Survey shows sexual harassment present in middle school, high school and college levels

By Lauren Anderson

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A survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in summer of 2011 showed 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year.

The nationally representative study published in the report “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School” asked 1,965 students to report on their experiences and reactions to sexual harassment.

The U.S. Department of Education defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” This unwelcome conduct includes “verbal, nonverbal, or physical” harassment such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments, jokes, or gestures, according to the Department’s website.

Girls were more likely to report being sexually harassed than boys by a 56 to 40 percent margin, according to the report.

And 12 percent of girls reported an incident of sexual harassment to an adult at school, while 5 percent of boys reported an incident.

The study found electronic sexual harassment via texting, Facebook or email affected one third of students. Being called “Gay” or “Lesbian” in a negative way was reported as affecting both boys and girls equally at 18 percent.

More boys than girls reported perpetrating the harassing; but, most who harassed others were victims of sexual harassment themselves.

As a reaction to sexual harassment, both boys and girls reported trouble sleeping, reluctance to go to school, or the necessity to change their route going to and from, according to the report.

A problem on college campuses as well

While the study focused on those in grades 7-12, sexual harassment remains a problem on college campuses. According to AAUW’s publication “Drawing the Line,” 62 percent of female college students have been sexually harassed on their campus, and 61 percent of male college students.  While 51 percent of male college students admit to having sexually harassed another student, 22 percent of male students say they do it often.

Becky Lockwood, associate director of rape crisis services at Everywoman’s Center, said the most common sexual harassment issue reported by UMass students is sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault.

“It is really traumatizing, and in 95 percent of the cases it was done by someone she knows, so there is a feeling of betrayal,” said Lockwood.

The study found a common form of sexual harassment students experienced was verbal abuse surrounding stereotypical gender roles. Girls who play sports, for example, were likely to be called “lesbians” in a derogatory manner, and boys who are not hyper-masculine in the way the dress or act were often labeled “gay.”

“There are some cultural norms that support sexual violence. In certain communities people talk about sex as a commodity and women as things that you get, and it’s a lot easier to assault women because there’s no empathetic connection. In that way it [verbal harassment] really supports a ‘rape culture,’” said Lockwood.

She also said an example of something that is accepted despite being derogatory is when guys use language like “I wanna hit that” when referring to a girl they want to have sex with.

If guys are mistreated by a partner or hurt by a relationship, “they’re expected to be angry,” said Lockwood. She continued on to say that “men don’t have space to be hurt.”

The idea of “masculine” being unfeeling and barbaric only perpetuates the negative sexual atmosphere in society, according to Lockwood.

The research showed most men do not sexually assault others; however, the few men who do, have many victims.

“The perpetrator always has a choice,” said Lockwood.

Everywoman’s Center offers a 24-hour hotline at 413-545-0883 with counselors on the line every day of the week for victims of sexual harassment.

Lauren Anderson can be reached at [email protected].