Dangerous liaisons

Sexual harassment is flourishing in schools across the country and many preteens and teens are suffering in silence

When 13-year-old Lee Bentley* moved to a small Saskatchewan town at the beginning of the last school year, her mom had every reason to believe she would easily fit in to her new environment. Lee had always been a social child with lots of friends. But over the summer, the tall, blond-haired teen had become quite curvaceous — a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the pubescent boys at her school. “I want to touch your boobs,” they called to her, or “Nice nipples.”

Lee, who had attended a Mennonite school in Manitoba for the previous few years, became acutely self-conscious. “This body happened in six months,” says her mom, Maria. “She’s not comfortable with it yet.” Although Lee struggled not to let it bother her, her embarrassment showed. “I tried to laugh,” she told her mom. “But then everybody was laughing at me, not with me.” What’s more, when the boys began to pay attention, the girls got mean. They began to call her “stupid,” and “albino” because she was so fair. “She didn’t have a single friend to turn to,” says Maria.

Lee developed stress-related tummy aches and a host of other complaints that prevented her from going to school. Although the school was supportive, neither the teachers nor the principal seemed to be able to get the problem in check. And finally, with her child’s self-esteem “at zero,” Maria allowed Lee to do some studies at home, and three mornings each week, she goes to school where she’s taught in a separate room.

*Name changed by request.

The fact that the kids chose Lee’s newly curvaceous body as the target of their abuse doesn’t surprise Jennifer Connolly, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University and director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution. The traditional taunts and threats of schoolyard bullies tend to become more sexualized in adolescence, she says. “Kids target those aspects of others that they are sensitive about. And these issues of sexuality and romantic relationships are critical to young teenagers’ concerns.”

While research indicates sexualized behaviour is disturbingly common in school hallways from the time kids reach puberty and onwards, do they consider it sexual harassment? In fact, what is sexual harassment anyway?

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation defines sexual harassment as deliberate repeated, unwanted and unwelcome sexual behaviour (for example, kissing, touching or grabbing), which interferes with the individual’s life and includes negative comments about their gender. Although we tend to think of it as a workplace issue, a joint survey by Queen’s and York University researchers of 3,000 Toronto high school students found that fully 75 percent of kids had been sexually harassed at least once by their peers. The respondents didn’t actually use the words “sexually harassed.” Instead, researchers asked if “any of these particular behaviours have occurred to you when you really didn’t want them to.” The behaviours included unwanted sexual remarks, jokes and touching, as well as comments about someone’s appearance and spreading sexual rumours over the Internet.

Connolly, a co-author of the study, admits that kids tend to dismiss sexual comments and particularly jokes “as just the way people talk to each other.” And yet, says Leslie Tutty, a professor of social work at the University of Calgary, “the consequences can be scary.” Consistent harassment can affect how kids see themselves, leading to serious issues around self-esteem and sexual identity, refusal to go to school and, in worst-case scenarios, even suicide. “You’re so vulnerable as a teen anyway,” Tutty says. “All teens feel as if everybody is watching them all the time and there are so many things wrong with them. If you’re actually targeted, it confirms your worst fears about yourself.”

The motivation for harassers, says Connolly, may be much the same as for classic bullying: to be at the top of the pecking order or membership in a group. When Maria Bentley’s son, Aaron, took up figure skating several years ago, for example, he was targeted by hockey-playing boys in his community who labelled him “gay” and he got into a lot of fights that year. Eventually, Aaron gave up figure skating and changed schools.

Other times there’s a fine line between what qualifies as harassing behaviour and simply teasing or expressing an interest in someone. Boys sometimes harass because they are acting out what they think is a powerful male role, contends Anita Roberts of Vancouver, who created the program Safe Teen that helps kids stand up to harassers. Showing a girl a porn picture, for example, might elicit a shriek and an embarrassed laugh. “They’re not always aware of the harm they do,” explains Roberts. “Most boys desperately need a way of letting girls know they like them without damaging a girl’s self-esteem.”

Tutty agrees. “What might be perceived as sexual harassment by one kid might be just an unskilled attempt to connect.” Added to the problem is that adults don’t always have a clear sense of what’s appropriate behaviour and what’s not. If we don’t know, how can our kids?

“What’s sexual harassment?” I ask my 13-year-old son and a couple of his friends. “It’s when someone is, like, touching you and you don’t want them to,” says one boy. “Yah,” adds another, “and like, maybe, if they say something that makes you uncomfortable like ‘Hey Jake,* come make l-o-o-o-ve to me.’” They all guffaw uproariously, but they’ve got the general idea. When it comes to less blatant forms of harassment, though, the lines get blurry. Let’s take the word “ho,” for example, popularized in rap music and now ubiquitous. “Calling someone a ‘ho’ isn’t sexual harassment because we’re just joking when we say that,” says one. “I wouldn’t call an actual ho a ho.” Adds another: “Now if you actually said whore, then that might be sexual harassment.” Hmm, pretty twisted logic, but maybe they’re on to something.

It’s one thing to say that using sexually charged words constitutes sexual harassment, but context definitely plays a role. Connolly advises approaching the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in terms of relationships. Her example: “You look hot!” could be a compliment or harassment, depending on who says it. “If a girl’s boyfriend says, ‘You look hot!’ that’s OK. If her best friend says it, that’s a compliment too. But if an enemy says it, then it’s probably an insult, and if a stranger walks by her and says it, it’s harassment. It’s about the relationship.”

Other forms of sexual harassment might be teasing someone about their “itty-bitty titties,” calling someone a fag, drawing a penis on a notebook or snapping a bra strap. If the behaviour is unwanted, offensive and repeated, it’s sexual harassment. “The perspective I think is useful to take is to imagine if any of these things were said or done to you in a work context,” advises Connolly. “If you put that lens on it, it’s very clear these behaviours are sexual harassment. But when it’s young people, we become far more ambivalent, as do they.”

*Name changed by request.

What’s more, contends Connolly, ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away. She credits the language in some movies, TV shows and music with creating a general cultural climate that promotes a “slightly abusive, slightly aggressive way of talking to each other.” The Internet has upped the ante, allowing kids to spread sexual rumours and gossip instantly to many people at once. Since stats on sexual harassment haven’t been kept before, we don’t know whether this generation is more prone to sexual harassment than any other, says Connolly, “but I think in general, the common language has incorporated swear words and a level of aggressiveness that is new.”

Toronto ball hockey coach Jack Jonas* agrees. He recalls an incident three summers ago when, during a game, a girl slashed a boy from another team. The boy called the girl a bitch, a comment overheard by her mother, who felt it was clearly harassment. Jonas turned to his “expert consultant” — his 13-year-old daughter, Melissa — for clarification. “What does the word ‘bitch’ mean to you?” he asked. She pointed out that the word can apply to girls or boys. “Boys call boys bitches and girls call girls bitches. It doesn’t really mean much,” she told him. So was it sexual harassment? Probably not. Was it unsportsmanlike conduct? Yes, contends Jonas. The situation inspired him to talk to his team about appropriate language.

Sexual recourse

There’s no blanket policy on sexual harassment for schools across Canada, but most schools and school boards have codes of conduct that prohibit it, if not specifically, in general terms. For example, since 1994 the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Violence-Free Schools Policy has required school boards to have policies that contribute to safe, welcoming, violence-free school environments.

Sexual, physical, verbal or psychological abuse, bullying and discrimination are named as unacceptable behaviours.

British Columbia’s school districts have a similar policy and a province-wide guide that lays out appropriate responses to elementary school students who sexually harass or victimize fellow classmates. Also, the Supreme Court of Canada has endorsed the position that “it is not sufficient for a school board to take a passive role. A school board has a duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons served by it and it must be ever vigilant of anything that might interfere with this duty.”

*Name changed by request.

Despite these policies, sexual harassment goes on regularly, says Anita Roberts. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of the subject in school. We’re still stuck on teaching kids math and not life skills.” Roberts, whose Safe Teen program is offered at schools throughout BC and internationally, contends that we need to teach kids to deal with unwanted sexual attention or slurs “from a position of truth,” rather than brushing it off or dismissing it.

In many cases of sexual harassment, says Tutty, parents never find out it’s taking place because kids don’t tell. Nonetheless, Tutty feels parents need to keep encouraging their kids to come and talk to them about anything. However, we — parents and teachers — also need to pipe up about language and attitudes that bother us. Taking a heavy-handed, punitive approach to incidents of sexual harassment isn’t likely to go over well with teens. Still, Tutty believes harassment, depending on the severity, should carry a range of consequences from discussions about why the words or behaviours are offensive, to school suspension and police involvement.

What can we all do to prevent it in the first place? Tutty urges both parents and teachers to use “teachable moments” to offer perspective. “These things need to be addressed at a community-wide level,” she says. “If you say that harassment is unacceptable, then you have to talk about why it’s unacceptable and about the community climate you’re trying to create — one of respect, fairness and safety. Those kinds of behaviours just don’t fit.”

One way for parents to intervene may be to object when we hear our kids use words that are sexually loaded and harsh. Has your son just told his friend that his sweater is “gay”? Challenge him with questions like: “What do you mean by that? Is it an insult to call someone gay? Why? What if one of your friends was gay and you didn’t know it? How do you think it would make him feel hearing you say that?” The message we’ve got to keep pounding out, says Tutty: “Just because lots of people talk like that doesn’t make it right.”

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