Sexual harassment at school ‚worse than bullying’

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Sexual harassment at school ‚worse than bullying’

New Scientist 24 April 2008

Sexual harassment at school is more than just a special kind of bullying. Taunts and aggression related to sexuality are less common than bullying but have more adverse effects, say researchers who have for the first time compared the two.

Schools have been putting great effort into anti-bullying campaigns. Sexual harassment gets less attention and is often regarded as a subset of bullying known as „sexual bullying”.

However, James Gruber at the University of Michigan in Dearborn and Susan Fineran at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, both in the US, maintain that sexual harassment is distinct and should be dealt with separately.

To discover how prevalent both bullying and sexual harassment are, as well as what the long-term effects are and who is being victimised, they surveyed 522 children aged between 11 and 18.

Majority bullied

The questionnaire asked students how often since the beginning of the school year they had had certain experiences – for instance, being the butt of a sexual joke, being called names like „fag” or „dyke”, or being slapped or shoved or kicked.

They also asked questions designed to assess self-esteem and physical and mental health, including whether the student had trouble sleeping or spent a lot of time thinking about these incidents.

Fifty-two per cent of students reported having been bullied and 35% felt they had been sexually harassed.

In both males and females, sexual harassment caused more harm. But girls and sexual minorities – gays, lesbians and bisexuals – were more likely than heterosexual kids to be victimised in either way, and were more likely to suffer serious consequences.

Illegal behaviour

Gruber thinks that sexual harassment causes greater harm because it attacks our „core identities as gendered people” – in a way that being called „fat” or „stupid” does not.

Catherine Hill, of the American Association of University Women, a non-profit organisation in Washington, DC, which has also studied these issues, agrees that sexual harassment is distinct

„Young people certainly make the distinction between sexual harassment and other bullying,” she says. „We do need to have more conversations about sexual harassment before it takes place. We have a lot of Howard Stern wannabes out there.”

Interestingly, while sexual harassment is illegal in the US – schools are required by law to take action – bullying is not.

„There is an eagerness to label such behaviour as bullying because it avoids legal hassles,” says Gruber. But he says it is misguided and is causing us to ignore an important health concern in our schools.

Journal reference: Sex Roles (DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9431-5)

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