Changing the Culture to Prevent Sexual Harassment in US Middle and High School

 In GEH Blog

While the #MeToo movement gains ground to change across industries as varied as entertainment, the military, and higher education, almost no attention has been given to sexual harassment against adolescents in school, despite clear demonstration that these types of abuses all too often start in early adolescence. The Measuring #MeToo: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault 2019 report on sexual harassment and assault in the United States found that 38 percent of women and 15 percent of men experience sexual harassment at school, in elementary, middle and/or high school, with the prevalence of reported abuse higher with increasing age.

A more careful examination of the types of abuses we see demonstrate that much of this is in the form of verbal abuse, with the highest reported abuses involving girls called derogatory sexist terms and/or talking about your body parts in a sexually offensive or aggressive way, and boys called derogatory homophobic terms. Physically threatening forms of abuse at school are also reported, primarily by females. These types of abuses include “someone touching you or brushing up against you sexually in an unwelcome way” and even stalking behaviors. We found that among women in our study, 1 in 17 reported these more physically threatening forms of sexual harassment in middle school, and 1 in 10 experienced them in high school.

Evidence from prior research yields similar findings regarding development of sexually harassing behaviors in middle school with escalation in these behaviors into high school. This research further highlights the intersection of boys’ bullying and sexual harassment perpetration, inclusive of homophobic remarks against boys and sexual comments toward girls, as these stem from similar norms regarding masculinity and social control.

Findings from the Measuring #MeToo study further emphasize the heightened vulnerability faced by sexual minorities in school; we found that gay and bisexual men were twice as likely as heterosexual men to report sexual harassment at school. Importantly, and corresponding with these findings, such abuses appear to be more likely in a climate where there is greater tolerance or even support for these behaviors. In fact, as seen in this study, as well as our 2019 national study, it appears that such behaviors of harassment are more likely to be perpetrated by those who are also victimized, for males and females, though the severity and negative consequences of victimization are greater for females. These findings reinforce the need for broader cultural shifts to support prevention of sexual harassment in schools, with a focus on altering gender norms that reinforce the behaviors.

Institutional change can be a catalyst that helps to cement cultural shifts. As discussed above, there is a groundswell of support for the #metoo, #timesup, and other movements dedicated to shifting cultural, social, and institutional norms, but committed action on the part of those institutions is the next step. Sport has a role in this regard, given its reach and capacity to influence incredible numbers of participants and viewers, across all demographics. Research indicates that sport promotes pro-social behaviors and as such, it has the potential to be an incubator for those behaviors as they relate to sexual violence. Over 20 million youth play sports. Many are engaged in sports at a young age, and continue this engagement into junior high and high school. These environments are those that we know offer heightened vulnerability, but they also offer increased opportunity for prevention. Reach is significant, as parents, youth, coaches, and administrators can be engaged to support prevention efforts and sport avails itself as a conduit to reach not only those who lead or participate in sports, but also those that attend sport events, include those not yet enrolled, as well as alumni!

Commitment to sexual violence and harassment prevention, led by administration and sports leadership at the junior high and high school level, has enormous potential. A positive shift in cultural and social norms, utilizing prevention efforts that address concepts of masculinity and femininity (e. g. male dominance and female sexual appeal, respectively) among youth holds promise for long-term, generational change.


Authored by: Anita Raj, PhD & Jennifer Yore, MPH 

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