Bullying and Sexual Harassment: The Link Every Parent Should Know

It begins much earlier than we think

Upset girl sitting in school yard
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Sexual harassment isn't something that only happens in the workplace. Research shows that many middle-school children are victims of verbal sexual harassment, and that this behavior is linked to bullying and has roots that begin as early as elementary school.

A five-year study published in December 2016 in the journal Children and Youth Services Review found that as many as 43 percent of students in middle school who were surveyed said they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment (including sexual comments, jokes, and gestures) in the past year.

The study, led by bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, tracked 1,300 kids in Illinois from middle school to high school to examine risk factors associated with bullying and sexual harassment. Some highlights of the study:

  • Fifth and sixth graders who bully often use homophobic language such as “gay” or “fag,” especially when they think a child isn’t showing enough stereotypical behaviors of their gender (a girl being feminine or a boy being masculine). When this happens, says Dr. Espelage, the stage is set for sexual harassment, and kids who are called these names often then turn around and sexually harass other kids to prove they are not gay.
  • As many as 25 percent of kids reported being forced to kiss someone and even being sexually assaulted, and 21 percent of students reported having been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Nearly one in five, or 18 percent, said other kids had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.
  • Students said their private areas were touched without consent and reported being “pantsed”—having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone in public.
  • About 14 percent of kids reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and 9 percent said they had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.

    What Parents Can Do to Protect Kids From Sexual Harassment and Bullying

    • Watch who they hang out with. “Monitor, supervise, and know the parents of your child’s friends,” says Dr. Espelage. Talk to your children about how to treat people and what is and is not respectful.
    • Start talking about sexual harassment early. Long before someone sexually harasses an employee or colleague at work, that person learns harmful thoughts and behavior in high school, middle school, and elementary school. “Schools are breeding grounds for harassment of women,” says Dr. Espelage. “What we see in college starts in K to twelve.”
    • Keep the conversation going. This isn’t a one-talk topic. Be sure to take each opportunity in your day-to-day lives to teach kids about respect and gender bias. When you pass an ad showing a woman in a skimpy outfit being used to sell a product, talk about how that can be a harmful message and ask your child to think about questions like why men aren’t shown that way as much or why women tend to be judged more for how they look instead of who they are. Have regular conversations about how people should be viewed based upon their talents and abilities and the strength of their character (how nice they are or if they do charitable work or volunteer and help others) instead of what they look like or what they are wearing.
    • Have kids think about their “digital tattoo.” Remind kids constantly that what they post on Facebook or Instagram or other social media sites are forever, like a digital tattoo, says Dr. Espelage. Remind your child not to post things like half-naked photos or jokes of a sexual or bullying nature. “Even good kids can get into trouble when they go along with something even if they’re uncomfortable because they want to be popular,” says Dr. Espelage. “It’s high stakes now; if kids get into trouble, its serious because it may be a crime. There’s a consequence, even for jokes.”
    • Talk to your school. If your child has been the target of bullying or sexual harassment, or has witnessed it in her school, talk to teachers and administrators. One of the most surprising findings of this research was that many kids dismissed what they experienced as not being a big deal, even when they described these incidents as upsetting. This attitude is likely in part the result of school officials failing to address sexual harassment as part of bullying prevention programs, says Dr. Espelage. This study highlights the importance of making sexual harassment prevention a part of the national conversation about bullying.
    • Don’t be afraid to be different from other parents. Chances are, many parents aren’t talking enough with their kids about things like gender bias and sexual harassment. “If your child says, ‘Other parents don’t do that,’ then you’re doing something right,” says Dr. Espelage.

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