It took the high-profile controversy involving Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the 1990s to give me words to explain the topsy-turvy years of high school. I thought the aggravations that girls sometimes experienced in the hallways and cafeteria lines of school were just part of growing up. Along with others, I casually read the graffiti scrawled on bathroom stalls before it was erased, accusing certain girls of unsavory behavior.
Boys were sometimes rude, I reasoned. If they pinched you, maybe it was a sign they liked you. Sure, I got angry at times -- once I stood up and yelled at a classmate who kept pulling my desk closer to his own just to tug on my clothing. Fortunately, the teacher must have also been watching, because she took my side and sent him to the office. I didn't know those instances had a name, however, until I was an adult.
Today's children are better informed. They generally have knowledge of the term we now use often called sexual harassment. We often think of this type of harassment in relation to the work environment, but it's actually more pronounced in the place where young people gather the most -- the educational system.
Several years ago, a research study known as Hostile Hallways, based on the findings of a group called Harris Interactive, sounded the alarm on what was happening in America's schools. They found that behavior that could only be defined as sexual harassment was rampant, affecting eight out of 10 students. This number was consistent across racial and socio-economic lines. Additionally a majority of boys admitted to participating in the behavior, while a significant minority of girls stated they had also participated.
Eighty to 90 percent of high school girls sampled admitted to being victims of sexual harassment compared to around 60 percent of boys. This definition included being touched or grabbed inappropriately, spoken to in a sexual manner, having clothing pulled, being mooned, having sexual rumors spread about an individual, being taunted, etc. Access to modern technology now makes it even more refined, as youth can be victims of videotaped or photography uploads or have rumors spread about them at the touch of a button.
Interestingly, only half of students found sexual harassment upsetting, while half felt it was a normal part of growing up and that they could manage it on their own. Students suggested a combination of having teachers or speakers talk about the issue with them as well as having adults take them more seriously when they observed it or were reported to about it to help reduce occurrences.
Parents can help also by including discussions about boundaries, appropriateness, and respect for others in their ongoing talks with their children during the teen years, especially remembering to discuss this as part of sexual education. Monitoring and discussing media used and accessed by youth is also crucial, as copycat behavior is a common part of adolescence.
If your child becomes a victim of sexual harassment, help them advocate for safety and accountability in collaboration with members of their school's administrative leadership and any other relevant associations.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc is a therapist at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.