No One Called It Harassment

October 20, 2011

This post is part of a new series on sexual harassment in school, launched in conjunction with the upcoming AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for more information. 

Last month, the New York Times featured an article on bullying that made a vital observation: Teenagers and young victims of bullying don’t necessarily recognize or verbalize it as such. Instead, bullying is just “drama.”

With this observation in mind and considering AAUW’s upcoming report, Crossing the Line, it got me thinking, if bullying is drama, then what is sexual harassment?

I have a very vivid memory of an incident that happened in seventh grade. I was in my language arts class, and we had been divided into small groups to work on an assignment.

I was put in a group with Tim, a boy who was loud, rambunctious, and also very popular. While we were working, a female classmate passed by our group of desks to get a tissue. While she was standing there, back turned to us, Tim smirked at his friend and said, “Hey, watch this.” He proceeded to take out his ruler and smack our classmate, quickly but hard, on the rear end. She turned around in terror. Tim’s smirk fell into an expression of feigned horror. He put his hands up and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. That was an accident.” It was very convincing, and our classmate silently nodded and returned to her seat. The teacher had her back turned the whole time.

This was an unmistakable case of sexual harassment. And yet, I didn’t see it that way at all. I knew it was wrong, I knew it was sexual, and it made me sick to watch it. But I couldn’t comprehend it beyond that, in part because it wasn’t especially surprising.

Just like bullying was just petty “drama,” incidents like this were not sexual harassment but instead instances of “boys being boys.” Often, it was well-liked and popular boys, ones who felt they had the space and entitlement to act out and who were expected to do and say inappropriate things because of changing bodies and “raging hormones.” I didn’t like it, but it was the norm.

When harassment is normalized, when it comes to be a part of everyday school life, it’s even harder to recognize it as harassment. As a kid, I knew harassment existed, but I thought that only adults could harass and that it only “counted” if someone directly touched you. To me, what Tim did to our classmate wasn’t harassment; it was just the sort of thing he did, that many students did.

If we want to help young people around issues of harassment, it means we’ll have to break harassment down in a language they understand and help them make the connections between the terminology we use as adults and the experiences they encounter on a regular basis. I ended up sharing what Tim did with a teacher, but she never gave it a name. I had to do that myself, too many years later.

This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Intern Julie Smolinski.

AAUWguest By:   |   October 20, 2011

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