Why are Middle Schoolers Sexually Harassing Each Other Even Before Learning About Sex?

By July 6, 2020No Comments
Portions of this article were originally reported in an online piece from Seventeen Magazine, written by Charlotte Hilton Andersen. 4-minute read.

“Take it as a compliment that you got to be in the spank bank.”

That, and even worse comments, are what one middle schooler Anna heard on a regular basis from the boy who sat behind her in class. And the saddest part is, this type of treatment, known as sexual harassment, isn’t an isolated issue. It seems to be the norm for 12 and 13-year-olds.

Don’t believe us? Let’s get the facts.

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What is sexual harassment?

Let’s start with a definition: sexual harassment is any unwanted touching or talking of a sexual nature, and it can happen in-person, on social media, or through private messages likes texts and DMs. While teasing and less serious isolated incidents aren’t necessarily unacceptable, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile environment.

Related: Porn Is Fueling Countless Sexual Harassment Cases In Schools—Here’s Why

When Anna would ask the boy to leave her alone or stop pretending like he was touching himself behind her, he’d make fun of her for not being able to “take a joke.” And, while she struggled to express to others what was happening between this boy and her, she knew that his behavior made her feel small and invisible, and she felt helpless to stop it.

It’s no doubt that Anna was facing harassment as a preteen, and she’s not alone.


Middle school harassment

Here’s a concerning stat: about 27% of middle school girls said they’d been physically or verbally sexually harassed in a study done by the American Educational Research Association.

But this number might be low. According to Jennie Berglund, a middle-school health and sex-ed teacher and founder of Young Women’s Leadership Forum—a group dedicated to helping middle school girls overcome harassment to achieve their goals—girls oftentimes may not even know they’re being harassed.

Related: You’re Not Imagining It, Sexual Harassment On Public Transportation Is Getting Worse

Part of what could be making that stat low is the fact that victims find themselves grappling with harassment and assault issues before they’ve taken a sex ed class. In many cases, students may never have the option to take such a class.

However, more likely is that harassment is frequently packaged as a “joke.” This means that abusers can straddle the fence of what is acceptable and not acceptable. Some abusers may even take the “joke” narrative a step further by making their victims think the victims are crazy for feeling upset.

It’s no wonder that close to two-thirds of sex crimes never get reported, according to Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).



Sadly, but unsurprisingly, harassment continues far beyond middle school.

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High school harassment

While in middle school “only” 27% of girls say they’ve been victims of sexual harassment, that number jumps to roughly 60% in high school, according to a study done by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). And, while most of the girls said that they’d been harassed by other students, 30% admitted to having been harassed by a school employee or a teacher.

Related: Culture Of Abuse And Harassment Exposed Within Victoria’s Secret, 100+ Models Demand Change

The number of teens having experienced at least one form of harassment via technology—think text messages or Snapchat—is also shocking. According to a study done by the University of Chicago, that figure includes nearly 40% of teens. Note that number doesn’t even account for unrequested “dick pics,” requests for sexual favors or nude photos, or comments about body parts, which are so common, victims may not even feel like they’re worth reporting.

Even though study after study has pointed to commonplace harassment for the majority of 7th to 12th-grade girls, a recent AAUW report exhibited that 80% of schools reported exactly zero harassment.

So, where’s the disconnect then?

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Well, it could either be that middle school and high school girls aren’t reporting or are underreporting their harassment or it could be that the schools are failing at protecting their students. More likely, it’s both.

Berglund says she’s seen girls wear baggier clothing to hide their bodies, put in headphones just to walk from one class to the next to block out comments, and even avoid drinking fountains for fear of bending over and getting groped.

Related: How Porn Can Fuel Sexual Violence By Lessening Empathy In Consumers

The AAUW’s study also reported that harassment has led some girls to have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, avoid class or a study group, think about changing schools, actually change schools, avoid certain rooms like the library, or change their schedule.

How to change this cycle

When it comes to fighting sexual harassment, the responsibility starts with the schools.

“Schools should conduct periodic sexual harassment awareness training for all school staff, including administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors, and age-appropriate sexual harassment training for students,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. “Regardless of whether the victim files a formal complaint or requests action, the school must conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation to determine what happened and must take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.”

Related: What Porn And Shame Have To Do With Child-On-Child Sexual Assault

While the victim should never be charged with stopping their own harassment, reporting the harassing behavior, according to Berglund, is imperative to ending this demeaning cycle.

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Why this matters

We’re an anti-porn nonprofit, so why are we talking about sexual harassment?

It’s pretty simple actually: the two are inextricably connected.

Related: “Send Nudes”: Sexting Is The New Normal For Students Everywhere, Research Finds

The place it all starts is with the implicit dehumanizing lessons boys and girls learn at young ages. Consider that the majority of teens are getting at least some of their sex ed from porn, whether they mean to or not. [1] Porn’s ability, as an unrealistic, hypersexualized form of media, to dress up sexual harassment as flirting or harmless joking is concerning.

The other messages teens are learning so effectively from porn are also problematic. A recent study of adolescent porn use concluded that the major messages presented by porn are male domination, hypermasculinity, and making male sexual pleasure the top priority. [2] See how it can be easy for a teen boy to live in an echochamber where it isn’t a big deal for him to demean the girl in front of him in class?’

Related: Sexting Linked To Increased Porn Consumption, Relationship Insecurity, And Cheating

But we’re here to raise the alarm and educate how porn is connected to massive issues in our society, including sexual harassment.

And that’s just one of the many reasons we refuse to click. Will you join us?


[1]  Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). “Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now”: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of Sex Research, 52(7), 736-746. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908; Paul, P. (2010). From Pornography to Porno to Porn: How Porn Became the Norm. In J. Stoner & D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 3–20). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon Institute; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 16-17; Prigg, M., & Sims, P. (2004). Truth About Dangers of Net as Half of Children Are Exposed to Porn. The Evening Standard (London), September 3; U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2003). File-Sharing Programs: Peer-to-Peer Networks Provide Ready Access to Child Pornography. Washington, D.C.: GAO, February.
[2] Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). “Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now”: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of Sex Research, 52(7), 736-746. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908
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