Book Review: Susan Strauss’ “Sexual Harassment and Bullying”January 17, 2012
Sexual harassment is not an easy problem to fight or even to identify, as our most recent AAUW report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, shows. It takes on different forms and can be experienced and interpreted in different ways. And because people react to harassment so distinctively, they are quick to take issue with the policies, rules, and literature surrounding the issue. For this reason, recommending sound resources to combat sexual harassment can be a true challenge.
Knowing this, it was a relief to come across Susan L. Strauss’ new book, Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable, which not only provides solid guidance on a difficult topic but also addresses the skepticism that accompanies the issue. Strauss is aware of some readers’ doubts around the prevalence and severity of harassment and understands that many have a cloudy view of what sexual harassment looks like among young people. She writes, “What exactly is meant by sexual harassment? If a student calls another student a bitch, is it sexual harassment? If a boy tells a girl he wants to have sex with her and she is offended, is it sexual harassment? And what if the harasser and the target … are the same sex?” It is exactly her willingness to answer these types of questions that makes her book accessible.
Strauss broaches the subject first and foremost from a legal perspective, outlining exact definitions and breaking down jargon where necessary. From there, she goes on to explain nuances that are not explicitly covered by the law or aren’t often seen in the mainstream rhetoric around harassment. For example, she talks at length about gender-based harassment, in which students are victimized for not conforming to conventional gender roles, and explains why these instances should be addressed as harassment and not just bullying.
Strauss divides the book by topic, devoting whole chapters to the harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer students and to the problem of cyber-harassment. Her strongest chapter by far is on bullying and sexual harassment as separate problems. Here, the reader will not only get a clear understanding of the distinctions between bullying and harassment (as well as the similarities) but also why the distinction is so important from a social and legal perspective.
The only disappointing aspect of the book was the chapter on the causes of sexual harassment. Here, Strauss takes on a feminist viewpoint, pinpointing patriarchy and sexism as the primary causes of harassment (though she does discuss other influences, such as media and poor school climates). As someone who self-identifies as feminist, I found that Strauss failed to properly connect sexism in society with the issue of sexual harassment. At times, the argument is disjointed. When defining patriarchy and elaborating on concepts like male-centeredness, she lists a multitude of commonly cited facts — for example, the current ratio of male to female CEOs. While such stats are intriguing, Strauss could do more to connect these power imbalances to the actual issue of harassment. Some readers might not see how having more male than female CEOs has anything to do with a student making inappropriate comments to a peer.
Despite this shortcoming, I most certainly consider Sexual Harassment and Bullying a very helpful resource and recommend it to educators, parents, and administrators as well those who simply want to have a better understanding of this issue and its effects on young people.
This post was written by AAUW Research Intern Julia Smolinski.