Sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have united hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. Sharing their stories on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #MeToo, many are breaking their silence about one of our culture’s most disturbing misogynistic practices.
What if your adolescent daughter had been sexually harassed? Would you know? Would she stand up against her abuser? How would you support her? These are tough questions for parents.
If you think harassment of women exists only in workplaces, you would be wrong. A recent study conducted by the AAUW showed that sexual harassment was found to be part of everyday life in American middle and high schools. Nearly half of students surveyed in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment during the current school year and 87 percent reported it had had a negative effect on them. One third of students felt sexually harassed via email, text, Facebook and other kinds of social media. One-third of girls and one-quarter of boys reported that they observed sexual harassment of others (Hill & Kearl, 2011).
Despite significant emotional consequences to themselves, most adult women who have been sexually harassed or abused act passively to their aggressors, like avoiding them, minimizing their unacceptable behaviors, or denying that anything occurred (Bowes-Sperry & O’Leary-Kelly, 2005). This passive stance happens for good reasons. While women want harassment to cease, they also want to maintain their status in workplaces. They are afraid of reprisals from harassers. Lastly, they often feel shame, or complicity, for not protecting themselves from their abusers.
For many, it is difficult to understand why women don't often fight off their aggressors or flee from harm. Instead, women report that their bodies felt temporarily frozen. Research shows that freeze responses are a common and fundamental partner to the well-known fight-flight reaction in times of panic (Barlow, 2004). This immobility is a natural, biological response to extreme stress. It happens automatically when the body perceives little chance of escaping or winning a fight (Schmidt, et al. 2008).
If acting decisively to fight or flee, or to speak truth to power, is difficult for adult women in the workplace, it is especially problematic for school-age girls. Yet we know that when recipients of harassing behavior and bystanders respond, they make major impacts in stopping harassment (McDonald, et al. 2016).
Allan Schore, member of the clinical faculty of the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, corroborates research in neuroscience that sexual abuse has a more negative effect on young people. Why? Because abuse alters the trajectory of the developing brain, the part that regulates emotion. Consequently, harassment and abuse can lead to a predisposition to the use of drugs later in life and to other significant mental health problems.
While cases of sexual harassment by teachers and other adults who lead school and after-school activities are sometimes reported, most harassment behavior in schools is peer-to-peer (Hill & Kearl, 2011).
Where do young male adolescents learn to treat girls like sex objects?
We don’t have to look far in today’s culture for answers. They learn from fathers, uncles, and other male role models. From President Trump’s reference to “grab them by the pussy” as normal “locker room talk” to Harvey Weinstein’s comment that he “came of age in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” it’s easy to see the insidious attitudes that pervade male society from generation to generation.
How many parents feel good knowing that their daughters have a 50% chance of being sexually harassed in middle or high school? Or that their chances increase when they enter the workplace? Likely, not many.
Given what we know about the long-term effects of sexual harassment, how it is culturally engrained by family members and our nation’s powerful men, it is imperative that we provide our daughters with the education and awareness to make a difference for themselves and others. It’s time for parents to be prepared with information and advice about sexual harassment as their children enter adolescence.
Learning the facts about sexual harassment is a vital starting place for families. While sexual harassment is most commonly experienced by girls and women, it isn’t limited to the female gender. The following five facts should be understood by every adolescent girl – and boys too:
1. What is sexual harassment?
“Sexual harassment,” according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or 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 emails or Web sites of a sexual nature.”
2. Is sexual harassment normal male behavior?
There is nothing normal or acceptable about sexual harassment or abuse. All of us help normalize this behavior when we don’t speak up and take a stand when or after harassment occurs.
3. How do I know if I’m being sexually harassed?
Sexual harassment produces negative emotional and physical consequences. If you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or fearful around someone who’s conduct toward you is of a sexual nature, you should listen to that discomfort. Sometimes you may lose sleep, experience headaches, not want to go to school, feel panic, become unproductive, or avoid certain people. When in doubt, talk to a school counselor or a trusted friend, parent, or teacher about your discomfort and the situation.
4. How do I take a stand against sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is not only against the law, but also will only stop when it is reported to trusted adults, including parents and school officials. See guidelines for reporting harassment at the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. In all cases of school-age harassment, both the harasser and the child being harassed need support.
Sexually harassed young people need support and encouragement from family, friends, and professional counselors. Harassers need to be made aware of their behavior by professionals who can help them take steps to stop, before such behavior has negative consequences throughout their lives.
Being afraid to stand against sexual harassment is normal. But remaining silent perpetuates the cycle of violence against those who are most vulnerable. Reach out for support and advice from family, friends, and other trusted adults. Explore how you can take a stand that is true, meaningful, and right for you.
5. What should I do if I witness harassment?
Research shows that bystanders play a vital role in stopping harassment. Whether you are on the playground, a field trip, or any other place where you witness sexual harassment, you should tell a trusted adult. There may be indirect ways, too, that you can intervene in the moment, like interrupting harassment on a school bus by inviting the person targeted to switch seats or changing the conversation. If you can, you can use a cell phone to discreetly film incidents and show the video to a trusted adult. Explore the many bystander intervention resources provided by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The Harvey Weinstein story is today’s news. But his story is not new, nor is the emotional and physical trauma caused by sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women. Parents are in a unique position to help young people halt the cycle of violence against each other by getting educated, becoming aware of how harassment occurs in school-age children, and parenting with purpose to raise emotionally healthy sons and daughters.
Barlow, D. H. (2004). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (Second ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review, 30, 288–306. doi:10.5465/AMR.2005. 16387886
Hill, C., & Kearl, H. (2011). Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school. Washington DC: AAUW.
McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548-566. doi:10.1080/09585192.2015.1023331
Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39(3), 292–304.