Building It Up to Break It Down

November 08, 2011

This post is part of a series focusing on sexual harassment in middle and high school, launched in conjunction with the release of AAUW’s latest research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which was supported by the Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle and the Eleanor Roosevelt Fund. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for updates.

As parents, we spend days and weeks and years building up our children as we prepare them to leave our nests. The list of things to worry about is endless. So is the list of moments to enjoy. You hope other parents are doing their jobs well, because as our children come to be school age and spend long hours together in class, they become a family of sorts.

And that family can get dysfunctional. I had 31 classmates in my grade as I went through grades 7–12. We were like brothers and sisters. That didn’t stop my male classmates from groping my breasts in the hallway or pinching and twisting them so hard I was left breathless, exposing themselves, or pressing themselves up against me at the row of lockers. I don’t remember any of them ever getting into any trouble over it.

I had no idea at the time that it was sexual harassment. It was routine, it was violating, and it was sexual in nature. I put on a “tough girl” attitude, threw a few punches, and by the end of high school was popular and left alone by the guys, having established myself as a girl who wasn’t going to take it.

It wasn’t until AAUW asked me to write on this topic that I really remembered all of that or worried about my daughter going through it herself. I think I’ve just kept telling myself with all of the awareness of bullying and prevention, it won’t be an issue when my now 5-year-old Amelia reaches junior high.

I think I’ve been fooling myself.

“Sexual harassment is as rampant as it is undiscussed,” says Rachel Simmons, girl expert and bestselling author of the newly revised Odd Girl Out. “It can be extremely dangerous for a girl to challenge the unwanted attention of a male peer. Adolescent girls gain status from their association with boys — particularly high-status boys — so speaking up may come with painful social consequences from both boys and other girls. Feeling silenced, on top of the anxiety and lack of safety a harassed girl feels, can make it difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate in school or maintain healthy self-esteem.”

Have I been building up my daughter just to have her knocked down? This is the kid now known worldwide as being full of awesome. Is she going to throw a punch at a classmate someday because he grabbed her inappropriately? Is she going to come home crying because girls in gym class were snapping her bra and calling her sexually lewd names for months?

I think instead of worrying, which is not something I happen to be good at, I’ll do what I do best. I’ll help AAUW educate parents so that we can build up awareness around the serious issue of sexual harassment in school and knock the problem down.

This post was written by Pigtail Pals’ Melissa Atkins Wardy.

By:   |   November 08, 2011

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