By now, it's been widely established that sexual violence and harassment are widespread on college campuses. But a new study reveals that this may start far earlier than many people realize: Research published in this month's Children and Youth Services Review shows that almost half of students in grades five through eight report being subjected to unwanted sexual comments or jokes, and over 20 percent say they've been touched sexually.
Researchers collected data from four middle schools in Illinois, resulting in responses from 858 students aged 10 to 15. Participants were asked to fill out the (American Association of University Women (AAUW) Sexual Harassment Survey, which measured how often they were the victims of unwanted sexual harassment in the past year. They were also asked where harassment typically takes place, and to describe in a couple of sentences the "most upsetting thing" that happened to them, based on the AAUW survey. Finally, participants were given a list of potential perpetrators to choose from, including "someone your own age," "someone older than you," and "someone who is currently a friend."
According to the results, 43 percent of the sample reported being on the receiving end of unwanted sexual comments, jokes, and gestures; 21 percent said they were touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. While sexual assault was less frequent, the study found that "five percent were forced to kiss the perpetrator, four percent were forced to do something sexual other than kissing, and less than two percent reported that their private parts were touched by the perpetrator." These instances often took place in the hallway, classroom, or locker room.
A subset (229 students) of the total sample answered the open-ended question about the "most upsetting thing" to happen to them based on the AAUW survey. Among them, 53 students reported being called gay or a lesbian even if they don't identify as such. This is particularly concerning, the authors note, because previous research has connected homophobic bullying with sexual harassment. "Homophobic name-calling is a form of gender-based harassment, which includes any behavior that serves to reinforce heteronormativity and sexism and peaks in middle school," the study's authors write. "Given homophobic name-calling is precursor to sexual harassment, it is critical to stop this offensive language."
In terms of gender and race, researchers found some significant differences. Unsurprisingly, girls were found to be at a higher risk for harassment than boys, and reported being harassed by someone older and of the opposite sex. Boys, on the other hand, were more likely to bully each other, especially if they were friends. White students reported being victimized more frequently than their black peers, but black students reported the highest rates of physical sexual assault, and that their perpetrators were often older and romantic partners.
Regardless of these differences, though, a major concern that arose from the work is how dismissive young people are toward their experiences of sexual harassment; according to the study, there was a tendency among students to describe unwanted behaviors that were directed at them as "meaningless" or "joking." Troublingly, the researchers point out, "youth who are dismissive of sexual harassment are at elevated risk of engaging in harassing behaviors."
Given homophobic name-calling is precursor to sexual harassment, it is critical to stop this offensive language.
To quell the number of incidents, the study suggests "implementing effective sexual violence prevention programs in middle schools." In order to do that, though, "teachers, school officials, and staff members need to accept that sexual harassment happens in middle school as many of them do not even acknowledge this," the authors write.
Dorothy L. Espelage is a psychology professor at the University of Florida and the lead author on the study. "For the large part," she tells Broadly, "they're not educated about it in their training." Her hope, she says, is that her research will help people "recognize that sexual harassment starts early and sets the stage for other forms of aggression."
If middle and high schools could better address cultures of sexual harassment, Espelage explains, the long-term effects could be astounding for people going into adulthood. "We would likely have less homophobic name-calling," she says, "a reduction in teen dating violence, [and] a reduction in sexual assault on college campuses."