School is tough enough without having to put up with catcalls in the hall and pinches in gym class. According to a study by the American Association of University Women, a whopping 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of guys said they’d been sexually harassed in school (www.feminist.org).
The Office for Civil Rights considers sexual harassment to be unwelcome sexual conduct that hurts a student’s ability to participate in school programs. The OCR is in charge of enforcing a law called Title IX, which requires schools to respond to cases of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
But sexual harassment is a tricky issue. When does a harmless dirty joke become a serious offense? Let’s look at some examples:
- A male teacher offers to give a female student an A if she’ll kiss him.
- A female guidance counselor tells a male student that she won’t help him with his college applications unless he goes out on a date with her.
- A male soccer coach suggests to a male student that he’ll have a better chance of making the team if he has sex with him.
These are all pretty clear-cut cases of what’s called quid pro quo (“this for that”) sexual harassment. If a teacher (or another school employee) rewards a student for going along with his advances or punishes a student for rejecting them, that’s harassment. It’s an abuse of power, and it’s illegal.
A Hostile Environment
Things get more confusing when we’re talking about another type of sexual harassment in schools: something called hostile environment harassment. If sexual advances are bad enough that they make it difficult or unpleasant for a student to do regular school stuff — like pay attention in class, play on a sports team, or just walk through the halls — it’s called “hostile environment harassment.”
This can get a little iffy — telling one dirty joke isn’t considered harassment, while grabbing a student’s breasts definitely is. But what about all the stuff in between that goes on all the time in classrooms, locker rooms, and hallways?
If there’s a single incident that’s really bad — like groping — it’s serious enough to be considered harassment. If it’s less serious, but the student keeps getting harassed over and over again, that’s also considered hostile environment harassment. For instance, a guy asking a girl out on a date — even if she’s totally not interested — isn’t considered harassment. But if he asks her again and again in a threatening way, that’s harassment.
Here are some other examples of less serious behavior that could be considered harassment if it happens on a regular basis (this applies to both guys and girls):
- staring at body parts
- displaying pornographic or sexist pictures or graffiti (and that includes stuff like writing “Jen is a slut” on a school desk or a bathroom wall)
- invading someone’s personal space (like a teacher standing way too close to a student in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable)
- pressuring someone for a date
- asking for sex
- rubbing up against someone
- telling offensive sexual jokes or stories
Am I Being Harassed?
Again, a lot of these categories can seem kind of fuzzy. What’s the difference between harassment and flirting? If you’re not sure if you’re being harassed, ask yourself this question: does it feel good or bad? The bottom line: flirting feels good (for both people!); harassment feels bad.
How to Fight Back
Sexual harassment can make people feel embarrassed and powerless. But you’re not helpless, and you don’t have to take it! Because of Title IX, schools have to take action if a student is being harassed. Tell the principal, or talk to a teacher or guidance counselor whom you trust. It’s also a good idea to keep track of the incidents — write them down in a journal, or tell a friend who can back you up.
There are plenty of organizations that can help you find out more about sexual harassment and how to fight it. For starters, check out:
In short, never accept the excuse that “boys will be boys” (or “girls will be girls,” for that matter). Know your rights, and know that sexual harassment — unlike homework, zits, and SATs — is not a bad teenage experience that you have to put up with.