Talk about Sexual Harassment Early

This week the Talk early, talk often series continues on the SAAM Blog with a guest post from author Holly Kearl. 

When I visited a high school class near my home in Virginia to lead a discussion about sexual harassment, I was upset that girl after girl had a story to share: sexual remarks shouted at them from cars; men following them home; the man who made “humping” motions against a girl on a public bus; the “creepy men” following them in stores; the men masturbating in front of them at public swimming pools; the man who told a girl on her bike to “get in the car.”

When people hear about sexual harassment, they tend to think it’s a problem that only happens to adults, or perhaps college-age students. Sadly, it starts at a much younger age.

As part of my research for a 2010 book on gender-based street harassment (sexual harassment in public spaces), I surveyed more than 800 women. Nearly one in four recalled being harassed in places before they were 12 years old and nearly 90% said it had happened to them by age 19.

When the American Association of University Women conducted a national survey about sexual harassment in schools, 35% of students reported they had experienced sexual harassment by 6th grade and more than 80% had by 12th grade. (Hill and Kearl, 2011) Very few students ever reported the incidents.

In American society, sexual harassment is often normalized. It’s seen as a joke or “no big deal.” In a study of 81 prime-time TV episodes, 84% contained at least one incident of sexual harassment, with an average of 3.4 incidents per program. Incidents were often accompanied by a laugh track.  (American Psychological Association,Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls 2010) In some cartoons, characters sexually harass each other. Politicians, sports figures, and celebrities who are revealed to be sexual harassers rarely face penalties and may even see their popularity increase.

Children internalize these messages. When they are harassed by each other or by adults, even if they are upset about it, they may not think they can do anything. And some kids see the behavior and model it, not understanding that it is wrong.

I don’t think parents, family members, educators, and other concerned adults can start talking to kids about these issues too soon. It’s important for kids to know what they can do about it and also to know what it is so that they don’t accidentally engage in it while mimicking cartoon characters or older siblings’ or friends’ behavior.

Start by talking to kids about what they know, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve experienced. Make sure they know they’re not alone or in trouble and that you can help. Teach them assertive ways to respond to harassers and how to report them. Teach them about consent and appropriate joking. If they have a smart phone, they can download the free “Not Your Baby” app which generates suggestions for how to deal with harassment based on the location and the harassers. Also, find out what your school is doing about sexual harassment: do they have a policy? Do they follow the guidelines of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972?

Everyone deserves safe schools and safe streets, let’s help make that possible.

Holly Kearl is founder of Stop Street Harassment and an author of a book on the topic. April 7-13, she is organizing Meet Us on the Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week(find out how to participate). She also works at the American Association of University Women where she co-authored the national study Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Follow her on Twitter, @hkearl