Did you know that 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 faced sexual harassment during the 2010-11 school year in the USA? Sadly, it’s true. In addition to my anti-street harassment, I work full-time at the nonprofit AAUW, and this week, AAUW released a report on sexual harassment in schools that I co-authored.
While boys faced sexual harassment too, especially in middle school, far more girls faced it and overall they were more negatively impacted by it (e.g. had trouble sleeping, didn’t want to go to school, missed school). When you look at the broader picture, many of these same teenage girls face street harassment from grown men, too, which means they’re dealing with harassment at school and before/after. This is NOT okay.
“Like most parents, when my firstborn left the nest for college, I was filled with angst, not worrying about her judgment or common sense, just stressed about all the ignorant people (read: young men) I knew she was bound to encounter. It really hit home last summer as we commuted to work together every day. She dressed pretty modestly, but it didn’t matter what she wore. I would notice young men and grown men (her father’s age) checking out her body. She already knew how to give the “death stare,” but I found myself doing it for her. They would quickly turn away, and the few who looked defiant quickly gave it up, clearly thinking twice about taking me on. I was like Clint Eastwood some days … “Go ahead, make my day.”
When she was a high school student athlete, blatant staring at girls and sexual references to their bodies was the norm. She told me, “Guys commented on my legs and butt all the time. Not just me, though. It was most of the girls, especially the runners and volleyball players who wore spandex. I usually just gave them the death glare or threatened them physically. And guys were really bold with their … ogling. And commenting. They didn’t care.”
Some girls didn’t even try out for sports to avoid the negative environment. Her sophomore year, the school adopted mandatory uniforms. But it really didn’t matter what the girls wore (and who knew you could purchase uber-tight khakis and too-small polo shirts to defy the rules!). Boys felt empowered to treat girls with zero respect, and unfortunately many girls were too frightened, embarrassed, or humiliated to speak up. The harassment of girls began in middle school. She recalled hearing guys in high school talk about “the kinds of things they were doing with girls in empty classrooms in middle school.” I’m sure not all of it was consensual.
But there’s another side of the dilemma. Many girls were extremely angry at other girls for wearing too tight, short, or revealing clothes; modifying their uniforms to look “sluttified;” and (they felt) giving boys free reign to pass judgment on them all. This judging has, of course, migrated to social media, where student Facebook pages from middle to high school to college now “rate” girls or call them out as “sluts” and “hos.” The local term in the Washington, D.C., and Maryland area is “roller,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a hoe [sic] or a slut, mostly used in the D.C. area for a girl who is a REAL freak. … That girl is a roller — she [is] always with some new dude.” Girls get so little respect that new labels are created to demean them?
We’re talking about young girls! These types of labels do irreparable harm to their self-esteem, body image, academic performance, and even their safety. And try erasing that stigma from your social media footprint as you apply for college, scholarships, internships, or employment. We need to make our schools free from sexual harassment for girls and boys. I hope that AAUW’s new research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, inspires all of us to create a culture of respect in our schools and communities to keep girls and boys safe. In the meantime, I’m preparing my younger daughter and son for the road ahead.”
In a related vein, Huffington Post writer and mother of three daughters Soraya Chemaly published a piece last night with advice for parents for how to talk to their daughters about sexual harassment, including street harassment. She writes:
“Here are the top five things that I came up with:
1. Review the basics with her in a “safety rule” — not “scary reality” — way:
- Be safe and develop good habits — don’t scare her, but make sure she knows the safety rules relevant to where she’ll be.
- Don’t engage — don’t answer questions, get into a conversation or respond in anger. But, don’t lose confidence. This is hard. Whereas you, as a an adult might be able to stare the guy down and say, “Don’t touch my arm again,” a younger girl may not be equipped to do the same. Even most adult women aren’t. In a recent survey, 69% of women said they never make eye contact on the street to avoid harassment.
- Be confident — if she wants the independence to walk around or has to for other reasons, like getting to school, then she needs to feel confident enough to say STOP if she has to, or ask someone for help. She has to speak loudly and clearly. Practice with her. If someone touches her without her consent she can call 911 and she should.
- If you and she live in a place where the harassment is really prevalent and frightening find a self-defense class.
2. Teach her that street harassment is not a compliment and that she has to trust her instincts. Harassment can be confusing to girls and women since the line between a compliment from a well-meaning and polite man and unwanted, potentially threatening harassment from a creep can be fuzzy and often incorporates cultural differences that are hard to parse. For a lot of women, and especially teen girls trying out their newfound, more adult femininity, certain comments can seem flattering. But it’s a precariously thin line between seemingly benign behavior and the threat of something ugly. Girls and women don’t have the time or luxury of determining which is which. I asked my daughter, now 14, if she could come up with a hard and fast cross-cultural rule that all girls could apply when developing their instincts about when to feel threatened and how to respond. She came up with this simple rule to determine the difference between a compliment and harassment: If you can look the person in the eye, confidently and uncoerced, and say thank you (even if you don’t actually do) — then it’s not harassment.
3. Let her know that if she’s groped, yelled at, whispered to, it’s not her fault, she doesn’t have to “like it.” It’s bullying. Let her know it’s doesn’t have to be this way, she’s not alone and she doesn’t have to shamefully keep the harassment to herself. A recent article in Psychology Today, “Hey Baby Hurts,” discusses some of the psychological implications for teens, which includes fear, self-objectification and withdrawal. Often, girls don’t talk to their parents about the street harassment that they are subjected to. The study released today explains: “Nearly a third of the victims said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits or fueled reluctance to go to school at all.” Share with her the fact that there is a worldwide movement to combat street harassment. Organizations like Stop the Harassment and Holla Back! are dedicated to empowering girls and women by teaching them assertive responses, self-defense, and easy mechanisms for reporting harassers.
4. Set an example if you’re her mom or grandmother or aunt. Stop accepting sexually-based street harassment as the price of being a woman. Men who harass often don’t know they’re being offensive. Tell them. There are places and times when even if you feel threatened you don’t have to be scared. You can look for allies, politely but firmly say, “Stop, that’s offensive,” shame the jerk, call the police. Model fearless behavior for her. If you’re a dad, it’s really important that your daughter understand you don’t think she’s “asking for it.” If she tells you it’s happening, don’t ask her what she was wearing, because she could be wearing a burka and it would happen.
5. And, lastly, very importantly tell boys and men in your life what’s going on. It’s vital. Most men don’t harass women on the street, but they also don’t realize the extent to which their mothers, sisters, daughters, female friends and coworkers go out of their way to adapt to this reality. We have to stop saying street harassment is just “boys being boys.” This excuse is a reductionist and harrowing definition of masculinity that maintains essentially that all men are animals. Most men are not animals. They are capable of respecting civil boundaries and personal space in public. In particular, boys need to learn three things:
- That they can participate in bonding experiences, but that harassing girls is an unacceptable way to do it.
- That they need to stop looking the other way and should intervene in support if the situation warrants it.
- How to empathize with what their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, girlfriends, wives are dealing with.
- How to speak to girls as people, with respect and decency.
- All of these are hard in the media environment they’re stewing in.
The Good Men Project has an excellent article for boys and men, as well as several pieces about empathizing with what women experience. The international organization Stop Street Harassment also has a page for educating boys.”
If you’re not already, parents, please have these conversations with your children. It will help them be safer and more empowered and allow them to live fuller lives.Share on Facebook