During the conformation hearings of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, Senator Robert Casey asked DeVos if she would uphold the Title IX guidance regarding sexual assaults on campuses. This led many to question exactly what Title IX actually referred to, as most people think Title IX is simply that law that requires schools to offer the same number of sports teams for girls as boys. Title IX is actually more expansive – and more important – than making sure there is a girls’ golf team. Title IX (of the Education Act of 1972) is an anti-discrimination law that states that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This includes sexual and gender-based harassment. And in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter advising school officials that sexual assault should also be considered a form of sexual harassment, and thus prohibited under Title IX. Unfortunately, in her answer, DeVos did not fully support the importance of Title IX in prohibiting these behaviors. This came on the heels of an audio-recorded conversation of then-candidate Trump discussing a woman’s body parts and detailing previous sexual assaults. Somehow, the protection against sexual harassment and assault became normalized and politicized.
As someone who has conducted extensive research on sexual harassment in schools, I recognize the importance of keeping sexual harassment and assault explicitly prohibited – and the importance of placing the onus of the stopping these behaviors on schools, rather than the victims.
Typically, people recognize that sexual assault is unacceptable; people often assume, however, that sexual harassment in schools is just kids flirting with one other. It is critical to understand what sexual harassment actually is, and why it must be an explicitly banned behavior. Sexual harassment in adolescence includes: “unwelcome conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature” (AAUW, 2011). It also includes being called a homophobic name or being teased because of perceived or actual sexual orientation. It is usually from one peer to another, and it harms both girls and boys.
Sexual harassment, in many ways, resembles bullying. Indeed, 64% of students who were bullied were also sexually harassed (Ashbaugh & Cornell, 2008).
Although sexual harassment could be chalked up to an awkward teen trying to express sexual interest, or simply “locker room talk” (as justified by President Trump), research has consistently shown that the psychological, academic, and social consequences of being the target of sexual harassment are akin to (and often more negative than) being the victim of bullying.
By the sixth grade, 38% of children report having experienced sexual harassment (AAUW, 2001), with more than one-quarter of sixth-grade children reporting being the target of at least one sexual harassment experience in the past 30 days, and 11% reporting harassment at least once per week (Ashbaugh & Cornell, 2008). Our own research (Leaper & Brown, 2008) found that 90% of girls reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once by the end of adolescence. It is so pervasive that almost all students (96%) in a sample of middle school students reported witnessing sexual harassment happening at school (Lichty & Campbell, 2011). Boys are the most common perpetrators of sexual harassment, but both boys and girls are the targets of sexual harassment (Craig, Pepler, Connolly, & Henderson, 2001; McMasters, Connolly, Pepler, & Craig, 2002; Petersen & Hyde, 2009).
The exact type of harassment differs for boys and girls. The most frequent example of sexual harassment typically reported by girls is being the target of unwanted sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks (e.g., AAUW, 2011). Girls are also more likely than boys to experience physical forms of sexual harassment, such as being touched, grabbed, or pinched (Chiodo, 2009). Specifically, by high school, research has shown that 67% of girls reported being told an embarrassing sexual joke, 62% reported being called a nasty or demeaning name, 58% reported being teased about their appearance, 51% reported receiving unwanted physical contact, and 28% reported being teased, threatened, or bullied by a boy (Leaper & Brown, 2008). In contrast, the most common form of sexual harassment that boys experience is same-gender harassment, most frequently being called a homophobic name like “gay” or “fag” (reported by about 20% of heterosexual boys; AAUW, 2011; Petersen & Hyde, 2009). Sexual harassment does not only occur in person, but also occurs online (Jewell, Brown, & Perry, 2015). For example, sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means was perceived by nearly one-third of students, an experience reported by slightly more girls than boys (AAUW, 2011). For example, one adolescent girl wrote, “A guy sent me a picture of his butt with no clothes on it. I just ignored it and then blocked him from my Facebook account.” (AAUW, 2011, p. 24).
What are the effects of sexual harassment? Adolescents who perceive sexual harassment experience lower self-esteem, greater emotional distress, more depression and depressive symptoms, more thoughts of suicide, more substance abuse and externalizing behaviors, and greater loss of appetite and disturbed sleep than adolescents who do not perceive sexual harassment (e.g., Chiodo, Wolfe, Crooks, Hughes, & Jaffe, 2009; Goldstein, Malanchuk, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2007; Hand & Sanchez, 2000). Because girls experience more severe, physically intrusive, and intimidating forms of sexual harassment than boys do (at least straight boys), they perceive sexual harassment to be substantially more harmful than boys (Bryant, 1993; Hand & Sanchez, 2000; Lee, Croninger, Linn, & Chen, 1996). Whereas boys are less bothered by sexual harassment, girls report feeling embarrassed, sad, scared, and afraid after a harassment incidence (Hand & Sanchez, 2000). Among LGBTQ adolescents, who are the targets of frequent harassment, harassment experiences are associated with higher levels of depression and depressive symptoms, greater anxiety and psychological distress, more post-traumatic stress reactions, lower levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction, more suicidal thought and attempts, more somatic or physical health complaints, more self-harm, and more substance use and risky sexual behavior (Almeida, Johnson, Corliss, Molnar, & Azrael, 2009; Bontempo & D’Augelli, 2002; D’Augelli, Pilkington, & Hershberger, 2002; Eisenberg & Resnick, 2006; Espelage, Aragon, Birkett, & Koenig, 2008; Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Freitas, D'Augelli, Coimbra, & Fontaine, 2016; Hershberger & D’Augelli, 1995; Rivers, 2004; Russell, Ryan, Toomey, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2011; Russell & Joyner, 2001; Ueno, 2005).
These are highly stressful situations a teen is asked to navigate. This at the same time they are trying to learn geometry, and read Shakespeare, and learn the periodic table. We need more, not fewer, laws that protect the well-being of youth. Schools should be responsible for ensuring a hostile-free environment for all students. We shouldn't have to rely on bystanders to intervene or for the victims themselves to change their behaviors. Title IX is not an example of an over-reaching government. It is a reflection of a society that recognizes that adolescents need protection, even sometimes from themselves.