Sexual harassment might sound like an issue that affects adult women, but global surveys show that young women (young girls, in fact) are no strangers to unwanted attention. According to results of the Cornell International Survey on Street Harassment, 85% of women in the United States experienced their first instance of harassment before age 17, with a staggering 11.6% reporting the first instance of harassment occurring before age 11.

Street harassment can feel anxiety-producing regardless of age, but sexual harassment can also occur much closer to home. In fact, recent studies show that American middle and high school students face sexual harassment regularly.

A study conducted at the University of Illinois followed 1,300 middle and high school students over a five-year period to examine the links between sexual harassment and bullying. Nearly half (43%) of middle school students reported they were victims of verbal sexual harassment, including sexual comments, jokes, or gestures, during the previous year. 21% of students surveyed reported being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way, and 18% said peers brushed up against them in a suggestive manner. 14% of the students in the study reported being the target of sexual rumors.

In a national survey of 18-25-year-olds, Making Caring Common (MCC) found that misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among young people. Results showed that 87% of women surveyed reported at least one of the following in their lifetime: being catcalled, being touched without permission by a stranger, being insulted with sexualized words by a man or a woman, having a stranger say something sexual to them, and having a stranger call them “hot.”

The MCC survey also found that 76% of the respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others and a majority had never had a conversation with parents about various forms of misogyny.

Bottom line: teens young adults need more information about sexual harassment.

Define It

Middle and high school students appear to be desensitized to sexual harassment. Whether they don’t know that they’re engaging in it or they don’t understand the emotional repercussions for the individual on the receiving end, misogyny and harassment flourish on middle and high school campuses.

The first step is to provide specific definitions and talk openly about the various forms of harassment and misogyny that teens might face at school. Teens tend to shut down when they feel accused or lectured, but opening the discussion with a question can help temper the emotions surrounding the topic.

Talking points for parents:

  • Sexual harassment can happen to both girls and boys
  • It can be verbal or physical
  • It can include comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt or intimidate another person
  • It can include the use of technology to share messages, videos, or pictures

What behaviors count as sexual harassment?

It’s imperative that teens understand that any interaction (online or in person) that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe should be reported to a trusted adult. The following behaviors are considered sexual harassment:

  • Sexual jokes, comments, or gestures
  • Spreading sexual rumors (in person or online)
  • Requesting “nudes” from another person
  • Writing sexual messages about a person in public places
  • Showing someone inappropriate videos or pictures
  • Posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social media
  • Sharing sexual pictures or videos through text, email, or other messaging apps
  • Touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a sexual way
  • Brushing up against someone in a sexual manner
  • Unwanted sexting

Discuss the Gray Areas

What if flirtation includes references to intimacy? What happens if a person appears to enjoy banter one moment, but then changes his or her mind? What if holding hands or hugging is acceptable one day unwelcome another?

Romantic relationships can be confusing for young people. As teens explore new kinds of relationships, it can be difficult to know how a partner feels. When parents talk openly about the nature of romantic relationships and how to build trust with a romantic partner, teens learn to evaluate the emotional responses of their partners and ask specific questions before moving forward in a relationship.

It helps to engage in frequent conversation about romantic relationships. Ask your teens to consider the following questions:

  • What’s the difference between like and love?
  • Does attraction always result in romantic relationships?
  • What happens if a person doesn’t reciprocate affection?
  • How can two people build trust and intimacy?

Talk about Speaking Up

When a group of peers uses phrases like “hit that” and “hot or not” or otherwise engages in misogynistic talk, it can be very difficult to be the one who stands up to it. Sexual comments are often dismissed as jokes or locker room talk. When these instances are dismissed, teens internalize the message that this kind of talk is no big deal. This desensitizes them to the very harmful emotional effects of their words and actions.

When teens get into the habit of keeping each other in check, however, it can make a difference. Help your teen practice responses (using language he or she is comfortable with) to stand up to misogynistic talk and sexual harassment. When teens act as upstanders in their communities, they support their peers and help create a culture shift.

Step In

You won’t gain any cool parent points by intervening when carpool talk takes a misogynistic turn, but don’t let those teachable moments pass you by. Many teens fail to understand how their words and actions affect others. By intervening in a calm way, parents can help teens learn to think before they speak.

Set clear boundaries about what kind of language is acceptable in your home and intervene when you witness degrading language or behavior. Teens need to be held accountable for their words and actions.

Evaluate the Media

Teens learn a lot from various forms of media. Whether it’s YouTube videos, TV shows, movies, or posts on social media, teens consume a variety of messages on any given day.

Ask them about their favorite YouTube channels and stars. Watch a few videos to get a sense of what they’re digesting. Evaluate media with a critical eye to help your teens see how rampant misogynistic behavior is and take the time to find movies, shows, and channels that stand up to misogyny and sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment isn’t a one-and-done conversation with teens and young adults. With frequent conversations and specific information, middle and high school students can learn to avoid engaging in sexual harassment and how to engage with their peers in healthy and positive ways.


Last Updated: Mar 25, 2019