Donald Trump’s “locker room” comments reported on the news the past few weeks reminds me of another issue that affects teenage girls every day: being groped in the hallways of school. Early adolescents who go to mixers experience guys grinding on them on the dance floor, hidden by the large crowd of dancers. Sexual harassment is so common that many girls I have talked to have become numb to it.
Annie: “It happens all the time; guys will squeeze your butt or ‘accidently’ rub up against your chest or kind of grind on you. I’ve told them to stop a million times, but it doesn’t do any good. So I usually just keep walking and try to ignore them.”
Annie’s statement is the most disturbing aspect of this problem for me; it’s so commonplace that it’s become the norm, with girls feeling helpless to stop it. Girls tell me it starts in middle school and persists through high school. They also feel pressured to send partially or fully nude photos of themselves, with around 28% of high school students and 33% of college students giving into it through text or email. Boys are also much more likely to send sexually explicit written messages than girls; a kind of ‘technologic groping’. While it’s true that boys can be harassed by girls and girls by other girls, in this blog I’m focusing on the more common boy-girl kind.
In some ways, data like this needs to be framed in the context of current cultural trends. Girls have been brought up in a hyper-sexualized culture. In a 2015 survey of 18-82 year olds, 88% reported they had sent a sext, most within the past year. 75% of college seniors have experienced hookups, with the median number between four and seven. Research has also shown that male peer groups encourage sexual exploits. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior; it just puts it into context.
Every generation has it’s own stories about teenage sexuality. I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s amidst the sexual revolution and the proverbial ‘summer of love’ where the sexual energy was high. I remember cool guys making out with their girlfriends in the middle school hallway, but don’t recall seeing girls being groped like they experience today.
So we have our work cut out for us if we’re going to eliminate this phenomenon. Girls need the skills and opportunities to practice setting clear, firm boundaries. I find too many girls who say, “Stop it” to guys in voices that are weak and uncertain, which boys tend to interpret as “Maybe it’s okay.” It sounds like a “yes-no” directive. We need to help girls bolster their self-esteem because girls with a high level of deservability don’t put up with crap from boys.
We also need to revamp the ‘guy culture’ that promotes disrespecting girls. Boys would benefit from hearing how their behavior affects girls and themselves. They need to learn non-physical ways to experience closeness, and to spend more time hanging out with females so that they learn how to relate with them appropriately. Teenage boys also need to learn that even a ‘wimpy’ no or stop it from a girl means NO!, with no excuses.
Schools need to take this problem seriously. There is still an attitude out there that ‘boys will be boys’ and that it’s the girl’s fault that boys misbehave because they’re wearing ‘provocative’ clothes. We need to create spaces where teens can have open discussions with each other, allowing all of the feelings and behaviors to come to the surface so they can be dealt with. Boundaries need to be set by girls, guys, and the school, and there should be regular follow up to make sure everyone is accountable. Guys who violate girl’s boundaries should experience immediate, severe consequences so that girls feel safe and everyone gets the message that the school is taking this issue seriously.
Everyone has a part in this problem: girls, guys, and schools. Do your part to raise awareness, provide education, and offer a forum for continuous discussions about this issue.
Listen to my new podcasts entitled Raising Daughters by clicking the link below; I will address topics on understanding and supporting girls, including this weeks topic of “The Hookup Culture in College”.