The Normalization of Sexual Harassment in the American School System

Sexual harassment occurs so frequently, that it is normalized across the nation.

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Hannah Rubin

One respondent answered the poll in a joking manner, furthermore showing how sexual harassment is viewed as joke.

A 13-year-old girl being grabbed on her behind while walking down a middle school hallway. A sophomore forced to quit her job because the looks from an older man make her uncomfortable. Another girl rubbed up against while hugging her male friend. In the American school system, sexual harassment occurs so often, that it is nationally normalized. School boards feel that they are protecting boys from midriff and shoulders through strict dress codes for girls, yet turn the other cheek when it comes to protecting young teen girls from those same boys objectivising them and violating their personal boundaries. Administrations across America describe the sexualization of girls by their male peers as “boys being boys,” but is this behavior what we want to see in boys who will become our future leaders?

Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, deliberate and unwelcome touching, pressure for sexual favors, sexually suggestive looks or gestures, and sexual jokes or remarks. Many young women feel confused when they are sexually harassed because they either do not realize they are experiencing sexual harassment, or they do not know how to handle it. They often think that the negative experience is a “normal part” of being female. Sexual harassment is extremely degrading to a young woman’s self-esteem and causes girls to define their self-worth by their physical appearance, rather than by their intellect and character. Many girls learn from an early age that cat-calling is a compliment, although it should be viewed as exploitative and extremely disrespectful. We are taught to accept this unacceptable behavior as social normality when it should not be tolerated.

The cover photo for the Instagram poll; percentages inaccurate.

In an Instagram poll (pictured right), 34 out of 37 high school girls say that they have felt they may have been sexually harassed or made uncomfortable in a sexualized way. This staggering 92% of high school girls polled does not include the many young women whose experiences are unreported. Accurate statistics around harassment is extremely difficult to get, because many girls are too afraid to discuss their experiences. They think their feelings will be invalidated and they’ll be told told they are exaggerating or misinterpreting the situation. Despite the obvious harassment, many teachers and adults will tell the girls to ignore the boys or may comment that “they just like you.” This desensitization and acceptance of the behavior by adults only exacerbates the problem and contributes to the social normalization of sexual harassment.

Although sexual harassment in schools is a serious national epidemic, there are actions school boards across the country can implement to prevent or reduce the frequency of sexual harassment. It begins with educating students from an early age about how to define sexual harassment so they can understand the differences between teasing, bullying, flirting, and harassment. Students also need to learn how to respond when confronted with harassment. Ignoring the situation leads to a cycle of further victimization and gives additional power to the harasser. Teachers and staff need training to identify adolescent sexual harassment and know how to deter the behavior from occurring inside and outside of classrooms, as well as how to support sexual harassment victims. Explicit consequences and physical boundaries must be established to teach young adults that every action has an opposite reaction.

To spread awareness about sexual harassment, we need witnesses to help victims, rather than remaining impartial bystanders. Staying silent to avoid problems with perpetrators only makes the problem worse because it allows them to believe there are no consequences to their actions. If we want change, we need to change our mindsets surrounding sexual harassment, as well as how we go about handling it.

 

Have you ever experienced sexual harassment?

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