Brad Davis. I still remember his name because he was the kid in high school who could say anything to girls and get away with it. Brad Davis was the guy who cornered me in the library in front of all his friends and asked if I had bowed legs because I’d been having sex with Mr. Reynolds, our science teacher.
He was the kid who informed Gina Mitchell that she would be giving him a blow job as soon as her braces came off. He was also the older boy who crowded Angela Walker into her locker as he breathed into her face telling her what he was going to do to her when no one was around.
Looking back it seems clear to me that this was sexual harassment. But as teenagers it never occurred to us to call it that. We knew boys could humiliate you, and make you feel scared and uncomfortable, but doing anything about it was not an option anyone considered.
The way it worked back then was that boys made comments to girls everyday. Your job as a girl was to come up with a quick reply that kept them in their place. It was almost expected that boys would make sexual remarks, and that girls would be able to shrug them off. Only prudes were openly offended.
Sadly, from what I can tell not much has changed in the last fifteen years. Sexual harassment is still rampant in schools (by some accounts as many as 80% of girls have experienced it!) and people still fail to call it what it is.
A few years ago, I asked a group of girls to define sexual harassment.
"You mean like if your boss won’t give you a job unless you sleep with him?" asked one.
"Yes, that." I explained, "But also like the comments the guys sometimes make, about your body, or when they call girls sluts and ‘hos when you walk down the halls."
The group was skeptical. "That’s not sexual harassment!" I heard.
"That’s just playing. You know, like flirting."
"Well," I responded, "When a guy makes a comment like that, does it make you feel good or bad?"
"I don’t know. It’s lame," said one. "Yeah," added another, "It’s annoying, but it’s not like they’re doing anything. They just don’t know how to flirt."
Now, the boys might not have known how to flirt, but the girls didn’t seem to know how to call them out on bad behavior. Ignoring harassment can be harmful. A recent study found that, "Sexual harassment causes more harm than bullying in both boys and girls. Girls and sexual minorities, however, appeared to be the most affected by sexual harassment, suffering from lower self-esteem, poorer mental and physical health, and more trauma symptoms (thoughts and feelings arising from stressful experiences) than boys."
So what can you do? Here are some things to consider:
- Telling someone to stop bothering you may be all it takes. Sometimes people don’t realize that their behavior is unwanted.
- If you do decide to confront a harasser, bring a friend or adult along to back you up and to be a witness.
- Write a letter and keep a copy for yourself (keep in mind the harasser might show this to other people).
- If confronting a harasser doesn’t work, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, talk to school officials or your parents about the situation.
- Be aware you have the legal right to complain to your school anonymously.
- Stand up for other people when you see them being harassed. This will help change your school’s atmosphere and make harassment seem less acceptable.
- When necessary, take legal action.
Remember, the difference between flirting and sexual harassment is that flirting makes you feel good and sexual harassment makes you feel bad. It’s also illegal, and not something you should have to deal with at school, or anywhere else.
Do you have any other tips? Or maybe stories of sexual harassment that’s happened to you?
Photo provided by Holla Back Boston