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Op-Ed: Changing the Culture of Sexual Harassment, Starting in Middle School

Students in health class need to learn about more than drugs, good habits, and sexual behaviors, they need to learn how to treat one another

Karan Chauhan

In the past two months, our country has been shocked by numerous high-profile cases of sexual harassment and assault in Congress, the entertainment industry, the press, and other workplaces. As these stories have come to light, I, a student, was initially unable to understand exactly why this happens. Why do (predominantly) men in positions of power impose their dominance over their subordinates? Why do they think it is acceptable for them to do this? Where does all of this behavior start? What is the root cause of this behavior?

For me, it has been difficult to contextualize all this information in the frame of the workplace because I have never been exposed to workplace culture or the relationships that exist among workplace leaders and their subordinates. Yet, as I look around me in my school and other activities, I can understand how this behavior manifests itself in our society. Sexual harassment is not sufficiently addressed and instead, it is normalized from a young age. We simply are not having enough conversations about sexual harassment in our schools. Aside from the occasional PowerPoint slide on quid pro quo, consent, and assault in health class, students are unaware of how to properly conduct themselves and instead take cues from their peers, adults, and the entertainment and media around them, leading to the proliferation of a culture where sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent.

Starting in middle school

Students begin being exposed to this culture when they enter middle school. With middle school comes the confusion of changing expectations and relationships. In health classes, students are taught about drugs, healthy habits, and sexual behaviors, but not extensively about how to treat one another.

The same gap in education continues into high school. As relationships among students change and they interact with each other in new ways, this lack of an understanding of boundaries when it comes to sexual harassment leads to a silent acceptance of lewd behavior. Studies conducted by the American Association of University Women Foundation found that many students, both male and female (although females experience harassment at a higher rate), have experienced harassment in the forms of unwanted touching, offensive comments, being flashed, or having sexual rumors spread about them. These older studies don’t take into account new forms of harassment that take place online through Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media forums, as well as significant sexual harassment and bullying that many students in the LGBTQ community face on a regular basis.

Influenced by culture

Students are influenced by the culture that they are exposed to. Oftentimes, students come from households that lack stability where parents or siblings may not be respectful to each other; they are constantly exposed to the objectification of women in pop culture; and they think certain inappropriate behaviors over Snapchat and text are acceptable because “everyone else does it.” Boundaries and conduct are not clearly discussed in the household or school, so many students pick up unacceptable behaviors.

On the other hand, victims of sexual harassment in schools aren’t sure what sexual harassment is. Many students know that they are upset, but they don’t know how to address the problem because they think the behavior is normal. For example, “flirtatious” behavior that may make someone uncomfortable very rarely has any consequences because we dismiss it as common and do not confront it as harassment, sometimes even going as far as blaming the victim for their situation. This added problem leads to victims’ hopelessness and is the reason why many victims are unable to speak out about their experiences.

The root of the sexual harassment problem and the solution to it are both in our schools. To change the culture, we need to change the way we speak and educate kids about sexual harassment and general healthy conduct and relationships as they mature and develop their habits of interaction with others. Not only should this be discussed and reflected upon openly within families, but our schools have the responsibility to educate children on this issue as well. This would not only entail a more comprehensive curriculum for health classes, but could be achieved with additional available seminars for high school and middle school students such as those addressing dating abuse.

Raising awareness, however, is not adequate, and more effective support systems for victims of harassment and abuse need to be established. Since many victims may be reluctant to discuss their experiences, teachers should be better equipped to recognize sexual harassment even when it’s not reported to authorities and to take the necessary action to put an end to the uncomfortable or abusive situation. Peer support is often just as effective, if not more effective, than intervention from higher powers, and if students are taught how to deal with these situations by providing support for their friends and checking predatory behavior and “locker room” talk within their own groups, the problem would become less severe.

Not only is it necessary to ensure that students feel safe and comfortable in the school environment, but every student needs to be educated on acceptable and unacceptable behavior so that this serious problem doesn’t continue into our future generations.

Karan Chauhan, a senior at Parsippany Hills High School, serves as the State Student Council's State Board of Education's nonvoting student representative.

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