A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that 58 percent of students in seventh through 12th grades have experienced some form of sexual harassment. When I mentioned this statistic to my freshman college students, they responded with a nonchalant, “Oh yeah, it happens all the time in high school.”
Recently, news broke that Harvard University’s men’s soccer team created a “scouting report,” rating physical attributes of members of the incoming freshman women’s soccer team. Now the Harvard men’s cross country team is being investigated for something similar.
But such conduct sometimes starts much earlier. A mother called me recently after finding out that the boys in her daughter’s 7th grade class had been posting inappropriate comments on Snapchat about the girls and rating their “hotness.”
It’s a cruel twist of fate that just as teens are dealing with the perils of puberty — growth spurts, breast development, acne, changing body shape, and self-consciousness — their appearance brings so much unwanted attention. For every girl who gets labeled a “10” by the boys, others are publicly deemed a “2.” Meanwhile, they are all being objectified.
One of the major tasks of adolescence is to develop an identity. An important question teens must ask themselves in this process is: What do I value about myself, and how will I use this understanding to move forward as an adult? Embarrassment, humiliation, and low self-esteem — all byproducts of sexual harassment — can have long-lasting effects on feelings of competence and confidence that can last a lifetime.
Here is what you can do:
1. Read news stories about the Harvard soccer and cross-country teams out loud with your teenage sons and daughters as a catalyst for discussion. And then read the response — the letter to the Harvard Crimson sent by the six women of the 2012 women’s soccer recruiting class.
Just lecturing to your kids that evaluating women on their appearance or sexual worthiness is dehumanizing and disrespectful will fall mostly on deaf ears. Hearing the words of the young women athletes, who were the targets of these comments, will have a much greater impact.
In addition, use this powerful statement of a high school girl from Ontario, Canada, after it was discovered that boys took screen shot photos from social media pages of girls at her high school, rated whether they were sexually appealing, and then posted the ratings on social media: “I just felt like I want to take the top layer of my skin off, I feel disgusting and dirty.”
2. Let your daughters know that you understand that laughing off comments from boys about their bodies may feel like their only option, or maybe it even feels good to be thought of as “sexy.” But allowing boys to judge or assess girls’ worth based on looks encourages boys to feel that they have more power than girls, and leaves girls feeling diminished and disenfranchised. Encourage your daughter and her friends to work together to discourage boys from objectifying them or thinking such behavior is “no big deal.” There is safety in numbers.
3. Brainstorm comebacks that give your daughter and her friends ways to gain back their power:
• Hey dude, do you know that’s sexist?
• How would you like someone to say these things about your mother/sister?
• What are you, a 10-year-old?
• Thanks for sharing!
• Don’t you have better things to do with your time?
• sendthisinstead.com is a website with an app that can be downloaded on your daughter’s phone. It provides texts to send to boys who send sexually harassing text messages or snapchats. They are funny, but to the point.
4. Parents, it is up to you to teach your sons to understand that this isn’t a “boys being boys” thing or, ahem, “locker-room talk.” You need to counter their perception that girls think it’s funny or OK to be evaluated and rated. Help them to understand that the laughter that girls respond with is not from having fun and liking it, but out of discomfort and embarrassment.
Teach your boys that sitting around with their friends and talking about which girls are hot is very different than harassment in-person, online, and in print. Teach them that there are serious consequences for this kind of sexual harassment. (The Harvard men’s soccer team had the rest of its season canceled.) There can be potential legal consequences, and most importantly, there can be long-term emotional damage and harm caused to the girls who have been targeted. Your sons are just as self-conscious as your daughters about their bodies. Help them see how they would feel if they were the ones being so crudely, and cruelly, judged.
Joani Geltman, MSW, is a child development and parenting expert. She can be reached at Joani@joanigeltman.com