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Sexual Harassment: Is It Flirting or Hurting?

Sexual Harassment:
Is It Flirting or Hurting?

What is sexual harassment?
What is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?
How common is sexual harassment?
What are the emotional effects of sexual harassment?
What if an adult sexually harasses me?
What can I do about it?

What is sexual harassment?
You're walking down the hallway on your way to English class. There's a big test today. You don't know the material cold, so you've got your head in a book, trying to do some last-minute cramming. Suddenly, you hear commotion. You look up and see that several boys are whistling at you and calling you nasty names. Your face turns red. You feel dirty, confused, humiliated. You lower your head and walk away as fast as you can.

This kind of incident happens every day in schools across the country—in classrooms, locker rooms, the cafeteria, the parking lot, the hallways. It is one kind of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that is repeated often enough that it interferes with your right to get an education or to participate in school activities. But what does "unwelcome" mean? It really depends on the person. What one person calls unwelcome can be perfectly OK to someone else. But here's the important thing: if a girl says she is being sexually harassed, and the boy says he is only joking, it's the girl's word that counts. The target of the harassment is the one who makes that decision.

In school, sexual harassment may show up in the form of words or behavior that offend, demean, frighten, or threaten you because of your sex. Here are some examples of sexual harassment:
  • touching, pinching, patting, tickling, and grabbing body parts
  • cornering or blocking someone, or standing too close
  • brushing up against a person in a sexual way
  • sending sexual notes or pictures
  • writing sexual graffiti on bathroom walls or in locker rooms
  • making sexual gestures, looks, jokes, or comments
  • spreading sexual rumors
  • touching themselves in a sexual way in front of others
  • making kissing noises, catcalling, or whistling
  • repeatedly asking someone out when he or she is not interested
  • making sexual propositions
  • pulling someone's clothes off or down
  • spying on someone who is dressing or showering
  • forcing a kiss on someone or forcing someone into sexual activity
  • calling someone gay or lesbian
  • rape and attempted rape
Sometimes people who are being harassed are afraid to say "stop." They may worry that the harassment is somehow their fault. Or they may be afraid that if they tell someone, they'll be laughed at or shamed. It is very important that you learn your rights and that you take some action to let the harasser know that his attention is unwanted. Sexual harassment is not the kind of thing that goes away if you ignore it.

There are two basic types of sexual harassment. One type is called "quid pro quo." This means that one thing is done in return for another. For example, if a boy traps a girl in a corner and says, "Kiss me and I'll let you go," that's quid pro quo.

The other type of sexual harassment is more complicated. It's called creating a "hostile environment." This means that no one has the right to make a situation frightening, painful, or uncomfortable for another person. Most sexual harassment falls into this category.

Sexual harassment happens not only in school, but also in the workplace. In the past 20 years, many employees have sued their companies for not protecting them from unwanted or unwelcome sexual behavior from other employees and from supervisors. back to top

What is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?
Flirting is a natural and healthy part of life. It's one of the ways we communicate, and it's usually fun. When two people flirt with each other, they are on the same level. A boy compliments you, and you compliment him back. You are both enjoying the attention. Sexual harassment is different. If the same boy were to shout a compliment at you from the other end of the hallway while a group of his friends stood by laughing, that would feel very different. In that situation, one person has power over another. It's about control, not about getting to know each other better.

Even if you've flirted with someone in the past, it doesn't mean that you want to flirt now. If you don't want to flirt and the other person persists, it's sexual harassment. And don't listen to people who say that wearing a short skirt or tight jeans means you're asking to be sexually harassed. Everyone has a right to feel—and be—attractive. There is a big difference between sexual attraction and sexual harassment. back to top

How common is sexual harassment?
Sadly, a majority of students report that they experience some form of sexual harassment. In one study, 89 percent of girls said they received sexual comments, gestures, or looks. About 83 percent said they were touched, grabbed, or pinched. Thirty-nine percent reported that they were harassed at school on a daily basis. In another study, four out of five students said they were the targets of sexual harassment. And even though most harassers are boys, 75 percent of the boys surveyed reported that they, too, had been sexually harassed. In the same study, one of out 10 students said they had been forced to do something sexual at school other than kissing. Two-thirds of all boys and more than half of all girls admitted they had sexually harassed someone in school. Some of them said "It was no big deal" or "I thought the person liked it" or "My friends made me do it."

Sexual harassment happens in all kinds of schools and to all kinds of girls. Girls who go to public, private, parochial, or vocational schools are just as likely to be harassed. Girls from different racial or ethnic backgrounds have very similar sexual harassment experiences. There is one exception to this. African-American students were much less likely to report suggestive looks, comments, or jokes as sexual harassment than their Caucasian, Latina, or Asian-American classmates.

Sexual harassment often happens right in public, primarily in the classroom or the hall. In many cases, the bystanders are other students or friends of the student being harassed. Many times, teachers also see what is happening.

The good news is that most girls who are harassed tell someone. Girls are more likely to tell their friends about student harassment. They are more likely to tell their parents about teacher harassment. back to top

What are the emotional effects of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is serious stuff. It can make you feel less confident, embarrassed, and self-conscious. It can cause you to feel powerless and afraid. It can create anger, depression, confusion, and low self-esteem. Some girls feel humiliation and shame because they couldn't stop the harassment. Others doubt whether they can ever have a happy romantic relationship and start to feel that sex is dirty and unpleasant. Sexual harassment can also keep you from learning. Most girls (and some boys) who have been harassed don't want to go to school. They often stop talking in class and find it harder to pay attention. Their grades drop, and they may even think about changing schools.

Sexual harassment can have lasting and harmful effects. Here is how three girls describe their feelings:
  • "It affected my school life. I went home and cried every day, and I hated school. It totally diminished my self-esteem, and it robbed me of two years of my life. I didn't connect that this harassment was hurting me. I didn't even know it was really harassment. Once I realized that harassment was what was making me feel so bad, I started to feel better. I blamed myself for a long time, but then I realized that it wasn't my fault that this had happened to me."
  • "Being harassed made me angry, and I felt degraded. I was always on my guard, trying to prevent what may happen next."
  • "I felt terrible. I felt it was my fault, but it wasn't. I didn't tell the teachers or the principal what happened. I think my problem was that I was scared. I was scared they were going to do something worse if I told someone." back to top
What if an adult sexually harasses me?
Studies show that girls are more likely to do nothing if the harasser is a teacher, administrator, or other staff member than if the harasser is another student. This is unfortunate. Keep in mind that sexual harassment is illegal. It is scary to point the finger, especially at a teacher who has power over your grades or who may be popular with other kids. But it's important to speak up and stand up for your rights. In the process, you'll probably save a lot of other girls from harassment in the future. back to top

What can I do about it?
There are many things you can do if you feel you are the target of sexual harassment. Here are some suggestions from Nan Stein, project director at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, and the nation's foremost expert on sexual harassment in schools:
  1. Let the harasser know you don't like the behavior or comments. If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, tell the harasser that his or her behavior bothers you and that you want it to stop.
  2. Tell someone and keep telling until you find someone who believes you. Find supporters and talk with them about what's happening. The point is to find someone you can trust and someone who will take the kinds of actions you want.
  3. Do not blame yourself for sexual harassment. Harassment is unwanted and can make you feel trapped, confused, helpless, frustrated, embarrassed, and scared. You certainly did not ask for any of those feelings.
  4. Keep a written record of the incidents—what happened, when, where, who else was present, and how you reacted. Save any notes or pictures you receive from the harasser.
  5. Find the official person who has been designated by your school district as the one responsible for dealing with complaints about sexual harassment. If you feel uncomfortable talking with the designated person, go to another adult whom you like and trust. It's OK to bring a friend or a parent with you to that meeting.
  6. Write a letter to the harasser that describes the behaviors that you consider to be sexual harassment, saying that these behaviors bother you and that you want them to stop. Keep a copy of your letter. Write the letter with the help of an adult-advocate and have the adult hand-deliver the letter to the harasser so that the harasser takes this letter seriously.
  7. You have the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights or with your state's Department of Education, or to bring a lawsuit under federal law Title IX.
You deserve to go to school in a safe and caring environment. You also deserve to be believed when you report an incident. Don't be shamed or pressed into silence. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/19/2001
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