Expensive, Illegal and Wring: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools

By Yaffe, Elaine | Phi Delta Kappan, November 1995 | Go to article overview
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Expensive, Illegal and Wring: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools


Yaffe, Elaine, Phi Delta Kappan


Not so long ago, it was seen as merely part of the perennial battle of the sexes - part of the mating game that begins as soon as girls and boys realize they are different from one another. Behavior that started in schoolyards with jingles - "I see London, I see France, I see Susie's underpants" - moved into classrooms where boys put pigtails in inkwells. The process moved inexorably to wolf whistles, whispered come-ons at office Xerox machines, ogling on the street, pinching on public buses - and more. Girls and women put up with it because they didn't want to risk antagonizing their tormenters. Sometimes they couldn't afford to jeopardize their jobs or marriages, but more often they could see no alternative. It was just the way things were.

Not any more. Such behavior now has an ugly name: sexual harassment. And it's illegal.

It might seem as if all this harassment began just recently, with such big-ticket, front-page cases as Tailhook, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, and the charges made against Sen. Robert Packwood. But actually, sexual harassment is not a new problem - at least not for educational institutions. "It has existed, perhaps, as long as there have been schools" according to the Educators Guide to Controlling sexual Harassment. But it remained a hidden issue, in part, because there was no name for the behavior."(1)

The question of name is important. The language we use to describe behavior both reflects and affects how serious we perceive that behavior to be. In response to a survey, one student wrote that she didn't know how anyone could take seriously what had happened to her because she didn't know what to call it. As late as 1987, when the School of Education at the University of Michigan conducted a study in 15 Michigan school districts, students reported behavior they found troubling - uninvited touching from other students, sexual innuendoes, rude and wounding remarks when they participated in classes not usually frequented by others of their gender - but they had no name for such behaviors. Eleanor Linn, senior associate director of programs for educational opportunity in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, deceiving requests from guidance counselors in the early 1980s asking for materials on this nameless topic, which they said was "not as bad as rape, but people still suffer." (All quotations that are not footnoted come from personal interviews conducted by the author.)

For a long time this vagueness prevented most people from understanding the full implications of what was happening. Schools tended to see it as "inappropriate behavior." Kids called it "teasing," "horseplay," "flirting." Adults explained it away as the inevitable result of raging hormones. Normal, natural, unalterable.

Though many people still take refuge behind these euphemisms, the situation today is almost completely reversed. The big catalyst for this change has been the law. Schools can no longer dismiss the problem as they did in the past, because the law now says that unequal educational opportunity results from sexual harassment, and that makes it a form of discrimination. Such behavior denies targets of harassment their full educational opportunities. It restricts their access to classes, undermines their self-confidence, and makes them less able to participate.

There have been legal injunctions against sexual misconduct on the books since Reconstruction, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1871 as a mechanism for enforcing the 14th Amendment's guarantees of "life, liberty, and property." The courts have interpreted "liberty" to mean that a student has a constitutional right to "bodily integrity." But these injunctions remained largely unused until the idea of "sexual harassment" began to take shape in the national consciousness.

Most writers on this topic agree that it was women, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, who brought this development about.

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