by Esther Warkov
This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on October 18, 2016.
National gender equity organizations, legal and education experts, informed elected officials, and education journalists have identified an epidemic of sexual harassment and violence that extends to K-12 schools. The presidential campaign provides an unprecedented learning opportunity for schools, parents, and youth-serving organizations to discuss sexual harassment, students’ civil rights, and how families can create safe schools with full gender equity.
To maximize this education opportunity, “The discussion shouldn’t be politicized. There are thoughtful questions to be raised and insights to be gleaned; partisanship only gets in the way,” says Dr. Joel Levin, Director of Programs for Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org)
“I suggest teachers ask students to think about how statements objectifying women become normalized—i.e. accepted as just ‘what guys say when women aren’t around,’ or ‘locker room banter?’ How are students exposed to these messages? Ask male and female students if they’ve heard this type of talk and how they felt about it. What needs to change so that the attitudes exemplified in such remarks aren’t dismissed as just normal guy talk?”
Next, discuss sexual objectification. Teachers can ask students a simple series of questions: “How does the way we talk about women lead to sexual objectification?” “How does sexual objectification lead to sexual harassment and assault?” Then bring it home. Ask: “How are students negatively impacted by sexual harassment and assault?” “What can we do about it?” “What should our school do about it?”
Occidental College Professor and Activist Caroline Heldman provides a succinct explanation in a forthcoming free educational video Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! “When people see women only as sex objects that exist for others, then women are not regarded as full human beings; dehumanizing a group is the first step in justifying violence against that group.” Until the video is released next month, students can watch her TEDx talk The Sexy Lie to understand these issues. It’s also the perfect time to introduce students to the 2011 film Miss Representation, readily available online.
In addition, “Teachers should ask students to think about how gender stereotypes narrow full human expression in males and females. Point out that gender equality is not just a female issue; men too are victims of gender roles that limit and confine their behavior to stereotypes of masculinity. Mention that many men felt offended by generalizations that, like all men, they subscribe to attitudes objectifying women,” Dr. Levin recommends.
In this connection, teachers should ask students to react to Professor Marc Grimmett’s statement in Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School!: “Men and boys need to explore the freedom to be full human beings by moving beyond rigid gender roles and expectations of domination, control, and violence.”
SSAIS recommends that we ask students if gender stereotypes are a driving force behind discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Emphasize that everyone benefits when people are accepted for themselves and not how they measure up against gendered expectations. “This is also a great entree into a discussion of how historically women and minorities have been denied opportunities and how our society becomes enriched when everyone can contribute their ideas, talents, and abilities as equals. Ask at what age should students begin to reflect on and discuss gender stereotypes,” Dr. Levin suggests.
We can use media reports about sexual harassment to educate students about their rights. “Sexual harassment and sexual violence are civil rights issues, and as a student, you have the right to an education without sexual harassment or violence,” Professor Heldman tells students in Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! Teachers can talk about Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination (including sexual harassment) in all education programs receiving federal funds. Teachers (and parents) can also discuss how language—and even sexual gestures—are forms of sexual harassment. Teachers should direct students to their recourses when they encounter sexual harassment at school.
Sexual harassment and assault occur in K-12 schools at alarming rates, bleeding into the lives of our children, co-workers, and friends. We believe that addressing sexual harassment in the K-12 training ground is essential to providing better outcomes for K-12 students and decreasing the rate of sexual assault in colleges. Learn more about the first free comprehensive education available to families in this pre-release media report or at SSAIS.org.