Imagine you’re a girl sitting at your regular lunch table in the high school cafeteria with a group of your closest friends. Your conversation is rudely interrupted by a boy passing by your table.
You’ve known him — begrudgingly — for years. And now he has dropped by to make a comment about the food you’re eating. One of your friends tells him to leave. The next thing you know, you feel his hands on your shoulders.
You freeze. Your friends just stare in disbelief as the boy leans his head down towards your ear, blows in it and aims his puckered lips toward your neck.
"Get off of her!" your friends tell him angrily. "Stop" you say, quietly but forcefully.
The boy hesitates for a moment — just long enough to affirm his "dominance" in the situation — and leaves, walking confidently back to his table.
Scenes such as this one, according to the American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund, are textbook examples of sexual harassment — deliberate, repeated and/or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Unfortunately, these types of incidents, almost as common to the school day as classes and lunch break, are usually dismissed as boy-girl repartee.
That they fit the legal definition of sexual harassment is for the most part unknown to the students — those who engage in such activity, and more importantly, those victimized by it.
Being one of the freaked-out friends at that non-hypothetical lunch table, I know how crazy life can get in this situation, especially once accusations start flying, the blame game gets started, and the rules of engagement are unclear.
My friend — I suppose we can call her the harassee — was under the impression that if she reported the incident to school officials, she was obligated to press charges or sue in civil court. So, instead, she did nothing.
Well, actually, "nothing" is not exactly the correct word. She did get very upset, and, as she cried, she told us how powerless he had made her feel. Like the much more serious crime of rape, sexual harassment is not so much about sex as it is about power and control.
Exacerbating the damage of the harassment itself is the similarly disempowering experience of simply not knowing what options are available for you when you want to do something about what happened.
At our school in Escambia County, Florida, there are no class discussions about sexual harassment. No assemblies or seminars. Just a little blurb in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook that is easy to miss, provided that the student ever opens or receives the book at all.
If you asked students for a definition of sexual harassment, you’d be lucky to find one out of five who could give a coherent explanation.
The concept may be a muddled one, but everyone knows the reality of crowded hallways, where "accidental" breast- or butt-groping occurs behind a shield of anonymity. Someone who cops a feel from you can be gone in the blink of an eye — and beyond the reach of disciplinary action.
There are also cases when the harassment is much bolder. Boys make all kinds of demands — for phone numbers, dates, etc., and actually become angry or indignant when turned down or asked to leave. Often, these incidents go unreported because the harassers are total strangers.
Even when the harassment comes from a familiar classmate or a friend, it can be hard to confront. One student recently told me how uncomfortable she is around a friend who sometimes makes sexual comments and innuendos. She has not asked him to stop because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.
This situation reflects a greater social problem: Despite gains in gender equity, girls are still often socialized to be "nice" — to hide their real feelings behind a smile, regardless of the price.
Aurora, a junior, agrees: "We are always taught to not talk back and to be nice to others, but in high school, a lot of the time, people will make a mean joke at you, and you are supposed to just be quiet and take it: People think it’s weird when a girl comes back with a smart-ass comment or a comeback; they feel as though she’s being rude."
The most baffling question of all is why sexual harassment is so prevalent to begin with. My friends and I believe that, in the same way that girls are socialized to be nice, boys are socialized to expect to get what they want, which enables some to feel justified in demanding the three A’s: attention, affection and adoration.
These aren’t just the abusive boys who don’t take "no" for an answer, but also the generally nice boys who don’t even realize that they are being jerks in a given situation. The latter could be a boy you know who might unexpectedly wrap his arm around your waist in the hallway looking for a hug you didn’t really want to give.
Even though they seem initially clueless, many boys will listen and understand if girls give them a straight explanation. My friend Tony told me, "All of my friends are important to me, so if anything I’m doing is making a girl uncomfortable, I want to know, so we can work it out and keep our friendship strong."
There are many boys out there like Tony who shouldn’t be feared or treated like the enemy. Girls really need to start giving some of their male friends more credit, and just be honest with them when we feel uncomfortable.
I believe it can be easy to say to a friend, "Hey, please stop saying things like that — they freak me out." It’s too bad that so many girls never say it.
There are, unfortunately, boys on the other side — those with "entitlement syndrome." When their advances are rebuffed, these boys resort to calling us snobs, teases, gay or racist. Their huge egos compel them to assume girls must have serious character flaws if we aren’t attracted to them.
Because every student deserves a safe place at school, we have to turn to school officials to stop the problem. Our efforts to get anti-harassment rules enforced at our school haven’t gotten very far yet.
But there are many school districts around the nation that not only state and enforce their policies, but also actually provide harassment prevention programs.
Unfortunately, however, in many of these cases, emphasis on prevention did not come until the number of harassment cases exploded and school districts felt enough pressure to act. My district hasn’t felt it yet.
Because it is well known around my high school that turning to the deans for help with sexual harassment issues is not an effective means of handling the problem, many girls have had to take matters into their own hands. Either through calm discussions or heated confrontations, more and more girls are demanding respect — with or without the help of the "grown-ups."
It’s sort of an unwanted lesson on the importance of self-reliance: Until the school officials join us in demanding respect for everyone, we’re in it alone.
Addressing Sexual Harassment
According to Sexual Harassment: It's Not Academic, harassment can take two forms:
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a school employee causes a student to believe that he or she must submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in order to participate in a school program or activity.
It also can occur when an employee causes a student to believe the employee will make an educational decision based on whether or not the student submits to unwelcome sexual conduct, such as when a teacher threatens to fail a student unless the student agrees to date the teacher.
Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexually harassing conduct is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it affects a student's ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment.
A hostile environment can be created by a school employee, another student, or even someone visiting the school, such as a vendor or other guest.
Preventing sexual harassment
A school may take a number of steps to prevent sexual harassment:
- Develop and publicize a policy that clearly states sexual harassment will not be tolerated and explains what conduct is considered sexual harassment.
- Develop and publicize a specific grievance procedure for resolving complaints of sexual harassment.
- Conduct periodic sexual harassment awareness training for all school staff, including administrators, teachers and guidance counselors.
- Conduct periodic age-appropriate sexual harassment awareness training for students, as well as awareness training for parents.
- Survey students to find out whether sexual harassment is occurring at the school