Recently, I was working and talking with a group of sixth grade students on the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. After calming their fears that this would not be a scary conversation, we began brainstorming examples of harassment. Their list contained things like teasing, name calling, social exclusion, punching, poking and threatening.
After thinking up examples, the students needed a definition of sexual harassment: “Being made fun of, called names or otherwise harmed or excluded because of your gender — or how people think you do or don’t fit into your gender.”
“Well, how about this,” I said. “Being told you throw like a girl or being told to ‘man up.’ Or being told you can’t do something just because you are a girl, and girls just don’t do that. Those are examples of gender-based harassment.”
Light bulb moments happened all around the classroom. We discussed a variety of reasons why these things infuriated the students, but the following are two main arguments as why gender harassment is damaging in schools.
Argument #1: Stereotypes are often illogical.
This argument was raised in response to the “throw like a girl” comment. The students in this class said that type of put down was silly because some of the best pitchers in their school happened to be girls. All genders in this class said being a girl didn’t mean you couldn’t play sports as well as anybody else. They pointed out that the idea seemed to be a myth somebody started a long time ago to keep girls from playing ball.
One boy in the class said, “It’s just so silly!”
“And kinda useless!” chimed in another.
“But what if you are just joking around? You know like with your friends? Would that be harassment?” a third boy in the class asked.
This is an important point. “How do you know if somebody is really joking? And how do you know if somebody is really enjoying the joke?” I asked.
That third boy answered, “This seems like it should be easy, but it’s not. It’s really complicated. And I could be hurting somebody when I just want to include them in the fun. This is tricky.”
Argument #2: It actually feels good to stop harassment.
I push the concept of proactive bystander intervention, but it’s sometimes met with resistance by kids. Speaking up to bullies will make them the target, will make them involved and could get them in trouble. The excuses are numerous, but often it comes down to mustering up enough courage and not necessarily knowing what to do — just that you’ll do something. In peer leadership courses, we talk a lot about both of these.
A student who was especially skeptical of bystander intervention in gender-based harassment was caught in a quandary. He was at the playground, and some other boys were teasing and bullying a girl. Without a thought, the student walked up to the boys and told them to stop. He stayed until the boys left, and the girl walked back to her house. The girl told me what he did. He said nothing about it until I asked him. He said he was really scared to tell the boys to stop, but the girl was alone. The things the boys said weren’t OK.
He said, “I would have kept feeling bad and scared if I didn’t do anything. So I just told them to stop, and it worked.”
The boy in this example initially thought the idea of intervening when somebody was teased for their gender was something that wasn’t his business and something he wouldn’t do.
He said, “I thought that if a girl or a weaker boy was being teased, that is their own thing. I thought that if I got involved then maybe that would look bad for me. But when I saw the boys saying things to the girl sitting there all by herself, I thought that that was not fair, and it wasn’t really safe for her. She looked scared. People shouldn’t have to feel scared for just being who they are.”
Our Maine students are standing up to bullies and gender-based harassment, and we should follow their example. We — and they — are working toward a stronger, safer Maine community for all students.
Bridget McAlonan works in Androscoggin County at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services as an education coordinator. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.