New York: An increasing number of middle school students are becoming victims of verbal sexual harassment such as comments, jokes or gestures, a study has found.
In the study, the team followed 1,300 children from middle school to high school in Illinois, US, and found that nearly half — 43 per cent — of the middle school students had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment such as sexual comments, jokes or gestures during the prior year.
“Sexual harassment among adolescents is directly related to bullying, particularly homophobic bullying,” said Dorothy L. Espelage, Professor at the University of Florida in the US.
Homophobic name-calling emerges among fifth and sixth grade bullies as a means of asserting power over other students, Espelage said.
Youths who are the targets of homosexual name-calling and jokes then feel compelled to demonstrate they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.
While verbal harassment was more common than physical harassment or sexual assault, students also reported having been touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.
Some also said peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.
Students also reported being forced to kiss the perpetrators, having their private areas touched without consent and being “pantsed” — having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone else in public.
Many reported having been the target of sexual rumours and victimised with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms, the study revealed.
Furthermore, 14 per cent of students were found to negate the ‘upsetting experiences’ by writing that their peers’ behaviour was “not really sexual harassment” because the incidents were “meaningless” or intended as jokes.
The children who were dismissive of sexual harassment experiences were more likely to perpetrate homophobic name-calling, the researchers observed.
“Students failed to recognise the seriousness of these behaviours because teachers and school officials failed to address them. Prevention programmes need to address what is driving this dismissiveness,” Espelage noted in the paper published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.