When Is Bullying Sexual Harassment?

By Barb Rickard

Cross-gender bullying-boys bullying girls and girls bullying boys-often includes sexual harassment. The incidence of this type of bullying increases as children reach adolescence, in part because boy-girl contact increases. But normal adolescent behaviors don't include sexual harassment, which can harm both the victim and the perpetrator.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, whether cross- or same-gender, includes any type of sexual behavior that is unwanted by the victim. Sexual harassment can take many forms, including the following.

  • Physical: touching any body part, caressing, kissing without consent, pinching, or excessive tickling
  • Verbal: crude name calling, sexual references, sexual rumors
  • Unwanted propositions: asking for sex (or insinuating sex) or continuing to ask for dates after being refused repeatedly
  • Printed or cyber communication: unwelcome written notes or phone calls, "sexting" (sending inappropriate material via cell phone), e-mailing sexually explicit pictures or content

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem. According to a study of more than 1,600 students in grades eight through eleven conducted by the American Association of University Women, eighty-five percent of girls and seventy-six percent of boys reported being sexually harassed in school. The harassment was both physical and verbal, and it often occurred in front of teachers. Girls experienced sexual harassment more often than boys, and girls also felt more embarrassed and less confident about themselves as a result of this form of bullying.

Sexual Harassment or Flirting?

It's not difficult to tell the difference between harmless flirting and sexual harassment. Flirting is welcome attention that makes people feel good about themselves. Flirting is lighthearted, it is normal teenage behavior, and it is most often mutual. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, comprises actions that are unwanted and make recipients feel bad about themselves or dirty.

What to Do

If your child is being sexually harassed at school, there are several actions you can take to solve the problem.

  • Contact the school. Notify the principal and your child's teacher immediately, and tell them who is sexually harassing your child, what is happening (in detail), and where the incident or incidents are taking place.
  • Call the harasser's parents. Let them know what your child has told you about the sexual harassment and ask them to talk to their child about the situation. Make sure they know that the school is aware of the bullying.
  • Do your homework. Ask for a copy of your school's sexual harassment policy. The policy should provide a definition of sexual harassment, plus information about how to report an incident and what actions the school will take.
  • Keep notes. Record every instance of sexual harassment, including who, what, when, where, and how. No detail is too insignificant. You may need this information to follow up if the harassment continues.
  • Don't give up. If you and your child have followed the procedures outlined in your school's sexual harassment policy and the problem continues, be persistent. Talk to the superintendent of schools. If you are not satisfied with the results of the conversation, contact your local police department and, if necessary, an attorney.

Barbara Rickard holds a B.S. from Michigan Technological University and is the mother of three children. She has volunteered in the public schools for more than ten years, including four as a PTA board member.