A survey conducted in May and June of 2011 by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), released in early November, revealed that 48 percent of middle and high school students who were surveyed said that they were sexually harassed at least one time during the 2010-2011 school year.
The survey polled a nationally representative sample of 1,965 students from both private and public schools between the ages of 12 and 18. The results of this survey may be very surprising and troubling for parents and teachers alike.
The survey revealed that girls were more likely to experience harassment than boys. (For the benefit of this survey, harassment was defined rather broadly as “unwelcome behavior that takes place in person or electronically.”) While 40 percent of boys said they have experienced harassment, 56 percent of girls reported being sexually harassed at least one time in the past school year. Of these, 44 percent said that they were harassed in person, and 30 percent said they were harassed through Facebook, text messaging, or email.
Additionally, the survey was able to glean information, according to the students who responded, regarding which students were more commonly harassed. Girls whose “bodies are really developed, more than other girls” are most likely to be harassed, followed by girls who are either considered to be very pretty or “not pretty” by their peers. According to the report, boys who are “not very masculine” and overweight students in general are more commonly the targets of harassment.
A third of those who reported being harassed said that had been the target of unwelcome sexual comments or jokes. Eighteen percent said that they were called gay or lesbian in a derogatory manner. In fact, the most common form of harassment which boys reported experiencing was being called “gay.”
“I was told I was gay because of the way I had dressed for a school spirit week event,” one eighth grade boy said.
And a ninth grade boy wrote, “Everyone was saying I was gay, and I felt the need to have to run away and hide.”
Thirteen percent of girls reported being touched in an unwelcome way, and four percent admitted to being forced to do something sexual.
The survey supported the negative effect which harassment has on its victims, with 87 percent reporting detrimental effects from the harassment they faced. A third of those who were victims of harassment said they did not want to go to school. Others reported having a hard time sleeping or studying, feeling sick to their stomachs, or that they quit school activities due to harassment.
In the survey, an eighth-grade female said that she “thought of suicide” after a peer spread sexual rumors about her, and a ninth-grade boy wrote that being called gay by others made him feel “threatened for [his] personal safety.”
One of the report’s authors and director of research at AAUW, Catherine Hill, and coauthor Holly Kearl wrote that even though sexual harassment is considered to be a form of bullying, schools are often reticent to place emphasis on sexual harassment. The report said, “Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment.”
Hill said that bullying and harassment overlap, and that sexual harassment usually starts in adolescence with comments that are “focused on sex and gender.” She also stated that many administrators and teachers are “more comfortable talking about bullying. It’s hard to talk about sexual harassment.”
Another alarming tendency, according to the survey, is that most students are not fighting back. About half of those who said they have been harassed admit to just ignoring the harassment at the time, the same number who reported that they didn’t take any action after the harassment. About one-fourth of the students said that they told their harasser to stop, while a similar percentage of students reported confiding the incident to a parent, a family member, or a friend. Only 9 percent told their teacher or another adult at school about the harassment.
“There’s a fear of coming forward,” Hill says. “To school principals: If you don’t hear anything, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. We need to do more than just respond; we need to prevent sexual harassment.”
Hill recommends that schools set up an anonymous system where students can at least talk about, if not report, sexual harassment, since there is embarrassment or fear related to these incidents. Additionally, she recommends that every school should delegate an adult who students can go talk to if they have been harassed.
Kearl has called for the need to establish programs that would include all school members, administrators, and parents to address the seriousness of sexual harassment saying, “When we talk about sexual harassment, many people want to think about it as an adult problem. But this is happening to 12-year-olds. It’s a vicious cycle. There needs to be a climate of prevention from all sides.”