Sexual Harassment between Same-Sex Peers: Intersection of Mental Health, Homophobia, and Sexual Violence in Schools

By Fineran, Susan | Social Work, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment between Same-Sex Peers: Intersection of Mental Health, Homophobia, and Sexual Violence in Schools


Fineran, Susan, Social Work


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This article provides a historical and legal framework for defining peer sexual harassment from three different perspectives: sex discrimination, mental health, and sexual violence. Major court decisions that define sexual harassment in both education and the workplace are highlighted, and arguments regarding sexual harassment between peers of the same sex are profiled. This research also identifies sexism and heterosexism as a major social violence problem in U.S. education and argues that peer sexual harassment is sexual violence with considerable mental health implications for both boys and girls. Recommendations for social work practice regarding peer sexual harassment in schools are discussed.

Key words: adolescents; education; heterosexism; mental health; sexual harassment

The issue of sexual harassment in elementary, junior high, and high schools has unfolded quickly during the 1990s. Prior to the October 1991 senate hearings held for the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, when law professor Anita Hill brought the term "sexual harassment" to life, this topic had received scant attention in public schools. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which expanded the scope of the original 1964 legislation, also aided in publicizing this issue. The 1991 bill allowed for the first time limited money damages for victims of sexual harassment and other intentional discrimination based on sex, religion, or disability. In 1991 this new legislation was translated into dollars when a high school in Duluth, Minnesota, paid $15,000 in an out-of-court settlement to a female student who was sexually harassed by her male peers (Stein, 1999).

A few months later a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Franklin v. Gwinnett County (GA) Public Schools (1992) focused national attention on sexual harassment in schools. Once the Supreme Court decided that schools were liable for punitive damages in cases of sexual harassment, these behaviors, formerly unchallenged, could now be identified as sexual harassment and litigated.

Since 1992 a number of lawsuits have been filed by elementary, junior high, and high school students. The majority of these cases involved sexual harassment of females by males, but incidents of sexual harassment between peers of the same gender have also been recorded (Stein, 1995). Sexual harassment is poorly defined by many schools, and the arbitrary way in which educators confront or deal with sexual harassment remains problematic (Fineran & Bennett, 1998a; Lee, Croninger, Linn, & Chen, 1996; Stein, 1995). In particular, sexual harassment that occurs between peers who are the same gender is frequently ignored. Evidence of this is apparent in two separate court decisions determining that same-sex sexual harassment did not have merit (Sauk Rapids-Rice (MN) School District #47, 1993; Seamons v. Snow, 1994). The cases were dismissed.

Two studies, Hostile Hallways, conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation (1993, 2001), documented sexual harassment in U.S. schools. Similar to the first study, the latest national study found that 81 percent of students reported being harassed by a peer, and 63 percent experienced sexual harassment by a peer of the same gender.

What exactly is sexual harassment? Sexually harassing behavior is described by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct that interferes with a person's work performance or creates a hostile or offensive work environment (C.F.R. [ss] 1604.11). For students the following list of peer sexual harassment behaviors is by no means complete, but describes the many behaviors that students of both genders experience from their schoolmates: sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; sexual messages or graffiti on bathroom walls and locker rooms; sexual rumors; being shown sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes; called gay or lesbian using derogatory terms like "fag" or "lezzie"; spied on while dressing or showering at school; "flashed" or "mooned"; touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way; clothing pulled in a sexual way or clothing pulled off or down; brushed up against in a sexual way; being blocked or cornered in a sexual way; and forced to kiss or forcing other unwelcome sexual behavior other than kissing (AAUW, 1993; Permanent Commission on the Status of Women [PCSW], 1995). …

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