If you don’t know about Girls for Gender Equity, you should. GGE is a grassroots organization in New York that aims to help girls develop into psychologically, emotionally and physically strong women. Hey, Shorty! is the story of how ending sexual harassment in New York City high schools became part of of GGE’s mission, and it’s also a model for how to involve students in changing the culture at the schools they go to and on the streets they walk.
As an example of how grassroots activism actually gets done, this book is highly useful. How do you recruit community members to work on a project? How do you get past bureaucratic obstacles, or deal with changing political tides that make funding scarce or that, for example, eliminate sexual harassment from public school disciplinary guidelines?
And in one sense, the story of how GGE did all those things is really inspiring. For instance, reading the testimonies of the high school girls who have been working on the sexual harassment project, one gets the feeling that working with GGE – as advisers and peer leaders and workshop teachers – has been empowering for them. And not empowering in the way that advertisers use the word when they’re trying to get you to buy stuff, but genuinely empowering, in that it has imbued these girls with a sense of power, and the knowledge that if they want to change their world, they can.
On the other hand, some of the findings in GGE’s survey of New York City public school students are just incredibly depressing. GGE surveyed almost 2, 000 NYC middle and high school students from over 90 different schools to find what sexual harassment looks like in schools, and to determine how best to combat it.
One of the most fascinating, and depressing, findings, was that when they were asked if they thought sexual harassment was a problem in their schools, a lot of kids said it was not. But when they were asked if sexual harassment happened in their schools, the vast majority of kids said that yes, it did. How to reconcile these two findings? Well, the unhappy reality is that for these kids, sexual harassment at school is so “normal” that they don’t conceive of it as a “problem.” It’s just something that happens. In fact, it happens so often that some kids seem unable to imagine what school would look like without it. “Sexual teasing, ogling, and touching is ubiquitous enough that they think these types of behaviors are a normal part of everyday school experience,” GGE reports.
How ubiquitous? Here are some stats. Of the students surveyed:
71% reported hearing sexual teasing, jokes, or remarks at school
63% reported witnessing touching, pinching, or brushing against someone sexually and on purpose
60% seeing sexually suggestive looks, gestures, or body language
46% reported hearing whistles, calls, hoots, or yells of a sexual nature
39% reported leaning over or cornering a person
31% experienced or witnessed pressure for sex or sexual activity
10% experienced or witnessed forced sexual activity
And what percentage of those people had reported harassment when they had witnessed or experienced it? Three percent.
If the vast majority of students are witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment, why isn’t it being reported to school administrators? Well, for one thing, if you don’t recognize something as a problem, you’re not going to report it. Secondly, there’s enormous cultural pressure to laugh it off or to ignore it. Finally, few students are even aware that there are anti-sexual harassment policies in place in their schools. “Fifty-seven percent of respondents said sexual harassment is “rarely” or “never” discussed in school.” And even if students recognize that something is wrong and want to report it, “they are unaware of how to go about reporting incidents of sexual harassment, or that reporting is even an option.”
And how is sexual harassment affecting these kids, apart from warping their perceptions of what “normal” looks like? It’s making them depressed and sad and it’s interfering with their learning. The authors of the report write that “many participants said they felt sad and depressed after being sexually harassed. One participant told us, ‘I couldn’t concentrate and kept crying for no reason.’ Another said, ‘My grades dropped and I was always depressed.’”
Almost every one of us has experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at some point in our lives. We’re lucky if that harassment doesn’t interfere with our education, but as this book makes painfully clear, sexual harassment in schools is a problem. It’s a widespread problem with no easy solution, and if it’s a problem in New York City, chances are it’s a problem in cities and towns around the country. Hey Shorty, while it’s New York-specific, is a richly informative guide for those of you out there who want to take the first step toward ensuring that young people in your community can combat sexual harassment and violence – so that they learn and thrive in school.
Hey Shorty! will be released tomorrow. You can get your copy here.