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How do bullying and sexual harassment impact girls' feelings about school?

By Kim Belmonte

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

In my high school, boys would sneak up behind girls they found cute and unhook their bras. When this happened to me, I—like all the other girls—shrieked and ran off to re-adjust my bra. I was annoyed, embarrassed and also, a little confused. Even though it made me uncomfortable it was generally seen as “harmless flirting” and I wondered if I was supposed to laugh at it or like it? [What’s that you said? Was it a “hell no?!”] Okay, okay, adult me is also saying, “Of course not!” Maybe it seems pretty obvious that it’s wrong to remove another person’s clothing without their permission. But while I was warned to watch out for bullying as a teenager, since no one was being called names or getting shoved into lockers, this didn’t quite seem like it qualified as an issue.

Now I realize flirting that makes one person uncomfortable is actually harassment. But the phrase sexual harassment isn’t something we often associate with kids in hallways, locker rooms and classrooms. Even now, for many, the phrase “sexual harassment” conjures up images of adults, like high powered execs at Fox News. A quick Google image search of ”bullying” reveals mostly images of kids and “sexual harassment” reveals mostly pictures of adults! And while there’s a ton of research on how bullying in can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety and low academic achievement,[1] no one seems to be talking about the problem of sexual harassment in schools. Since sexual harassment isn’t given the same attention as bullying, does that mean it’s not really an issue for kids in schools?

Researchers James Gruben and Susan Fineran[2] had a similar question: they wanted to compare how students’ experiences of bullying and sexual harassment related to their feelings about school.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Jiminy cricket! Can someone first please explain the difference between bullying and sexual harassment?” Gruber and Fineran define bullying as an aggressive behavior, while sexual harassment is aggressive behavior that is sexualized or gendered in nature. This difference is really important because discriminating against someone because of their sex or gender is actually a violation of their civil rights.[3]

And more specifically, sexual harassment is based in gender/sexuality inequality and reinforces it by keeping straight boys/men in dominant social positions over queer boys and girls/women of all sexual orientations. Still not sure what sexual harassment looks like? Picture this: a boy calls a classmate gay or another homophobic slur to put him down. Someone refers to a girl as a ‘slut’ or spreads sexual rumors about her. A boy touches a girl on the butt as she walks to class. Someone repeatedly asks a classmate out on a date after they’ve said no. A boy unhooks a girl’s bra… and so on.

To answer their research question, researchers James Gruben and Susan Fineran gave out surveys to middle and high school students which asked questions about their experiences of bullying, sexual harassment and school stuff: school engagement, teacher-support, and grades. Students reported how often they experienced bullying–like having been pushed, threatened or socially excluded – and how often they experienced sexual harassment–like being touched in a sexual nature, being the subject of sexual rumors, or experiencing sexually offensive comments. Students also answered questions about their feelings about school and academic performance.

So, what did they find? They found that experiences of sexual harassment had more negative consequences than experiences of bullying (for boys and girls)! In other words, they found experiences of sexual harassment were more linked to feeling negative about school and lower grades than bullying. Although the researchers didn’t find differences in the numbers of boys or girls who were harassed, they did find that girls faced more negative consequences as a result of sexual harassment. Girls who experienced sexual harassment had lower GPAs (i.e., grades), felt less supported by their teachers, were less satisfied, less engaged (e.g., they ignored homework or daydreamed in class), and were more withdrawn from school (e.g., they thought about leaving school without graduating). Yikes! Basically, sexual harassment was related to girls not feeling connected to their schools and underperforming academically.

Since sexual harassment is essentially a way of perpetuating sexism it also totally makes sense that harassment had worse consequences for girls. Thinking back now to the “unhook-her-bra” game the boys played in my high school I see how that was a way (intentional or not) that boys asserted that flirtation happens on their terms, according to their rules. The game made it seem like boys have a right to touch girls without their permission and that girls’ comfort didn’t matter as much as boys’ fun. It’s no wonder that repeated experiences of that kind make girls feel unsafe and unconnected to their schools.

Well, what can we do about it? First, we need to make sure we recognize sexual harassment as discrimination based one’s sex or gender, rather than just calling it another type of bullying. This is important because even though the media and schools often overlook sexual harassment in favor of stories about the impact of bullying, this research shows us that sexual harassment can be even more harmful.

And then? We need to take action! Two awesome examples come from our very own SPARK bloggers! Ejin Jeong wrote about reimagining dress codes so that they don’t focus on slut-shaming girls and Brenda Guesnet wrote about raising awareness of sexual harassment by compiling women’s stories into an exhibit on her college campus. These are just two ways that girls and women can speak back to (hetero)sexist school cultures. I know, it’s still August, so school may feel lightyears away (and you should totally enjoy these last few weeks of sun and fun before back to school), but it’s never too early to think about what school safety and security should look and feel like. Write in a comment below about your thoughts and experiences—let’s brainstorm together for how to make schools a safer and more comfortable place for all students.

[2] Gruber, J. & Fineran, S. (2015). Sexual Harassment, Bullying, and School Outcomes for High School Girls and Boys, Violence Against Women, 1-22.


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