As each day brings with it yet another headline-grabbing revelation about a high-profile male boss, politician or celebrity behaving “inappropriately” toward an adult female, more men are beginning – we hope! – to finally recognize the pervasiveness of men’s harassment and violence against women.
Each of these revelations brings with it important conversations about altering workplace norms and establishing more effective reporting mechanisms. Although we welcome these conversations throughout the wider culture, as educators and parents of school-age boys, we urge teachers and schools to answer more prominently this clarion call of the #MeToo movement.
Unlike what is happening in the adult world, educators continue to downplay the overall pervasiveness of sexual harassment in school hallways, locker rooms and classrooms. This despite a study done by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that found that 56 percent of surveyed middle and high school girls reported being sexually harassed by a peer in the previous school year.
Yet victimization reporting from school districts across the nation suggests that most districts report zero allegations of sexual harassment or gender-based harassment. This discrepancy makes clear that girls are not comfortable reporting their experiences, and reinforces the idea that boys can behave in predatory and harmful behaviors with little or no risk of consequences. It’s no secret that a code of silence exists among boys in which their identity, worth, and status is largely tied to their willingness to keep silent about the actions of their male peers. Schools must work to address this code of silence by engaging in critical conversations with boys about how their actions and their silence compromises the safety of their female classmates.
As parents, there is much that we can do to initiate substantive conversations with our boys about the meaning of consent, about personal boundaries and about establishing relationships based on shared power and dignity. Teaching boys about ways to talk about their bodies, boundaries, places where you don’t want other people to touch and when to speak up are of course all important steps to help boys protect themselves, but these talks must also involve the treatment and interactions with others, especially girls. Although there is much that parents can do, given the number of girls report being harassed or assaulted while at school, and then later in their lives, there is clearly a place for teachers to more explicitly meet the demands of this important historical moment.
Almost all school districts around the country currently have in place “anti-bullying” policies. However, absent from these pre-packaged curricula is content related to gender-based sexual harassment. Anti-bullying curricula tend to present vague references to or examples of children “being mean” to each other, but not the multiple ways bullying and harassment intersect. According to the authors of the AAUW report, sexual harassment tends to start in early adolescence with demeaning and harassing comments “focused on sex and gender.”
When speaking with young boys about sexual harassment and assault, it’s important for adults to use direct, age-appropriate language that does not obscure sex or involve the use of “cute” euphemisms for anatomy. The key to engaging boys in conversations about gender based violence, harassment, and discrimination is being specific in terms of concepts and vocabulary. Talk with boys about sexism linked to a structure of patriarchy, about the ways patriarchy perpetuates not only male privilege but all forms of men’s violence against women.
Teachers often frame this conversation as “bullying” due to a discomfort around “sex,” but it’s crucial for teachers to be as specific as possible with both language and everyday examples. It’s not enough for teachers to provide boys with a list of actions that are “right” or “wrong,” the focus should be on empowering boys to not only come forward to adults, but to intervene as bystanders when they see or hear something that approximates sexual harassment.
The #MeToo movement has empowered many to speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault in hopes of changing a culture that can be hostile and dangerous towards women and girls. In response to the opportunities that this movement has generated, Texas educators must work to engage boys and young men in critical conversations that foster a culture of respect, shared power, and equity.
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