Sexual harassment in school: a real test

This survey came out a few weeks ago, but I’m still thinking about it.

The survey, conducted by the American Association of University Women, looks at sexual harassment in grades 7-12. Sadly, I can’t imagine that the results are very surprising to any teacher, or to anyone who remembers what school was like. (I wonder how constant this has been. It’s too bad no one asked these questions generations ago.)

The survey (of almost 2,000 students) found that 56% of girls and 40% of boys experienced some sexual harassment during the past year. Honestly, that number sounds like it could be a little low. The survey designers defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” I just think there are probably kids who don’t even realize that what they’re hearing is “unwelcome” or necessarily sexual.

The most common form of harassment, as the survey broke it down, was “sexual comments, gestures, or jokes.” 46% of girls reported dealing with that. Again, this couldn’t be surprising to a teacher. We hear it all day long, and there’s plenty of places we can look for the root causes. But I don’t think that’s really our job. Our job – one more part of it, one more often overlooked and and under-appreciated part of it, one more part of it for which we are usually untrained – is to address it when we hear it and to treat it seriously.

The survey found that 87% of those who experienced some sexual harassment reported negative effects “such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomachaches,” according to the New York Times article. All three of those side-effects make school almost impossible.

When it comes to “being called gay or lesbian in a negative way,” 18% of girls and 18% of boys answered yes. But, again, I think every teacher would bet, based on only anecdotal evidence, that such language is more ubiquitous than that suggests. That survey question reflects direct language (i.e., “you’re so gay”, and not indirect language (“this story is gay”) which we hear all the time, and which has to be almost as harmful).

I’m not sure what we do here. I suppose, like so much else, it comes down to every teacher being on the same page and being consistent about how we run our classrooms. I make a big deal about the negative gay language, and I’ve had a few students actually tell me (after class, of course) how much they appreciate the stand I take. They tell me that most teachers just pretend not to hear it.

The “sexual comments, gestures, or jokes” might actually be a little more complicated to address. They’re getting the message that those jokes are acceptable from a lot of different places. Heck, I push them to find the sexual jokes in the text when we read Shakespeare (“Why, then, is my pump well flowered?”).

When I try to teach feminist literary theory to seniors, I get a ton of push-back from both the boys and the girls. “You’re just reading too much into every little thing,” or “People could just be overly sensitive about anything.” These are the kinds of things I hear when I point out misogynistic language or themes in texts or in the media.

So it’s understandable, on one level, why teachers will turn the other ear, so to speak. We have to choose our battles, and we can’t always put aside ten minutes of class time (or more) to address a side comment we heard muttered in the back corner. We’ve probably got a test coming up we have to prepare them for.

But that’s just it. We do have a test coming up: are they going to be good people? But I don’t even think that’s one of the Common Core State Standards.

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