I 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.
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.