Sexual Harassment: A “Way of Life” Kids Keep To Themselves

hundred-percentI don’t remember the first time someone cat-called me or grabbed me somewhere they shouldn’t have. It’s happened too many times in my life to isolate the experiences; however, the first time it happened was probably at school.

I recently came across the subject of school-based, peer-perpetrated sexual harassment in Karen Romano Young’s Hundred Percent, a realistic middle grade novel about a 12-year-old girl trying to navigate the awkwardness of 6th grade. It’s a time when some kids are reaching puberty faster than others, friendships change, cliques develop, and “crushes” feel like they’re literally crushing you. It’s also a time when children start experiencing more sexual harassment perpetrated by their peers.

The novel touches on this issue briefly a few times (without dwelling on it), including in the first chapter:

It happened last week, the first week of school, when [Christine, AKA Tink] was riding her bike home up the hill, sweaty and wobbling. Keith Kallinka was riding by smooth and cool on the bus.

“Woof!” He barked out the window at her, and somebody else laughed, and barked along. She couldn’t see the other person who barked. “Woof!” One known barker. One unknown barker.

Then the bus passed Jackie, who had already reached the top of the hill. They didn’t bark at Jackie. They whistled.

Are there any women out there who haven’t experienced a similar form of objectification at some point in their lives? It’s sad to know how early in starts, how severe it can get, and how serious its consequences can be.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that many children (of all genders) experience sexual harassment — including comments, name calling, and unwelcomed touching** — for the first time in middle school. Some children experience it at even younger ages.

Sexual harassment is so common that students see it as a “way of life,” an unrelenting experience that can result in a range of negative consequences from feeling worthless and afraid to having difficulty paying attention in class, skipping school, and worse. Despite its ubiquity, parents and school officials (who have a Title IX obligation to remedy it) often don’t know it’s happening to a child until the consequences become severe, if they learn about it at all.

One 2011 survey of middle school students found:

Among students who were sexually harassed, about 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school (12 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys). Just one-quarter (27 percent) of students said they talked about it with parents or family members (including siblings), and only about one-quarter (23 percent) spoke with friends… [O]ne-half of students who were sexually harassed in the 2010-11 school year said they did nothing afterward in response to sexual harassment.

It’s a subject I want my children to feel comfortable raising with me, and I plan on using books like Hundred Percent to broach the subject. We can’t eradicate sexual harassment in our schools and in our children’s lives without talking about it.***

____________________________

**Under Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funds, “sexual harassment” is conduct that “(1) is sexual in nature; (2) is unwelcome; and (3) denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program.” It includes a range of misconduct. (See U.S. Dep’t of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic (2008) (PDF)).

***Edited to add: In case it isn’t clear, I don’t blame victims of sexual harassment for staying silent. There are many reasons why a child (or an adult) wouldn’t want to report it. I never reported the sexual harassment I experienced until I was in law school (and I was reluctant about doing it even then). All I’m trying to say in this post is that I hope my own children will feel comfortable talking to me about it (reporting it to school officials is a separate issue). It isn’t easy to raise the subject with them, though. Books that include incidences of sexual harassment might help start the conversation.

19 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment: A “Way of Life” Kids Keep To Themselves

  1. Love this post! As a college student, who has experienced sexual harassment since middle school, I wish I knew about this book, when I was younger. But, I 100% agree with you about the fact that we can’t eradicate it, unless we talk about it! Currently, I give presentations to middle school students on sexual harassment, and I feel like I can’t preach about it enough. More conversations need to start happening.

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  3. That feeling kids have that they’re on the opposite side of, if not a war, then at least an unbridgeable divide with adults is very hard to get past. I had and have an incredibly close relationship to my parents, and I rarely, rarely told them when I was harassed in this way at school or in public. I fessed up once, when the sexual harassment on the bus started to get scarily physical, and they were great about it, but my principal made me and the boys in question both apologize to each other. Which makes me so angry in retrospect, though at the time I was like “sure, fine, whatever.” It’s a shitty thing for kids to experience.

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  5. This sounds like a powerful and much needed book to challenge the normalization of sexual harassment and assault in schools. I see the unfortunate necessity of teaching our daughters to protect themselves (although I want to be clear this should NOT be needed for women to enter shared space) and I am big proponent into teaching our sons not to assault and harass others. A book like this could do well for educating boys about sexism. And also outside of the gender binary -> teaching folks that sexual harassment, assault, and violence happens at greater rates in the trans community.

    I think we need to start education our children earlier about systems of oppression that result in violence, particularly sexism, heterosexism, and genderism. Thank you for sharing this sensitive and important topic.

    1. Thanks, Brendon! I’m looking forward to sharing this book with my daughters. The sexual harassment is in the background, just like it is in life, and I plan on pointing it out to my kids when they read it. On its own, without the involvement of an adult who has read the novel, it probably isn’t an effective tool for educating children about the issue. It more directly addresses other important themes, though (such as learning to accept yourself).

  6. Sounds like an interesting book. Being young and experiencing those types of behaviour can be very confusing. I recall when people would cat call etc friends of mine and I would be left thinking what was wrong with me? Why didn’t I get that type of attention?

    It feels a little strange now to recall thinking that, but as I said it was a confusing time.

  7. Sounds like a good book. Sadly when I was a kid I was told by all the adults cat calls and touching were good things, it meant I was pretty and I should take it as a compliment but I was so confused because it never felt like a compliment to me. I am so glad it has finally been named for what it is.

  8. Oh wow, I’m definitely getting my hands on this one. I definitely didn’t know when I was being harassed or what a “bad touch” was and I wish someone had told me. I’m too young to be a mother but I have nieces and nephews and I’ve gotta help them know!

    1. It’s a good book that raises several important themes. The sexual harassment in this novel is in the background, just like it is in life, making it necessary for adults to point it out to children who are reading it. If you end up giving it to your nieces and nephews, I hope they like the book. I’m looking forward to sharing it with my girls.

  9. Much of sexual harassment is subtle, and you can’t always find a way to describe it. “It was the way he said it, the way he looked at me.” No one is going to share that, because there’s nothing concrete about it. I never shared one instance of sexual harassment with my parents or anyone else. Our society normalizes this behavior (“It’s just boys being boys”), makes the recipient feel they should even welcome it because it confirms their attractiveness.

    I was in tenth grade when a male teacher yanked me out into the hall for talking in class. He pressed me up against the wall. He leaned in. He looked at me in that way, and though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone else, I knew he was making a move on me. I felt sick. He was my freaking teacher. The kicker? I was telling the person who’d started talking in class to shut up, so I felt doubly abused. But I didn’t say anything, because what would I have told them? It was a perception, not the reality of someone copping a feel.

    1. I’m sorry that happened to you. The sexual harassment I experienced in school was perpetrated by peers, and most of it was verbal. I never had a teacher who did anything inappropriate to me, though I did hear rumors about it happening to other students. It’s very hard for students to report this type of behavior, mostly especially to school officials who often don’t have a good track record of addressing sexual harassment. At a minimum, though, I want my own children to feel comfortable telling me about what happens to them at school.

  10. You know, sexual harrassment–especially inappropriate and unwanted touching–was ubiquitous at my elementary school. So much so that I didn’t even realize that it was NOT COOL until I was much older (i.e., when my daughter started elementary school). That’s when I became concerned about it and retroactively became disgusted at what happened to me and my friends. And we never talked about it/told. Now that I think about it, it’s like WOW. So, there is that.

    1. Thanks for sharing. Sexual harassment was an accepted part of my educational experience too (in my case, most of it was verbal). I don’t want it to be that way for my children.

  11. Is there anything good about the book besides that it brings up this topic? Some of the worst books in the world are supposed to teach a kid something. My daughter and I have a top pick in that category, a novel for about the fourth grade reading level which turned out to be about how if you don’t wear a bike helmet, you can die.
    I’m more a fan of teaching sons not to harass than teaching daughters to complain about it.

    1. I liked the book for a number of reasons, but I only chose to blog about one reason here. It doesn’t dwell on sexual harassment, as I mention in the post. Sexual harassment is in the background, just like it is in life, making it a good teaching tool (in my opinion).

    2. I am also a fan of teaching children not to harass. All I’m saying here is that I want my children to feel comfortable talking to me about their experiences at school. I certainly don’t blame anyone for keeping it a secret. I only “complained” once, and I was a law student by then.

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