Teenage Sexual Harassers
Who are they? Why do they do it?
Posted Nov 28, 2017
Gay Slurs. Slut Bashing. Sexual rumors. Unwanted touches. Sexual coercion.
Sexual harassment is currently at the forefront of the national discourse, with accusations against powerful and famous men surfacing daily. But sexual harassment is not limited to Hollywood, Congress, or the boardroom. A recent study from The Harvard School of Education found that a whopping 87 percent of teenage girls and young women reported being the victim of sexual harassment while The American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 40 percent of boys in grades 7-12 reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment while in school.
Such high numbers of teenagers enduring sexual harassment at school means that many of the perpetrators are, themselves, teenagers. But what is known about those teens who are doing the harassing?
Their parents are silent. A 2017 report produced by the Harvard School of Education found that only a quarter of teens and young adults have ever had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. This means the majority of young people are left to their own devices to figure out what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, a topic that can be so nuanced that many adults don’t fully understand its enormity. Additionally, most teenagers aren’t hearing from their parents about why sexual harassment is a big deal, how it impacts victims and the consequences of getting caught.
Girls do it too. A longitudinal study published in the June 2017 issue of Prevention Science Journal found that 17 percent of girls have sexually harassed someone in-person or online, compared to 23 percent of boys who reported the same. Somewhat surprisingly, that means that 42 percent of sexual harassers are female. While boys are statistically overrepresented as perpetrators of making unwanted sexual comments, spreading sexual rumors or forcibly touching someone in a sexual way, girls are not lagging that far behind. This finding counters the popular belief that boys are always the sexual aggressors.
They start young. The Prevention Science study also found that, as it relates to both boys and girls, the average age of first sexual harassment perpetration is 15 years-old. While this may seem young, it’s important to note that 15 years-old is the average age, meaning there are children who start sexually harassing peers before they even enter high school.
It’s not flirting. Sexual harassment in schools is not the old trope of a boy pulling a girl’s hair on the playground because he really likes her. The AAUW survey revealed that only 3 percent of harassers said they did so because they “wanted a date with the person” and only 6 percent said, “I thought they liked it." These statistics indicate that sexual harassment is not flirting gone wrong, unrequited love or a simple misunderstanding. Sexual harassment is most commonly committed because the perpetrator thinks it is funny (39 percent) or wants to use it as a tool of degradation.
They minimize it. A study from the AAUW found that 44 percent of teens who have sexually harassed someone thinks that their actions are no big deal. This illustrates that a large percentage of perpetrators are uninformed, or are loath to recognize that their actions can hurt and humiliate.
For some, it’s about revenge. Almost a quarter of perpetrators surveyed by the AAUW said they harassed an individual because they “wanted to get back at the person for something done to me." This nefarious reason for sexual harassment indicates that the harasser has an understanding that sexual harassment is harmful and humiliating. These revenge-seekers strive to have their transgressor suffer much in the way they have. Psychologically speaking, it may indicate that the harasser is feeling emotional pain and is dealing with their hurt by hurting others.
They, themselves, have been the victim. The AAUW study found the vast majority of harassers said they had experienced sexual harassment (92 percent of girls and 80% percent of boys). Similarly, the Prevention Science study found that sexual harassment victims are significantly more likely to become perpetrators compared to those who have never experienced such abuse. And sadly, teenagers with a history of rape victimization had a fivefold increase in relative odds of first sexual harassment.
While these statistics are disheartening, they can be used to create positive change. Examining the “who” and “why” associated with teenage sexual harassment can help parents and educators better tailor their conversations and prevention efforts.
Hill, C., & Kearl, H. (2011). Crossing the line. Sexual harassment at school. Washington: DC: American Association of Unviversity Women.
Weissbourd, R. (2017). The talk: How parents can promote young people's healthy relationships and prevent misogyny and sexual harassment. Boston, MA. A project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Ybarra, M. L., & Thompson, R. E. (2017). Predicting the emergence of sexual violence in adolescence. Prevention Science.