At least 1 in 4 middle school students say they’ve experienced unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment on school grounds, often in the hallway or even in the classroom. The most commonly reported form of harassment was unwanted physical touching, which was reported by 21.6 percent of the students who said they had experienced harassment. Rumor-spreading, verbal sexual commentary and homophobic name-calling were the next most frequently reported at 18.9 percent, 18.2 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively.
What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like?
Sexual harassment comes in many forms, says Susan Fineran, PhD. She’s a professor at the University of Southern Maine who studies this problem.
Sexual harassment includes:
- Name calling. Insults related to a person’s sexuality are a form of sexual harassment. It doesn’t matter who’s saying it, or whether the person being harassed is gay or straight, male or female. What matters is that you’re using those words to insult them — that makes it harassment.
- Unwanted touching. If someone touches a girl’s breasts and she’s not OK with it, it’s harassment. If someone grabs or hits a guy in the genitals — even as a prank — that’s harassment, too.
- Unwanted behaviors. This includes someone asking you on a date or pressuring you for sex repeatedly after you’ve said no. If someone stalks you, gets in your personal space, or acts threateningly, that may be a form of sexual harassment, too.
- Pressure from authority figures. Harassment doesn’t just come from other teens. Adults may sexually harass you, too. If a teacher offers to give you a better grade — or a boss offers a better work shift — in exchange for sex or some kind of physical favor, that’s harassment. It’s still “absolutely” harassment if a teacher is just looking or making comments “in a sexual way that makes the student uncomfortable,” says Melissa Holt, PhD, an assistant professor at Boston University.
- Hassling. If a classroom is mostly made up of guys who start picking on one of the few girls during class and making her life uncomfortable, that could be termed sexual harassment
You can take these other steps to confront sexual harassment at school, Fineran says:
- Speak up. Tell your harasser to stop. Say that the words or actions are making you uncomfortable.
- Keep a record. Take note of who harassed you, what the person said or did, and how you responded. Write down when and where it happened. Keep any harassing emails, texts, or online postings, too.
- Tell a parent or trusted adult. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether events cross the line from teasing to sexual harassment. Talking to an adult can help you figure out what’s happening and how to deal with it. If a boss starts scheduling you for early in the morning or late at night so the two of you are working alone, an adult in your life should know.
- Report it. Tell a teacher, staff member, or your school principal. Share your records of what has happened. If the people at your school aren’t helpful, then tell the school’s superintendent. Your parents can help with this.
- Go legal. If you don’t get relief, consider whether a lawsuit is necessary. Again, your parents should be involved in this.
- Tell your boss. If your boss is the problem, then tell his or her boss. Businesses can be sued for sexual harassment, too, and many will take action if they’re concerned about a lawsuit. If you are afraid to do this alone, get your parents or another trusted adult involved.
- Consider quitting if you feel unsafe.
How You Can Avoid Being the Harasser
If you’re checking someone out, joking with your friends, or being persistent in asking for a date, is that harassment? It may sometimes seem tricky to tell. Here are some pointers:
- Remember where you are. Jokes or comments that you could make with your close buddies may not be OK with someone you don’t know as well, Holt says.
- Don’t label people. Never call anyone a “slut,” and never use “gay” as an insult.
- Hands off. Don’t touch people — especially in a personal or sexual manner — unless they have told you it’s OK to do so.
- Be respectful. If someone asks you to stop doing something that’s bothering them, stop immediately. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone you’re dating or someone you don’t know — if they say “stop,” stop.
- Don’t spread rumors. Respectfulness also means not spreading rumors. Don’t share personal details or sexy photos that would embarrass someone.
- Watch for signals. If someone seems uncomfortable or afraid when you’re trying to start a conversation or ask for a date, stop.