Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Culture of Sexual Harassment

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Culture of Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

When a 6-year-old kisses a girl and is suspended from school, tongues cluck across the nation - especially since the girl apparently asked for the kiss. Shortly after this incident, a "Speed Bump" cartoon depicted a teacher admonishing a puzzled-looking little boy as an angry-looking little girl stands by. "You kissed her?" asks the teacher. "Unless you want a lawsuit, young man, I suggest you start showing your affection with hair pulling and shoulder slugs."

Actually, hair pulling and shoulder slugs might qualify as sexual harassment in a study conducted by Valerie Lee, Robert Croninger, Eleanor Linn, and Xianglei Chen of the University of Michigan. A report of their research appears in the summer 1996 issue of the American Educational Research Journal. Because sexual harassment is a term that covers a broad array of behaviors, it is worth listing the examples of sexual harassment about which the researchers asked participants (the list of behaviors actually originated in an earlier survey conducted by the American Association of University Women). The researchers asked students in grades 8 through 11 whether students, teachers, or other school staff members had ever done any of the following to them:

* made sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks;

* showed you sexual pictures, photographs, messages, etc.;

* wrote sexual messages about you on bathroom walls, etc.;

* spread sexual rumors about you;

* said you were gay or a lesbian;

* spied on you as you dressed or showered at school;

* flashed or mooned you;

* touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way;

* intentionally brushed up against you in a sexual way;

* pulled at your clothing in a sexual way;

* pulled your clothing off or down;

* blocked your way or cornered you in a sexual way;

* forced you to kiss him or her; and

* forced you to do something sexual other than kissing.

If these behaviors themselves seem complex and wide-ranging, the theories invoked to explain them are equally complex. A "biological" theory calls attention to size and hormonal differences between the sexes that tend to make males more aggressive. A "developmental" theory holds that adolescents have strong sexual feelings that they cannot express appropriately, which leads to aggressive behaviors. Since girls are more skilled at social expression than boys, they tend not to be harassers. A "pathology" theory contends that harassment grows out of trauma that causes the victims to lose their ability to empathize, which leads them to inflict hurtful behavior on others.

There are no fewer than three theories that characterize sexual harassment in terms of the abuse of power. The "exclusionary intimidation" theory holds that people who usually treat others with kindness might resort to harassment if changing conditions threaten their societal privilege. The "abuse of organizational power" theory derives from the fact that different people have different amounts of power in any organization, and so sexual harassment can be seen as one form of power abuse. The "abuse of societal power" theory notes that, no matter what the organizational setting, ours is a culture in which males tend to be seen as more powerful than females.

Among the more sobering findings of this study is the disturbing prevalence of harassment: 83% of girls and 60% of boys reported having experienced harassment. Contextual factors appeared to be more important than demographic factors in explaining the prevalence of harassment. Some schools, independent of socioeconomic status, seem to have developed a "climate" conducive to harassment.

One of the surprising findings is that, of those who had been victims of sexual harassment, 75% reported having also been perpetrators of harassment. Given this finding, the researchers then wondered about the victim/perpetrator experiences of their sample as a whole. …

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