Sexual Harassment Plagues Teen Girls

The issue of sexual harassment isn't just affecting the presidential campaign. It's also a very real threat to teenage girls throughout the country. A new report suggests that harassment among middle and high school girls is rampant. The consequences of this harassment are serious; from academic performance to physical health, the harassment is causing lasting damage.

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A Far-Reaching Problem

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently released a report on the widespread issue of sexual harassment among girls in grades 7-12. AAUW surveyed nearly 2,000 students from throughout the United States. They found that 48% of students experienced harassment, including verbal, physical and online harassment. While 40% of boys were sexually harassed, 56% of girls were harassed, a significantly higher rate. In fact, previous researchers have argued that sexual harassment is so common among girls that the girls fail to see it as harassment, thereby artificially shrinking the results.

According to the AAUW report, the most common forms of sexual harassment were unwelcome sexual comments, gestures and jokes; nearly half of the girls surveyed reported these forms of harassment. Homophobic comments were also common, as well as being shown sexually-explicit pictures against a person's will and being touched in an unwelcome sexual way. With the exception of homophobic comments, girls faced more harassment than boys in every category identified in the report.

As reported by the students, the types of students most likely to be sexually harassed are girls with bodies that have developed more than their peers, followed by very pretty girls. After non-athletic boys, the next most common groups are girls who aren't pretty and overweight boys and girls. Unfortunately, when sexual harassment occurs among middle and high school students, it's not commonly reported. Only nine percent of students reported their harassment to a teacher or other adult at school. Furthermore, half of the students who were harassed did nothing in response.

Signs of Harassment

Students who face sexual harassment must cope with a wide array of physical and psychological effects. The AAUW report grouped negative effects of sexual harassment into nine categories. These include not wanting to go to school, feeling ill, having difficulty studying, getting into trouble at school and switching schools.

In every category, the effects were more common among girls than boys. The most common effect across both genders was not wanting to go to school, which was reported by 25% of boys and 37% of girls. Feeling physically sick was equally common among girls, though this was almost double the rate reported by boys.

How to Help

The report suggests that the best way to mitigate sexual harassment among middle and high school students is to have the school step in. Schools should provide a method for anonymous reporting and offer legitimate, enforced punishments for those who harass others. When administrators provide the infrastructure and exhibit the commitment to confront the problem, then teachers and counselors are enabled; this empowerment trickles down to students.

Education is also essential. When asked for suggestions on how to help solve the problem of sexual harassment, students recommended in-class discussions and school-based workshops. Ultimately, teachers and administrators must first act as role models, then demonstrate their willingness to respond to reports of harassment or when they observe it themselves. These actions foster trust from students, which leads to more reporting, and sends a message to those who might be harassers that such behavior is unacceptable.

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