When Middle Schoolers Say #MeToo

Sexual harassment starts well before women enter the workplace.
12/15/2017 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2017

Shortly after last year’s election at an elementary school near my home, boys apparently played “Trump tag” by grabbing at girls’ genitals. A school counselor at a Midwest middle school told me this week about “Grab Tits Tuesday.” The mother of a ninth-grade girl emailed that boys shouted “grab their asses” (and did) as girls filed out during a fire drill at their upstate New York high school; she said she has spent hours in the principal’s office advocating for her daughter, whose buttocks are grabbed frequently as she walks from science to history class.

To hear the latest headlines tell it, sexual harassment among adults is a root cause of gender inequality. In fact, it is a symptom of toxic childhood lessons about gender, sex and power. As female whistleblowers have taken down titans of industry this fall, legions of underage harassers have continued to roam playgrounds with impunity. They are learning behavior that, unfettered, could graduate into adult forms of degradation. Few write stories about them. Why not?

Sexual harassment is an epidemic in U.S. middle and high schools. In a 2014 study of 1,300 middle school students, University of Florida Professor Dorothy Espelage and colleagues found that one-quarter had experienced verbal and physical sexual harassment. Another survey by Espelage’s team found that 68 percent of high school girls were sexually harassed at least once, compared to 55 percent of boys.

It is not only acts of harassment that harm girls. It is the expectation that they not resist them.

Harvey Weinstein was once a boy. So were Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose and Louis C.K. Early on, they likely internalized lessons in what experts call toxic masculinity: the expectation that a real man, as sociologist Michael Kimmel says, should “be strong, be tough, and never show [his] feelings.” To be a real man is to be hypercompetitive, get rich at all costs and have sex with women. These messages are delivered by members of a boy’s inner circle: fathers, uncles, coaches, male friends and older siblings.

As they get older, boys develop their masculinity by punishing peers who don’t measure up, writes University of Oregon Professor C.J. Pascoe in the book Dude, You’re a Fag. To affirm their maleness, boys stigmatize sensitive peers as “gay” or a “fag,” gossip about girls’ bodies, and brag about sexual experiences.

Victims may respond to the abuse by modifying their own behavior: Espelage and her colleagues found that children taunted with homophobic slurs are more determined to prove their masculinity ― and significantly more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment in order to do it.

Harassment is one of puberty’s darkest, most unreported rites of passage. When adults do step in, it’s often to rebrand a snapped bra or yanked bathing suit as flirtation, a thing a girl might even be encouraged to feel grateful for (“He’s doing that because he likes you!”). As the lines blur between play and aggression, and desire and coercion, perpetrators progress in learning how to carry out harassment ― and victims learn to be silent.

To be sexually harassed as a girl is to learn a lesson as old as time, one that is unlikely to be displaced by well-intentioned girl-power computer science classes and soccer drills: A girl’s most important source of value is her body and how others look at it. Known as self-objectification, the trait shows up in girls as young as 11, and is linked to depression, poor academic performance, social problems and eating disorders.

Indeed, it is not only acts of harassment that harm girls. It is the expectation that they not resist them.

Girls learn a script of silence that many take with them well into adulthood. If women fear that speaking up may cost them their job, girls know resistance will cost them their social status. Let your voice rise above a coquettish scolding, and you quickly become known as the bitch who can’t take a joke. To preserve your social life, resistance must be as skimpy as your outfit. Squeal, roll your eyes, then forget about it. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys. And this passive performance is what it means to be a girl.

Harassment has not abated as girls have become more powerful. If anything, as young women outlearn and outearn men, the opposite is occurring. As social roles change ― and perhaps because they’re changing ― other unwritten rules, like who should really be in charge in a relationship, calcify. Research finds that the more females outperform males in school and outnumber them in college, the more many appear to be to subjected to certain forms of gender-based degradation. It is no coincidence that classrooms, the place where girls outpace boys, are the second most popular place for them to be sexually harassed.

If young people don’t take harassment seriously, it stands to reason that they may be less likely to report it as victims or bystanders, and more likely to perpetrate it.

Social media now sends harassment onto the screens of a disproportionate number of young women, according to Pew: One-quarter of those aged 18 to 24 report having been harassed online, an experience that can happen at any time of the day or night.

At one high school in Philadelphia, a school counselor told me, a 14-year-old girl pulled out her phone in class to find a Snapchat from a peer asking if she wanted to measure the size of his penis. A therapist in Toronto shared that, during class, a male student texted her 14-year-old patient to ask her to perform oral sex on him in the bathroom. Clinicians tell me these incidents are commonplace, not rare.

In the 1990s, a wave of anxiety about girls’ body image led to widespread media literacy education of girls. Our next frontier must be intimacy literacy, this time for girls and boys. The need is significant. In one of Espelage’s studies, 14 percent of students downplayed their victimization as “meaningless” or as mere jokes; the most dismissive students were more likely to perpetrate homophobic bullying. If young people don’t take harassment seriously, it stands to reason that they may be less likely to report it as victims or bystanders, and more likely to perpetrate it.

A few weeks ago, a Girl Scouts message advising parents not to force girls to hug relatives at Thanksgiving went viral. To tell “your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift,” the post read, “can set the stage for her questioning whether she ‘owes’ another person any type of physical affection when they have bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.”

Advice like this can raise parents’ awareness of how girls are pressured to please others at the expense of their own boundaries and comfort. It is an important first step. As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1855, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

If we want to end a culture rampant with harassment, we must listen to the adult women who are speaking out courageously. We must also make room for girls to speak: If we listened, we’d find that many middle schoolers are trying to tell us “me too.”  

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