Sexual Harassment and Prevention: It’s Elementary (and Secondary)

The first time I remember it happening, I was walking home from elementary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was young enough that when the older boy yelled that the boy from my class with whom he was walking “wants to lay you!” I gave them the finger, and it was the wrong finger. The things I do remember about that afternoon over 20 years ago are that I knew the boys were trying to embarrass and shame me, possibly even scare me, and I didn’t like what they said or how it made me feel. Mission accomplished.

In middle school, it was in music class that two boys regularly made comments about the boy I was going out with—a boy I never even kissed—and me. Insert innuendo about what you do with various musical instruments.  By this point, I had learned that they might leave me alone faster if I didn’t react, so I did my best to not turn red or cry. I was shy, perfect for “teasing” because it’s really fun to make the quiet kids uncomfortable apparently, but I was smart. I knew what they were doing was sexual harassment, and it was wrong, but I was too embarrassed to speak up. Besides, what would anyone do if I said something?

In high school, it was a boy at the prom my senior year. As I walked out for the coronation ceremony, a boy yelled, “Hit that, (previous year’s prom king’s name)!” I heard him, obviously, as did many other people in that gym, including lots of parents, but I didn’t react at the time, and no one else did either. For my revenge, I waited until English class with him on Monday. Voice much deeper than usual and cheeks pink from nervous energy, I told him I had heard him and that he shouldn’t talk that way about me. “It was just a joke!” “No. You don’t get to talk that way about me. You don’t get to say those things about me.” “I was only kidding!” “No. You don’t get to talk about me or any other girl that way.” He didn’t have anything to say at that point. It’s probably safe to guess that he went on to say similar things to other girls and women in later years, but I was done being quiet. Granted, I shouldn’t have had to say anything because people shouldn’t sexually harass others.

A recently released study by the American Association of University Women, Crossing the Line, shows that I am far from alone in my experience—and I consider myself lucky because I escaped those years relatively unscathed, unlike far too many of my peers —which means the kids who did the harassing are far from alone, too. According to the study, nearly half of all students in 7th through 12th grade reported experiencing sexual harassment either in person or through technology like texting, Facebook, or email. They experienced negative side effects such as absenteeism, trouble sleeping, and stomach pains.

At what point do we stop being okay with this and accepting it as just the way it is? When do we say that kids can go to school, and they won’t have to worry about someone touching them or using words to sexually harass them, and if someone does, there are policies in place to handle it? And, when those policies are drafted, can we please make sure that they don’t penalize the person on the receiving end of the harassment?   After that, can we pretty please include prevention so that kids grow up in environments where all are supported, and we can move toward situations where sexual harassment and sexual violence never even happen in the first place?

When do we start teaching our children that they have the right to treat others with respect and dignity, but they don’t have the right to harass someone and make someone afraid or ashamed?

Today, I wonder about all of those boys who Facebook tells me are parents now and how they are raising their children. A couple of them have daughters. Will it just be a joke when a classmate makes sexual references about her? For those with sons, are they raising them to taunt other boys by questioning their sexuality or to treat girls like they have no worth? Are their kids learning that their words and actions are important, that they affect people? Do those boys from so long ago ever think about what they did and “get it” now? Can they be the ones to help come up with a solution? Can you?

Related links:

To learn more about Crossing the Line, click here.

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