Forty-eight percent of surveyed middle and high school students said they were sexually harassed at least once, typically by their peers, during the 2010-2011 school year, according to a report released Monday by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a group that advocates for gender equality in schools.
Girls were more likely to experience harassment (defined broadly as "unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically") than boys. Fifty-six percent of girls said they were sexually harassed at least once in the past school year, compared to 40 percent of boys. Forty-four percent of students were harassed in person, while 30 percent of students said they were harassed digitally, either through Facebook, text messaging, or E-mail.
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The survey polled a nationally representative sample of 1,965 private and public school students between the ages of 12 and 18.
Student respondents said girls whose "bodies are really developed, more than other girls" are most likely to be sexually harassed, followed by girls who are either very pretty or considered "not pretty." Boys who are "not very masculine" and overweight students are also at high risk for being harassed, according to the report.
The range of harassment varied: A third of students reported being the target of unwelcome sexual comments or jokes; 18 percent said they were called gay or lesbian in a negative way; and 13 percent of girls said they were touched in an unwelcome sexual way. Four percent of girls said they were forced to do something sexual.
Harassment has negative effects on most of its victims: According to the report, 87 percent reported detrimental effects from the harassment. (Catherine Hill, one of the report's authors, says that some students brush off less severe comments and didn't report feeling any detrimental effects.) A third of harassed students said they didn't want to attend school. Other students said they had a hard time sleeping or studying, felt sick to their stomachs, or quit school activities because of harassment.
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An eighth-grade girl said that she "thought of suicide" after a classmate spread sexual rumors about her, and a ninth-grade boy said that being called gay made him feel "threatened for [his] personal safety."
Hill and coauthor Holly Kearl wrote that while sexual harassment is often a form of bullying, schools are often reluctant to put an emphasis on sexual harassment. "Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment," the report said.
Hill, director of research at AAUW, says that bullying and harassment overlap. Sexual harassment tends to start in adolescence and comments are "focused on sex and gender." She says that many administrators and teachers are "more comfortable talking about bullying. It's hard to talk about sexual harassment."
For the most part, students aren't fighting back either. About half of students said they ignored the harassment at the time, the same number who didn't take any action afterwards. About a quarter of students said they told the person to stop; a similar percentage said they talked to a parent, other family member, or a friend. Just 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher or other adult at their school.
The good news, Hill says, is that nearly all students who reported sexual harassment said that it came from their peers—not trusted adults at school. She says schools need to make it clear to students that sexual harassment is not funny, and they should teach students to recognize and report harassment.
Because of the embarrassment or fear often associated with sexual harassment, Hill recommends that schools set up an anonymous system where students can talk about, if not report, sexual harassment. She also recommends that schools designate an adult whom students can speak to if they've been harassed.
"There's a fear of coming forward," Hill says. "To school principals: If you don't hear anything, that doesn't mean you don't have a problem. We need to do more than just respond; we need to prevent sexual harassment."