Empowering Parents to Address and Prevent Sexual Harassment

Middle school is a time of significant transition and growth for our children. Alongside academic challenges and social development, they also encounter issues related to sexuality and relationships. Unfortunately sexual harassment can sometimes be a part of this landscape. In the most recent national study conducted on sexual harassment in schools, 56% of females and 48% of males in grades 7-12 report that they have experienced sexual harassment. During the 2022/2023 school year, 36% of our students reported experiencing sexual harassment, 24% stated that it happened at school. Our students took the survey prior to learning about sexual harassment. Each year, supported by administration, I teach age appropriate lessons to the different grades. This year, 7th and 8th grade had these lessons in January and 6th graders will have the lesson later in the spring.

During the lessons, students learn that sexual harassment is a form of bullying that includes any behavior that is unwanted AND sexual. They learn about the various types of sexual harassment (verbal, written/visual, and physical) and we discuss consent. We talk about the differences between flirting and harassment – this generates a lot of great discussion! We also discuss power dynamics in sexual harassment and how gender can play a role in reporting.

Girls who experience sexual harassment can feel unsafe and worried about the harassment escalating if they report. Societal gender norms teach girls to be nice and not hurt people’s feelings which is a barrier to assertive communication and reporting. Cultural gender norms teach boys that they should like any type of sexual attention and that they need to be tough. This can be a barrier to saying no and to reporting. All genders can fear that they will be made fun of and/or not believed if they tell.

This year I asked students to tell me what they wanted the adults in their lives to know about sexual harassment in middle school. These are some things they shared:

  • Boys and girls can be victims
  • It mostly happens on texts and social media
  • It is not the victim’s fault
  • It is very hard to talk about
  • Your comments can make us uncomfortable
  • Sometimes it is adults doing it to kids
  • It happens a lot to some of us
  • It can be hidden
  • Adults should talk about it more
  • I don’t think it happens that often
  • It happens more than you think
  • Friends can be afraid to speak up or say something
  • Most of us don’t know how to be an upstander
  • It is often joking around, not trying to harass someone
  • Believe kids if they tell you
  • Guys make a lot of jokes about girls

What can parents/guardians do? Our first step is to take it seriously. When we do not take it seriously, we are teaching children that their instincts and boundaries are not important. As adults we need to be aware of our own history and biases that we bring to these conversations. Students say that adults will comment on their bodies and clothing choices as well as say things to them like “boys will be boys” or “he just likes you” as a way to excuse behavior that is sexual harassment. If we break down that messaging, we are teaching children that if someone likes you, they treat you disrespectfully, cross your boundaries, and do not listen to your “no.” We are telling children that someone being mean to them is a sign of their affection. This mindset sets them up for unhealthy future relationships. We are also telling boys that their poor behavior is justifiable if they like someone and that they are allowed to act in a sexual manner, regardless of consent.

Adults can have regular conversations about boundaries and healthy relationships. We can support students in assertive communication while empathizing that it may be difficult for middle schoolers to communicate their boundaries and speak out against a peer or adult who is making them feel uncomfortable. The earlier and more frequent these conversation are, the more likely it will be that a child will feel comfortable coming to you if they experience sexual harassment. We can also empower students to advocate for both themselves and others. Practice with them various scenarios and what they can say and do. Practice both setting boundaries AND listening to/respecting boundaries.

By addressing sexual harassment openly and proactively, we can create safer environments for our children to learn and grow. Together we can empower them to stand up against harassment, respect others, and cultivate healthy relationships.

Kristin Lee
Counselor and Social Worker (6th-8th)