Sexual harassment in schools : prevalence, structure and perceptions

Abstract: The overall aim of this project was to empirically explore and critically analyze the social phenomenon of sexual harassment in schools, its prevalence, structure and perceptions. Data were collected from a random sample of high-school students, horn in 1983, from all regions of Sweden, in a self-report mail survey administered in the spring of 2 001. Five hundred and forty girls and 440 boys participated. The questionnaire addressed personal experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment, and also relevant aspects of the school environment. Sexual harassment was defined as inappropriate and unacceptable conduct of a sexual nature, or based on gender, that interferes with a student's right to a supportive, respectful and safe learning environment in school. This included different types of conduct, with verbal and non-verbal manifestations. The behaviors can be deemed unacceptable by the recipient, or by the school. The results show that Swedish high-school students are exposed in their schools to a variety of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors (verbal, non-verbal, assaultive, and teacher-to-student). Students are reluctant to label incidents as "sexual harassment", despite the fact that actual behaviors are perceived as environmental problems. The revealed pattern of gender differences was not unexpected. Girls generally reported greater exposure to all of the behaviors - with the exceptions of homophobic name calling, showing pornography, and rougher physical behaviors - and were much more likely to see verbal behaviors as problems. Previous typologies, constructed for workplace sexual harassment, did not fit the student data well. A nested structure, with one general factor and two specific factors (resembling hostile environment and sexual attention categories) appears to offer the best fit-to-data for female students. For male respondents, however, the structure was less clear, and the fit worse, but the presence of a general sexual harassment factor was supported. Sexual harassment is an organizational problem, in that its manifestations and perceptions are socially and culturally based. Offensive behaviors become normalized in the school environment, and too difficult to comprehend and address in a situation where little support is provided by schools themselves. The results of quantitative surveys require interpretation in the contexts of issues of gender, sexuality, and power; incorporating structural aspects - such as perpetrator/recipient gender configuration, and severity - into questionnaire design would improve the interpretability of results. Different measures are needed for boys and for girls. The power of sexuality remains asymmetrical in the public domain; being seen as sexual has different consequences for women and men. It is important to keep in mind informal structures in school, including peer groups, and how they influence views and behaviors and support certain forms of gender (re)production. Generally, greater efforts are needed to analyze and effectively counteract sexual harassment in schools. Schools need to employ more sophisticated measurements and adopt education and prevention strategies that incorporate an understanding of the complex nature of the phenomenon and perceptions of it.

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