Today’s middle schools are the training ground for tomorrow’s Harveys and Bills.
While more women and men are publicly speaking out about sexual harassment and assaults, many students don’t realize that what they face in hallways and classrooms often goes beyond bullying.
At least 1 in 4 middle schoolers say they’ve experienced unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment at school, according to 2014 research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Girls as young as 12 have told me about boys who compare them to porn stars they’ve watched online. The easy access to and widespread consumption of pornography among tweens and teens reinforces warped attitudes of women as little more than sexual objects.
The country, however, has always been more riveted by high-profile cases of sexual abuse involving celebrities than by how to better educate young people about respecting other people’s bodies. The latest reports involve Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has joined a growing list of powerful men facing accusations of sexual misconduct.
Multiple women allege Bill Cosby raped them. Rape allegations have also surfaced against Weinstein. Fox News employees say Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly abused their positions for years by sexually harassing women there. The highest officeholder in the land has also battled similar allegations. At least 15 women have publicly accused President Donald Trump, who was elected after being caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, of sexual harassment and assault.
These men have all denied wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, 27 percent of middle school-aged girls and 25 percent of boys reported that they had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment or violence, the most common being unwanted touching, according to the study. Middle school counselors talk about trying to deal with rampant sexting among students, and increasingly educate students about the risks of digital sexual experimentation. But rarely are sexual harassment and consent discussed in this context.
Here’s an easy test for parents: Ask your middle schooler if he or she knows the difference between sexual harassment and assault. Find out if it’s part of the health curriculum. If it isn’t, define it for them: Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other conduct of a sexual nature that affects a person’s employment or education, interferes with work or educational performance, or creates an environment that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile or offensive. Let them know it’s unacceptable.
The way boys treat their classmates now lays the foundation for how they will treat their co-workers later. We’ve seen an avalanche of victims who have shared details of the abuse they’ve suffered. Too often, powerful people have been able to degrade and abuse others because wealth, status and societal attitudes insulate them. Young people take note when these serial offenders don’t appear to suffer real consequences. They hear those who defend sexual predators based on their personal interactions with an individual, rather than the merits of the allegations against them.
I saw this pattern of denial every time a popular coach or religious leader was implicated in a sexual crime. The default response of the community was to take the side of the accused. Many believed that if a predator was good to them or helped them, he was falsely accused.
While we may perceive a difference between a predator who accosts women in the street versus one who attacks them in a well-appointed office, there is no difference.
Different setting, same character.
The most basic lessons we teach toddlers are the same ones we to need to hold them accountable to as they grow up: Be respectful. Keep your hands to yourself. No matter how large or fragile your ego, you don’t have the right to grab anyone.
Not even if you are the smartest kid in the science class, a star athlete or the boy next door.
Not even if you are the most powerful producer in Hollywood or the president of the United States.