Editor’s note: This article contains some vulgar language.
Thomas Stanislow-Field notices many of his fellow high school students slapping girls’ backsides and calling them names when the girls complain.
He sees girls who are afraid to say no. Laney Beach, 16, a classmate at Cortland High School, describes girls going along with harassment in a climate of sexualized teenagers who try to act like their favorite rapper or mimic how they see the popular crowd behaving.
Sexual harassment has received ample media attention lately. Television anchor Matt Lauer, comedian Louis C.K., movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken are among those who have suffered political fallout or lost their jobs in the wake of sexual harassment or assault allegations that in many instances came out years after the incident.
Forms of harassment
Sexual harassment can take many forms. Both boys and girls may be targets. Some examples:
• Continually asking someone out despite refusals.
• Unwanted requests for social or sexual activity.
• Making sexual jokes, gestures, or remarks, including in cyberspace.
• Inappropriate touching.
• Spreading sexual rumors.
• Making comments about a person’s body, clothing, sexual orientation or sexual behavior.
• Intimidation or assault.
But schools also run rampant with sexualized behavior, say students, not all of it welcome.
Complicating the matter, says a SUNY Cortland coordinator for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, is that adolescents are still learning what is acceptable behavior.
“If you think about who we are as young adults, we’re learning how to be in intimate relationships, how to have boyfriends or girlfriends and we’re figuring out what feels right for us,” Jena Nicols Curtis said.
Schools teach boundaries
School district officials say schools try to prevent harassment through education. Incidents are not tolerated and students say at least some teachers have made teachable moments out of the current events.
Dryden School Superintendent William Locke cited the district’s anti-harassment policies and Cortland School Superintendent Michael Hoose said sexual violence prevention is part of the school’s sexual health and healthy relationship curriculum, which covers sexual violence prevention, definitions of consent and communicating limits.
“It also includes positive relationship skills as students work to manag(e) their relationships during the adolescent years,” Hoose stated in an e-mail. “Current events trending in the media can be used as examples in our existing curriculum.”
“The general culture and climate is that you just need to be respectful towards each other so we have a social worker on staff, counselors on staff,” said Tully School Superintendent Rob Hughes. “And we’ve always kind of been dealing with helping kids become good, decent human beings and sexual harassment is never appropriate, it doesn’t matter what age you are.”
The health curriculum helps deliver the message, said McGraw School Superintendent Melinda McCool, but it cannot act alone.
“As our students start to experience adult situations, the school is only one part of an individual making a positive choice,” she stated in an e-mail. “We rely on the parental support as a child’s first teacher to also play a part in this process.”
Rewarding sexual aggression
Sexual harassment persists, said Stanislow-Field and other teenagers recently at the Cortland Youth Bureau. They described a culture of sexual aggression within Cortland High School.
A certain group of boys will touch girls inappropriately despite objections and be rewarded for the behavior when their friends cheer them on, said Stanislow-Field, 17. There’s a name for the boys, but it’s not polite.
“We have f-boys who just like sleeping around with anyone,” Stanislow-Field said. “They are the ones who usually go around and do stuff no one likes, but they do it and make fun of it and keep on doing it.”
Tell the boy to stop and the retaliations begin. “If you deny them something, they’ll call them a bitch or a ho,” he said.
How to cope
If you’re a parent or guardian whose child describes harassment:
Take it seriously but don’t overreact. Don’t downplay your children’s experience, send the message that their boundaries are valid and should be respected. Empower your children to be their own advocate and have the confidence to tell someone what they are doing is unwanted.
Don’t imply that a girl’s dress brought on the harassment. A girl who thinks her body or sexuality is a bad thing feels shame and is less likely to seek help.
Help set boundaries. Nobody has the right to touch you.
Talk to your children about staying safe. Stress the importance of making good decisions, not accepting rides from strangers, even ones the same age, and using a group of friends as a support system when attending a party or concert.
Be supportive. When your child is ready to talk, listen and
make it clear your love and support are unwavering.
SOURCE: The Child Mind Institute
It’s not specific to Cortland, said 17-year-old Austin Marshall. He saw it in Dryden, too. Some boys in his class would target specific body parts on certain days, on a schedule.
“It would be ‘grab your tits Thursday’ or ‘Smack your ass Tuesday,’ “ Marshall said. “Girls feel pressured, they need to learn how to say no.”
“If we say ‘no,’ we get called names,” Beach said. “We get called bitch, all sorts of names for saying ‘no’ for them touching us.”
Locke said the Dryden district has anti-harassment policies in place and encourages anyone to report any instance of harassment or discrimination.
Hoose in Cortland said he was not aware of this climate at the high school and would bring it to the attention of the building’s principal.
“I’m sure a few fathers would be interested in hearing this, I know I would if it was my daughter,” Hoose said. “I’m very interested in getting this taken care of because I don’t want any male or female in this culture thinking that’s OK.”
Assault in the sixth grade
The issue of setting boundaries arose early for 17-year-old Julie Christian, who described being touched inappropriately by a classmate in the sixth grade at Smith Elementary School in Cortland.
Christian said the situation culminated in a classroom one day, after some playful exchanges of notes with a classmate. She was sitting next to the boy, when he touched her breast, she said.
The behavior continued for weeks despite her discomfort, but she was too insecure to object.
“I didn’t know what was going on, I was like, ‘OK, is that what we’re doing right now?’” Christian said.
One day, Christian described what was happening to a friend, who encouraged her to tell a teacher.
She showed teachers the notes and met with the principal. The boy was suspended, she said, and teachers separated them in the classroom after that.
The next year, in the seventh grade, Christian took a stronger stance, blocking his number after clearly stating her disinterest when he again tried to initiate contact, this time via text message.
Women should not have to be put in this position in the first place, Curtis said.
“It’s not the obligation of the person who’s being touched to say, ‘Don’t touch me,’ it’s the obligation of the person who wants to do the touching to make sure that’s OK,” she said.
‘Recognize what’s going on’
U.S. Education Department guidelines from 2008 clearly defines behavior a school must consider harassment, but advises schools to consider age and maturity of the students.
There’s a difference between a 6-year-old kissing a classmate and a 16-year-old doing the same.
The harassment tends to peak in middle school, when adolescent bodies mature and attitudes haven’t caught up, states a 2006 University of Florida study.
Before that point, Christian wants parents and schools to emphasize to students — particularly girls, she said — that it is not OK to tolerate harassment. Ever.
“I think that in the moment you don’t really know exactly how to react to it,” Christian said. “So I think schools should go into depth: like what this is considered; and you should learn if you don’t want it, you can say ‘no’; and don’t be too scared (or think), what if I hurt their feelings; to recognize what’s going on.”
If there’s a positive side to the claims of harassment, assault and rape that have flooded the social landscape, Curtis said it presents a good opportunity for adults to have that conversation with children.
“For skills that really matter — manners, driving — we have repeated conversations about what our beliefs are and what’s safe and not safe and how to do it well, yet when it comes to sex, we think we can have a sex talk or say don’t ever do that, and think that will be enough,” Curtis said. “What I recommend is to make it a whole series of conversations.”