Sexual Harassment: Early Adolescents' Self-Reports of Experiences and Acceptance

Article excerpt

Sexual harassment of older adolescents has been an issue of concern and investigation since the mid-1970s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it interferes with academic learning (Dzeich & Weiner, 1984). Research on student sexual harassment has focused almost exclusively on older adolescents/college students (Adams, Kottke, & Padgitt, 1983; Bremer, Moore, & Bildersee, 1991; Connolly & Marshall, 1989; Maihoff & Forrest, 1983; Malovich & Stake, 1990; Mazar & Percival, 1989; Robertson, Dyer, & Campbell, 1988; Roscoe, Goodwin, Repp, & Rose 1987; Wilson & Kraus, 1983; Wishnietsky, 1991). Only recently have professionals and the courts begun to recognize and address the reality that sexual harassment is occurring at considerably younger ages. Although Ageton (1983) has presented information on sexual assault among adolescents, and Herbert (1989) has discussed sexual harassment among Australian adolescents, to date no data have been reported on the harassment experiences of early adolescents in the United States. American educators do, however, offer anecdotal accounts which suggest that sexual harassment by peers is occurring among this group with greater frequency than had been suspected. In a teacher's guide to accompany READ (September, 1992), a publication widely distributed to students, it was reported that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has stated "sexual harassment is a real and increasingly visible problem, one that can threaten a student's emotional well-being, impair academic progress, and even inhibit the attainment of career goals" (Staff, 1992, p. 2).

It is widely argued that problems in understanding and addressing sexual harassment stem from the lack of a clear, concise, universally accepted definition of sexual harassment (Reilly, Lott, Caldwell, & DeLuca, 1992; Siegel, 1991; Somers, 1982). Herbert (1989) states that "what emerges from the literature is a confused and inconsistent range of behaviors some of which are labeled sexual harassment and covering a broad range of actions, while others which clearly describe sexual harassment are ignored or described as normal or acceptable male behaviors". While some definitions are quite specific, others are very broad (Crocker, 1983; Till, 1981). One component of legal definitions is an emphasis on unequal power between the perpetrator and the victim (Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act, 1972). Definitions of harassment which have been established by various professional organizations, however, diminish the role of power and focus more on the creation of a hostile environment: a setting in which one is unable to function to one's potential (MacKinnon, 1979). It is recognized that peers/colleagues are capable of creating such an environment.

The Project on the Status and Education of Women (1978) proposed that sexual harassment may take the form of "verbal harassment or abuse; subtle pressure for sexual activity; sexist remarks about a woman's clothing, body or sexual activities; unnecessary touching, patting, or pinching; leering or ogling of a woman's body; demanding sexual favors accompanied by implied or overt threats". The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (1981) identified six categories of sexual harassment: uninvited pressure for sexual favors; uninvited deliberate touching; uninvited suggestive looks; uninvited letters and calls; uninvited pressure for dates; and uninvited sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions. It is these latter types of sexual harassment which particularly intimidate or interfere with early adolescents' school performance.

Studies of older adolescents suggest that a considerable number of females have been the victims of sexual harassment. Benson and Thompson (1982) found that 30% of the college females they surveyed had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment during their college careers. Similarly, Maihoff and Forrest (1983) reported that 48% of their college female subjects indicated they had been sexually harassed, and Wilson and Kraus (1983) reported 33%. …

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