The #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront what has been a long-standing concern for women across various communities: sexual harassment and, more broadly, gender inequality.
It’s critical that we implement sanctions against perpetrators of sexual harassment and that we increase men’s awareness of what is and is not acceptable. But this movement also highlights the need for thinking more seriously about how we teach children and teens about these issues.
Sexual harassment is not merely something that young people will need to contend with sometime in their distant future when they are adults in the workforce. Rather, it is something many of them, especially girls, are experiencing right now and right in their schools. Like it or not, schools are formally and informally communicating lessons to their students about expectations for men’s and women’s sexual conduct. Thus, we should look to education as a significant avenue to tackle sexual harassment and gender inequality.
In particular, we need to rethink what is typically referred to as “sex education.” First, we need to change the very word we use for it from “sex” education to “sexuality” education. This education must address not just “the birds and the bees,” but sexual harassment, including the ways in which it sometimes affects different groups of women and girls.
The conventional wisdom about sexuality education in schools is that there are two choices: an abstinence-only curriculum or a comprehensive curriculum that includes both abstinence and other topics, such as options for preventing pregnancy and protecting individuals from contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
While research has largely established that the latter approach is more effective than abstinence-only education in delaying sexual activity and reducing adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, comprehensive sexuality education would be even more effective if it were even more comprehensive.
One way to do this is to expand sexuality education curricula to incorporate lessons about sexual harassment and gender inequality. A 2011 nationally representative survey commissioned by the American Association of University Women found that nearly half of middle and high school students surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 academic year. Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed, but the problem was widespread across genders: 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys reported experiencing sexual harassment. This included in-person sexual harassment, such as unwelcome touching or sexual jokes, as well electronic sexual harassment, such as unsolicited pictures or videos.
This movement also highlights the need for thinking more seriously about how we teach children and teens about these issues."
I have encountered this high rate of sexual harassment in my own research as well. When interviewing Latina girls in Chicago on their sexual experiences, I heard repeated stories of boys groping them in the hallway or making sexual comments about their bodies in school.
Teachers and other school employees need better training in how to identify and stop sexual harassment. In her 2007 book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, sociologist C. J. Pascoe found that teachers frequently witness the harassment yet fail to do anything about it, or they may minimize the seriousness of the incident.
It is also important that school employees become aware of how unconscious racial biases may influence their perceptions of such incidents. Research shows that black and Latinx students face more disciplinary action and are assumed to be more adult-like and less innocent, and thus in less need of protection. Researchers, including Monique Morris and Jody Miller, have documented how school personnel routinely label black girls as “loud,” or “unladylike” when they are perceived to fail to conform to white, middle-class expectations of femininity.
Such research demonstrates how racial and gender stereotypes of girls of color can inform some school personnel’s understanding of their harassment. It can even lead educators to punish these girls’ attempts to protect themselves or to assume they provoked their own sexual harassment.
The prevalence of sexual harassment in schools also suggests that sexuality education should be made more comprehensive in terms of when it is taught. Instead of treating it as a discrete topic limited to health class, it should be incorporated into other aspects of school.
In rethinking sexuality education to address the issue of sexual harassment, for instance, schools need to think about dress-code policies. By focusing almost exclusively on girls’ attire, school officials often reinforce the sexual double standard that permits boys more freedom than girls, thereby reinforcing gender inequality. Instead, schools should concentrate on training school personnel and students on identifying, preventing, and addressing sexual harassment.
These lessons can also be incorporated into classroom discussion, where students could learn and dialogue about relevant topics in an age-appropriate manner. For instance, students can explore Title IX through history class assignments. Students’ familiarity with the federal law—which prohibits sex discrimination in educational activities and programs by institutions that receive federal funds—can empower them to demand gender equity in their schools, as well as in the larger society. Gender equity can also be examined in the social studies classroom, where teachers can facilitate student discussions of gender stereotypes in the media, for example. These types of classroom activities can also assist students in developing media-literacy skills, such as understanding how our engagement with media relates to social interactions.
Young people are already facing sexual harassment in their lives, including their schools. Why not help them take it on now in a more structured context? It’s time to start these conversations earlier, help youths recognize harassment, call it out, and demand that something be done about it. Maybe this can help us move in a more concerted effort to stop making sexual harassment and gender inequality a “normal” aspect of our culture. It’s gone on too long. It’s about time we figure it out.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Case for Sexuality Education