Don’t confuse bullying with harassment

While many educators, parents, policymakers and students are addressing bullying, sexual harassment among youth is too often overlooked.

When young people are asked to list the kinds of things that people are bullied for, they often mention characteristics related to gender, race, socio-economic class, sexual orientation (real or perceived), disabilities and other aspects of human differences. Gender examples that they share describe boys who are “weak,” who are not masculine enough or who do not meet rigid cultural definitions of how a boy should look and act. Boys who don’t fit this standard too often are targets of anti-gay and anti-girl bashing through name-calling that shames and shuns boys for who they are — while at the same time demeans girls, women and people who are gay.

Girls are often targeted because of their bodies, appearance, weight, clothes and ways they might not fit unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty that are reinforced and spread through a steady stream of media messages. These larger cultural messages encourage girls to pit themselves against each other in mean-spirited and often brutal ways in order to compete for the attention of boys and men. Gender and sexuality are often used as tools to demean, shame, police and keep both girls and boys in narrowly-defined gender boxes with little room for healthy and diverse forms of gender expression.

When hurtful language and behaviors target a person based on group membership similar to these examples based on gender, they may cross the line into bias and harassment. Bias and harassment are defined as mean-spirited, hurtful language and behaviors that target a person based on their group membership (such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability and religious differences). It’s important for young people and the adults who work with and care about them to understand that targeting boys and girls based on gender and sexuality often crosses the line into sexual harassment and Title IX violations.

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that interferes with a student’s ability to learn, work, achieve or participate in activities. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, sexual touching, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It includes spreading sexual rumors, making sexual comments, jokes, gestures, writing graffiti, displaying sexually explicit drawings, pictures or written materials, rating students sexually and circulating emails or Web sites of a sexual nature.

Studies show that both boys and girls are frequent targets of harassment connected to sexuality, with girls being targeted more often than boys. A 2011 American Association of University Women (AAUW) survey of middle and high school students showed that 56% of girls and 40% of boys had experienced sexual harassment during the past school year. Other studies indicate that the vast majority of middle school students are targets and witnesses of peer-to-peer sexual harassment, which are negatively associated with psychological well-being and academic outcomes.

Many experts are concerned that teachers, students, parents and other community members are confusing bullying with serious and illegal forms of harassment which denies those targeted with access to legal recourse, rights and remedies. And while many communities are increasingly addressing issues of bullying, sexual harassment is too often overlooked and ignored. You can learn more about sexual harassment among youth and the responsibilities that schools have to address it at the following links:

AAUW Report:Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School

“Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that explains in detail the responsibility schools have to address bias and harassment based on differences.

Did you find this article useful?