Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets

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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

Read more about Chloe

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  • http://feministing.com/members/madeleinebc/ Madeleine

    The amount of sexual harassment I suffered in high school is, in hindsight, truly staggering. I wish I’d been the loud, assertive feminist I am now.
    As a very petite woman with a large chest, I started getting an unwelcome amount of male attention around the age of 12. In high school, boys would throw wads of paper or other small items at me in attempts to land them between my breasts or down my shirt. This happened for YEARS. It happened during lectures, during tests, while I was speaking or taking notes or using a microscope or writing an essay. Boys I barely knew would comment aloud how easy it was to see down my shirt because I was so short or speculate loudly amongst themselves what I would be like in bed. I had my chest grazed, bumped, and grabbed “by accident” more times than I can count.
    A pair of boys in particular harassed me pretty heavily during my junior and senior years of high school. One of them went on to attempt to rape me shortly after graduation, in front of several mutual friends. My girl friends told me not to be such a prude. After all, we’d been “flirting” for months.
    I think, for me, there was a lot of additional confusion because at that time I was deeply closeted and ashamed of/confused about what it meant to be a lesbian. I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t seem to want or enjoy this male attention like my peers did. I feared that speaking up about the harassment would cause me to be outed and ostracized.
    I know teachers witnessed this behavior. Perhaps because of the overall taboo on mentioning sex or sexual behavior, none of them said anything. I’m sure what happened to me is not rare. Many of these high school harassers WILL escalate in their behavior. Sexual harassment is schools needs to be addressed and disciplined appropriately. This “boys will be boys” attitude serves no one.

  • http://feministing.com/members/emilyl/ Emily

    Unfortunately, I think what NPR has recently reported of colleges and universities is also true at middle and high schools: teachers and administrators are often more interested in finding “teachable moments” than protecting victims of harassment and assault. When I was in 8th grade, I reported, with three other girls, a boy who was making sexual comments to us and grabbing our asses and breasts in the lunch line. He received no punishment. When we complained, we were told that he cried (so did I!) and hadn’t understood before that this behavior was threatening and inappropriate. I was too embarrassed to complain to my parents, who might have gotten a better response from the administration.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tashabunny/ natasha

    This was definitely a problem for me in high school, especially with a particular group of boys. One of the boys would yell sexual comments about me or my body all through the class we had together and the teacher did absolutely nothing. It was awful, I could never get any work done in that class, and I was always scared of these boys in class. They very much used intimidation against me, and it happened so often that I would get physically sick before going to that class because of the dread I felt. No one seemed to think it was a big deal, but it was just killing me inside day after day.

    • http://feministing.com/members/radicaldreamer/ Lauren

      The problem isn’t that sexual harassment is “Normal” in school, it’s that normal behavior is being called sexual harassment. Society puts the onus on guys to approach and flirt. I don’t think it’s fair to vilify them for doing what comes natural to them.

      and since there are people who want to expand the term “sexual harassment” from anywhere between “unwanted dialogue” to “groping” I don’t think the students know what sexual harassment really is.

  • http://feministing.com/members/radicaldreamer/ Lauren

    Sorry, I meant to put that as a separate comment, not as a reply.
    But actually, there’s more I wanted to add.

    There seem to be a growing problem with lesbians committing sexual harassment.
    like the other day, me and some girlfriends went to a bar for a birthday party, and out of nowhere, this girl walks up and grabs my breasts from behind. I was kind of just…frozen…I mean…I didn’t know what to do or say. I’m definitely not into girls so I told her and she stopped, but that’s sexual harassment. My friends were like it’s happened to them too, where a girl would just come up and kiss them or grab their ass. What makes these girls think that it’s acceptable to do this?