Teens and Sexual Harassment (page 2)
As parents and educators, we might think that today's youth live in a complex world--one that may prove to be more challenging than when we were teenagers. Teens may be especially confused and misinformed by media-based myths about sexuality and sex role behaviors. It is not uncommon to see images of sexual behavior on TV shows that teens prefer and hear explicit sexual lyrics in the songs teens listen to. Examples include:
- TV sitcoms or dramas in which teens or adults have sex to get to know each other better, but in the next season are sleeping with someone new.
- music videos with explicit lyrics and imagery.
- detailed news coverage of sexual crimes such as murder, rape, abductions, or drug induced sexual conduct.
Beyond the media, teens learn unhealthy or unrealistic ideas about sexuality from their peers.
We can see the effects a sexually charged culture has on the daily lives of adolescents. Sex as portrayed in the media translates into clothing styles as well as behaviors (teens are likely to learn how to behave on a first date from the media). The media's exaggerated early teen sex roles create a huge divide between young men and women in how they dress and act towards one another. Teen females may wear tight clothes that emphasize curves, wear heavy makeup, and show more skin than males do in their daily wear.
Sexual messages and behavior they witness affect the lives of adolescents more than most adults care to realize. External sources demonstrate the sexual toxicity of our popular culture - one that can potentially poison our youth if we do not teach them a healthier view of sexuality1. (For more information on this topic see the EDIS publication "Communicating with teens about sex: Facts, Findings, and Suggestions" FY852/FCS2251)
Sexual Harassment: Defined
One of the unfortunate offshoots of our cultures obsession with sex is problems with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment harms the sexual integrity of teens in their peer relationships. A definition of sexual harassment is unwelcome attention of a sexual nature, occurring through verbal and/or physical interaction. Being a victim of sexual harassment is likely to affect a teens academic performance or work ability and may create a hostile or threatening atmosphere for the teen2. In fact, sexual harassment coming from one teen to another is a type of bullying3. Sexual harassment of teens can occur anywhere ---in middle and high schools4, in the workplace5, and in community. For example, neighborhoods or the internet. Sexual harassment happens not just between the sexes, but also between girls or between boys. Female to male or male to female sexual harassment tends to get worse between 6th and 8th grade, a span of time when teens' bodies begin to appear more sexually mature6.
To help define the problem, here are some examples of sexual harassment that teens may be likely to see or experience:
- continually asking someone out when they have communicated a lack of interest
- unwanted requests for social or sexual activity
- making sexual jokes, gestures, or remarks
- inappropriate touching (brushing up against, grabbing, patting, or pinching in a sexual manner)
- spreading sexual rumors about someone
- making comments about a person's body, clothing, sexual orientation, or sexual behavior
- intimidation (blocking or cornering someone in a sexual way) or assault (pulling clothing off or down, forcing someone to do something sexual such as kissing)
- inappropriate sexual remarks or questions in "cyberspace" (instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms) 2, 4, 7
Sexual Harassment at School
Most adults/parents may think that such incidents are rare in the lives of adolescents they work with or with their own children. However, a national study of preteens and teens in public schools showed that about four-fifths (80%) of females and three-fifths (60%) of males experienced sexual harassment while in school4. Adding insult to injury, preteens and teens who experienced harassment were more likely to have responded by giving unwanted sexual attention to others. In fact, 40% percent of the students who reported being a victim to sexual harassment responded by being absent from school or skipping classes3. Also, sexual harassment in school usually takes place in public, in front of school staff and teachers.
The most common types of sexual harassment in school include:
- sexual comments, looks, jokes, or gestures (92% of females/83% males experienced)
- being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual nature (83% females/65% males)
- purposely being brushed up against in a sexual manner (75% females/55% males).
- being flashed or mooned (58% males and females, equally)
- having sexual rumors spread about them (50% males/54% females)
- having clothes pulled at in a sexual way (46% males / 50% females)
• having their way blocked or being cornered in a sexual way (25% males / 51% females)4
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
School is not the only place teens experience inappropriate sexual behaviors. Teen employment in the United States is among the highest rate of any industrialized nation8. Nearly 70% of 16-17-year-old high school students work during the school year9. In fact, 35% of high school students reported that they experienced sexual harassment in their part-time work. Of the 35% who were sexually harassed, 63% were girls and 37% were boys5. In 19% of cases, perpetrators were supervisors, and 61% of the time, harassment came from coworkers who were more likely to be peers. Overall, females felt more upset and threatened by an experience of sexual harassment in the workplace than male teens5.
Sexual Harassment in Cyberspace
As youth are using the internet in greater numbers than ever before, it is important to be aware of their vulnerability online10. A Girl Scout Research Institute study found that 30% of teenage girls who used the internet (a majority who used the internet daily) had been sexually harassed while they were in a chat room7. Teen girls in this situation often felt helpless in how to respond to, for example, requests for bra sizes, being shown photos of naked men, or inappropriate comments or questions concerning their sexuality.
How Sexual Harassment Affects Teens
The effects of being victimized by sexual harassment include:
- distractions from work performance, especially for girls
- confusion and upset to teenage girls who experience sexual harassment online
- a decline in academic performance when sexual harassment occurs in schools
- victims becoming perpetrators of sexual harassment
- experiencing negative emotions such as anger, betrayal, depression, and anxiety
- feeling a lack of control over ones life and a drop in self-esteem
- psychosomatic stress symptoms such as headaches, stomach pains, insomnia, and irritability2
How to Handle Sexual Harassment Among Teens
Most adults may wonder, "Where do we go from here?" and "How do we protect and educate our teenagers?" Some suggestions to share with teens, parents, and educators follow.
Suggestions for Teens
- Don't ignore what is happening. Do not let behaviors that seem small keep happening, because they most likely will get worse instead of better. Tell the offender that you dislike their behavior and that you need it to stop immediately.
- Don't let someone accuse you of not having a sense of humor, you are simply asking to be treated with respect.
- Don't blame yourself for what is happening (for example, what you were wearing when the incident happened). It is the harasser who is responsible for what is happening.
- Know your rights for a harassment-free environment. Sexual harassment is illegal and you have the right to complain to the proper authorities when it happens. Tell a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult immediately.
- Keep records of your experiences (list incidents, dates, behaviors and people involved, including witnesses). A calendar is helpful for keeping track of problem behaviors.
- Ask for help from a knowledgeable person. Talk about how the harassment bothers you and come up with ways to deal with it. For example, talk to a parent or mentor about how to put a stop to inappropriate comments in a chat room. Role play a potential scenario.
- Even if you are not the victim, do not be afraid to speak up when you see it happening. Inform harassers that their behavior is called "sexual harassment." Tell someone when you think his or her sexual behavior or jokes are inappropriate. ("I don't find that funny." or "I don't like that.")
- Keep your instant messaging (IM) within a circle of friends that you know in person and avoid responding to e-mails or IMs from strangers. When you feel someone on-line has started to sexually harass you, end the conversation immediately and exit the chat room. 2, 7
Reprinted with the permission of the University of Florida. © 2008 University of Florida.