[Sex]pectations and Harassment

October 29, 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. 

When I was in high school, we were expected to be sexual. There was no official mandate, but the assumption was there, and we knew it. Health teachers brought condoms to class, parents trapped us in corners to “talk,” and school chaperones suddenly became extra vigilant. Athletes, honor students, musicians, tech wizards — it didn’t matter which group or social strata you belonged to, adults suspected all of us were jumping out of our skins with pubescent sexual urgency.

And they were perfectly right. We were. If there is one universal we can count on, it’s that teenagers have always, will always, be full of sexual energy. Bodies changing, hormones pumping, it’s only natural. As Advocates for Youth reports, close to half (45.6 percent) of high school students have had sex, and a Kaiser Family Foundation survey reported that 56 percent of 15–17-year-olds have “been with someone in a sexual or intimate way.”

So in high school, when my male friends made comments about another friend’s breasts, or I saw girls being felt up, or when rumors flew about how some “slutty” classmate performed oral sex on her boyfriend, it was to be expected, right? Because aren’t teenagers just obsessed with sex? Don’t these things fall into the category of young people being “horny”?

This was the way I rationalized my classmates’ behavior, and it was one of the ways I rationalized harassment in general. I know better now, but I can’t help but wonder how many students or teachers thought the same and continue to do so. I wonder if the expectation that adolescents are horny allows a lot of sexual harassment or assault to slide, or worse, if students feel they can get away with these things because of it. I like to think not, but even today, I come across the notorious justifications of “kids will be kids” and “boys will be boys.”

Yes, adolescents are sexual, and there is the expectation, but that expectation is not a free pass for young folks to act however they want. There is a difference between being sexual and being sexually inappropriate. Sexuality and desire are only natural. Harassment is not, and the distinction needs to be made whenever teenagers are approached about sex and sexual inclinations.

Thankfully, resources and funding for comprehensive sex education that goes beyond “the basics” (learning to use a condom) and includes discussions about harassment (as well as relationships, consent, and abuse) are slowly but surely becoming more widespread. In 2010, the Obama administration allotted funding in the federal budget for “evidence-based” sex education programs, many of which were comprehensive sex education programs.

Sexuality isn’t just one thing; it includes a whole range of behaviors, urges, and desires. Harassment shouldn’t be one of them. We wouldn’t expect it from an adult; why should we expect it from young people?

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

AAUWguest By:   |   October 29, 2011

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