that the victim of sexual rumors or insults is somehow less affected than someone who is grabbed, especially if the verbal abuse is persistent or comes from multiple sources? But assuming certain incidents are somehow objectively less severe, should we still address them as sexual harassment and not just bullying?
Of course we should. Sexual harassment, by definition, targets someone’s gender and sexuality, and calling someone “gay” or “slutty” in a derogatory way takes a toll, even when done out of adolescent foolishness or “humor.” The behaviors outlined in our survey, which some have discounted as sexual harassment, lie on a bigger scale of gender and sexual oppression, one that has particularly affected women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks throughout history. These behaviors aren’t suddenly disconnected from that history because they are carried out by adolescents and not adults (especially if we consider the idea that kids probably learned many of these behaviors from adults).
Incidents of sexual harassment and bullying are chances to engage young people on these bigger topics or to at least make them consider how their actions can fit into a bigger context. And who is to say that by addressing “smaller” incidents of harassment this way that we won’t help prevent worse things from happening?
This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Intern Julie Smolinski.