11/11/2011 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

Sexual Harassment: Not Really About Sex at All

This week, a national study found that sexual harassment affects about half of the students in grades seven to 12. Some might see this as an indication that there is too much talk about sex in our schools. They would be wrong. Others have chalked it up to teenage hormones and suggested that we leave well enough alone. They would be equally wrong.

Sexual harassment is nothing new. In 2008, a study found that just over a third of middle and high school students had been sexually harassed. The National Coalition for Women's and Girls Education put the percentage at almost 90 in 1997. And, indeed, discrimination based on gender has been an actionable offence under Title IX of the Education Amendments since 1972, and since then the courts have applied Title IX to various types of sexual harassment.

But the motivation for sexual harassment seems to be shifting. Bill Bond, a school safety expert for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, notes that attempts to exploit fellow students sexually have become less common, and that now students seem to use sexual remarks to degrade or insult someone else.

This sense, that sexual harassment nowadays is more about hostility than about sex, was validated by the study published this week as well as by the study published in 2008. Both concluded that most sexual harassment in middle and high schools in the United States is directed at girls and at children suspected of being gay or lesbian.

Where straight girls are targeted, the harassment is generally about their level of sexual activity, which is either deemed too much (they are "sluts") or too little (they are "prudes"). In the case of youth who are thought to be gay, it is the mere fact that they might even want to have sex that is "wrong."

In other words, the more frequent type of harassment suffered by children today--and the one they report as affecting them the most negatively--is expressing hostility at children who do not fit into some preconceived notion of what "normal" sexuality is. Normality in this connection apparently means that girls must display a level of sexual activity that can go unperceived (neither too much nor too little), and that everyone should be straight.

Or to be a bit more blunt about it: sexual harassment in middle and high schools today is motivated by either misogyny or homophobia. Neither has to do with sex. And neither would be helped by treating sexual harassment between children as a result of overactive hormones to be dismissed.

In fact, the solution is just the opposite: active and broad engagement about sexuality and sex roles. Because misogyny and homophobia are fuelled by ignorance and fear. And ignorance and fear can be fought with knowledge.

Unfortunately, broad knowledge-building is not generally the objective of sex education in US middle and high schools. At best, sex education deals with sexuality as a matter of biology: how do male and female bodies engage in (heterosexual and procreative) sex. At worst, the message is that all sex is bad unless you are married and want to procreate. These types of sex education do not transfer much needed tools to our children as they grapple with their evolving sexuality. Indeed, by ignoring (or vilifying) sexuality altogether, limited sex education may instead feed the fear that expresses itself as sexual harassment.

Comprehensive sex education, on the other hand, provides the broader knowledge our children need and want. At its best, comprehensives sex education engages children on their own level of comprehension in a conversation about what sexuality means, how to relate to ourselves and each other with respect, and how to make responsible and informed choices about our sexual and reproductive lives. Comprehensive sex education not only combats the fear and stereotypes that fuel sexual harassment, it also works in terms of delaying the age of sexual initiation and lowering the number of teenage pregnancies.

All children have a right to comprehensive sex education. Giving them the information they need and are entitled to has obvious benefits for their reproductive and sexual health. It is also a way to reduce the chances that they will subject their peers to sexual harassment.

(First published at