Sexual harassment is bad! (Wait…what is it again…?)

Some weeks ago, I wrote a little post where I outlined three topics I wanted to revisit in longer posts, but didn’t have the time at that exact moment to write about.  This weekend, someone called me on it and demanded that I write about sexual harassment in middle schools.  (Okay, demanded is extremely harsh – actually Figleaf asked very politely if I still intended to cover the topic, and if not, if I would mind a link to that little blurb.)  So here, finally, is that more extensive post I’ve been meaning to write for some time now.

Here is what I wrote before:

Sexual harassment is prevalent in many middle and high schools – maybe even most of them.  But in two recent classes I led on the topic, the students started off believing that sexual harassment was not present in their schools.  Then I started asking what they thought sexual harassment was, and we talked in depth about specific examples of what constitutes sexual harassment.  By the end of the conversations, all of the students in both classes had reassessed their schools, to say sexual harassment was highly prevalent.  It seems that many young people know that sexual harassment is bad, but they don’t know what it really is, they don’t know why it is a problem, and they don’t know what to do about it when they do see it.  There needs to be major education on this topic that just isn’t happening in many of our schools – and I think I know why it isn’t happening.

Now let’s go into some more depth.  Sexual harassment is really, really hard to talk about.  The stories are painful.  They are intense.  And they are critical to a deep conversation about sexual harassment.  There are a number of key elements to making a class about sexual harassment work that are often lacking in school settings:

  1. It takes a class of students who are used to talking about sex and sexual issues with openly with their teacher.  This conversation cannot happen if anyone in the room shirks at using words like “grinding his hips” or “making faces like she’s giving a blow job” and other specific descriptions of sexual harassing behaviors.  But these descriptors are critical to an open conversation about sexual harassment.  Some of my students have told me that their teachers can’t bring themselves to say the words “sex” or “oral” or even “making out.”  If students feel that their teachers (or their parents) aren’t able to use the basic words to broach this topic, the students will certainly not feel comfortable going into the more painful corners of it.
  2. Similarly, the students need to be aware of and had decent conversations about stereotypes and assumptions about gender and sexual orientation with their teacher in order to understand and appropriately critique some behavior as sexually harassing.  One example given in a recent class about a boy who taped a tampon to the back of a gay, male teacher.  The students were not initially clear on why this was sexual harassment – but we were able to quickly have a conversation about the perpetrator’s unspoken statement that gay men need female hygiene products because they’re girlie – and they fully understood.  If we had needed to backtrack to the basics of sexual orientation, that point would have taken far more time and the class might have not been able to move much further.
  3. The teacher has to be able to hear the painful stories of the students in the class – both from students who have been sexually harassed and those who have committed the sexual harassment – and respond with love and support to both.  A lack of education about sexual harassment is certainly no excuse to do it – and yet in order to learn how to modify one’s own behavior, a young person must feel that they are accepted and supported in this process rather than demonized as “bad.”

There are teachers who can do these things – but they are few and far between.  It is certainly not your average health teacher/coach whose training is mostly in football or volleyball who can manage to create a loving, supportive environment to talk about touchy issues and at the same time call students out on their inappropriate, sexually harassing behaviors.

Over the past weeks, I keep going back to my students not knowing what sexual harassment is.  I wondered about this for some time, baffled about why they were so unclear.

I think we are essentially back to language issues again, with this lack of knowledge about sexual harassment.  My students – by and large – classified rape as non-consensual penetration.  They – by and large – classified sexual harassment as non-consensual sexual contact like slapping someone’s butt or grabbing their breasts or groin area.  But they tended to think that the hands-off, language or body signal based, sexualizing behaviors were bad, of course, but they classified them more as annoying or gross rather than sexually harassing.

And I spent these past weeks looking at my own young daughters and hoping that they will know what sexual harassment is.  Then, several days ago I was reading my 7 year old daughter a chapter out of a Ramona book where Ramona chases a classmate around the playground trying to kiss him.  He runs from her – it’s a game, or at least it’s presented as a game.  My daughter certainly understood it as a game.  So, being the mother that I am, I stopped reading and we had a long talk about why Ramona really needed to stop running after Davey – that continuing to try and kiss someone who has made it clear that they don’t want to kiss you is wrong.  That Davey could have stopped running and told Ramona to leave him alone rather than playing her game.  That there are better ways to play with someone who you like and want to be friends with.  We came up with ideas about other ways Ramona might have approached Davey.  I hope my daughter heard me.

Sex is far too often treated as a game in our society – in our stories, our media, our music.  And when it’s seven year olds at play, it is a game.  But if they learn one set of rules at seven, and then no one comes along and tells them explicitly that the rules have changed by the time they’re thirteen, it’s not all that surprising that they don’t know.  And frankly two sets of rules is a pretty big waste of time – why don’t we just teach our children the good set of rules from the time they’re little?

After these classes, the students were a bit shell shocked.  They felt a bit at-sea on how to deal with these issues.  Because these students are, of course, in schools where they now have far more information and knowledge about sex in general and sexual harassment in particular, they do not feel that they have the administrative or peer support to make any kind of real difference.  In fact, most of them feel that if they stand up every time against sexual harassment, they will be ostracised by their peers and severely punished in their social lives.  I deeply empathize with their dilemma.

After these classes on sexual harassment I saw a more poignant need for high quality, extensive sex education in schools than I ever have before.  While yes, it is critical to have the information about reproduction and condoms and STDs available to students, those topics are in no way the end-goal of comprehensive sex education.  They are critical stepping stones to more, just as life-saving and life-changing topics like sexual harassment and acquaintance rape.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. As someone who was sexually harassed on a daily basis in middle school, I thank you for opening up the conversation.

  2. As someone who worked in public schools for several years, I think this raises an important lawsuit issue for teachers and staff. Frank discussions about harassment may help the students, but it would get parents calling lawyers and lawyers calling parents. I know it sounds terrible, but the only force that seems to both guide young people AND withstand lawsuits is mass media–tv, music, movies. People, in general, expect too much from a public school teacher.

  3. Keely, I agree about public schools as they stand. But I disagree that sex education is something that can never be taught appropriately in the public school system. There needs to be parent education that goes hand-in-hand with the education for young people because most parents have never experienced high quality, comprehensive sexuality education and might not have a good reaction to the information that their children could bring home. But the critical aspects of the education can all be brought together into the public schools: high quality teachers, solid curriculum and content, and substantial parent education.

    Personally I see the ideal as one teacher in every school that does all of the sex education. More teachers can be brought in, of course, if the size of the school warrants it – but the students should ideally be tracked with a teacher so that they have a consistent adult in this subject area. There should be at least a year of sex ed in middle school if not two, and then another two years in high school. My ideas are far-reaching and have the potential for far-reaching effects. And yes, the current environment (particularly in Texas) is pretty hostile to this kind of education – but that surely does not mean we should not work towards it anyway!

  4. I worked in a special education classroom that did “resource” teaching for about 60 students a year. Granted, special ed is notorious for dis-interested parents; but guess how many parents would come for parent-teacher night. We would be lucky to see 5 🙁 Your goal is beautiful, but I just don’t see the average parent showing up for sex ed! LOL And you are right, without the parents being educated, there will not be good reactions.

  5. Oh Keely, I am so aware of how abysmal parent turn out is in so many of our schools! I occasionally work with current teachers who are getting their master’s degree in a summer/online program at UT, and I hear the sad stories!

    However, the thing to remember is that the parents who are disinterested – who would not come to a parent education class on sex ed – are often the ones whose children need the most sex education. Parents who feel strongly about it enough to come to a parent education – well, they are far more likely to be having the conversation with their kids at home, and so for them to make the choice to opt their kids out of a school-based program is generally more reasonable.

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