WASHINGTON – A new study says that 79 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls claim they have been sexually harassed in school, with 1 in 4 saying they have experienced "some type" of ongoing sexual harassment. But critics of the study say it defines harassment too broadly and that political considerations distort its findings.
The American Association of University Women, which commissioned the study, said the "widespread" crisis of sexual harassment in schools — which, they say, includes bullying and teasing — has not dissipated since the group's alarm-sounding 1993 study, "Hostile Hallways." The association defines sexual harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome" sexual behavior.
"This report says it clearly. Sexual harassment is part of everyday life for boys and girls at school," said Jacqueline Woods, AAUW executive director.
Woods was joined by National Education Association President Bob Chase and Sharon Schuster, president of the AAUW Education Foundation. They suggested that extending efforts outside the schools and into the communities might help stop harassment among children.
"It's a community-wide issue," said Chase. "It is in fact a kind of culturally-wide problem that we have to deal with."
The study contends that nearly 47 percent of the students who said they had been sexually harassed were emotionally affected by the experience afterward. This, Woods said, is enough cause for alarm. "The girls in particular found they were isolating themselves in school," she said.
'How We Define Sexual Harassment'
But some observers say that the majority of incidents reported are more likely to be typical adolescent rites of passage, whether hurtful or not, and that the AAUW is politicizing an issue with fuzzy numbers.
"When we discuss this we really have to look at the underlying issue of how we define sexual harassment and bullying," says Cathy Young, author of Cease-fire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality.
"If they basically define bullying as anytime someone says something offensive to you, well, as much as I can't condone that behavior, you're always going to have kids who say mean and hurtful things," she said. "I don't know if you can police every sexual joke said in the hallway. I'm not sure this is something you can legislate."
Others questioned the agenda of a group which has a legal advocacy arm that "challenges sex discrimination in higher education," according to the AAUW brochure, and has backed a number of high-profile federal gender discrimination cases.
"The AAUW does not have great history in research" says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War on Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. "They're always leading the country in some wayward direction and I don't think it should be taken seriously."
Sommers, a fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a former professor at Clark University, has done rhetorical battle with the AAUW before. She criticized their first "Hostile Hallways" study for politically-driven distortions and shoddy social science. "It is alarming you have these statistically challenged women teaming up with education leaders and having an influence on our children they shouldn't have," she said.
Girls Against Boys
While the study finds incidents of sexual harassment against girls remaining steady or declining slightly, it reports some small increases in harassment against boys.
For example, sexual innuendo, comments, jokes and "looking" — the most widespread types of harassment recorded in the study — were experienced by 48 percent of girls, compared to 53 percent in 1993. On the other hand, 34 percent of boys experienced this type of harassment this year, compared to 31 percent eight years ago.
Among the most egregious examples of harassment in the report were those of an eighth grade boy whose pants were pulled down by a girl who then kissed him. And another boy reported that his penis had been grabbed by another girl. For the girls, one reported her backside had been slapped in the hallway; another said she had been forced to kiss someone.
Sommers believes the concern should not be sexual harassment among school kids, but a gradual culture shift that tolerates indecent behavior. "What I see is there has been more of a breakdown in civility in the schools and kids are acting out in all sorts of ways. We need to reinstate some reasonable behavior codes … we don't need sexual politics."