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Porn Can Perpetuate Sexual Harassment Cases in Schools—Here’s How

Mass underage exposure to porn fuels already-existing issues of sexual harassment. Are schools equipped to prevent and discourage the tidal wave of peer-to-peer unwanted sexual attention?

Cover photo by Scott Webb. 4 minute read.

Hypersexualized media has saturated our society—but with huge, rippling consequences.

While porn is often called “adult material,” many of its consumers are well under the legal age.Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and pornography: A review of 20 years of research.53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY  Studies show that most young people are exposed to porn by age 13,British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  and according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens, 84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography.Wright, P. J., Paul, B., & Herbenick, D. (2021). Preliminary insights from a U.S. probability sample on adolescents’ pornography exposure, media psychology, and sexual aggression. J.Health Commun., 1-8. doi:10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980COPY 

That means that most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn, whether they mean to or not. In fact, one study shows that approximately 45% of teens who consumed porn did so in part to learn about sex.British Board of Film Classification. (2020). Young people, pornography & age-verification. BBFC. Retrieved from https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-classification/researchCOPY  Similarly, survey results also show one in four 18 to 24-year-olds (24.5%) listed pornography as the most helpful source to learn how to have sex.Rothman, E. F., Beckmeyer, J. J., Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2021). The Prevalence of Using Pornography for Information About How to Have Sex: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of U.S. Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 50(2), 629–646. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01877-7COPY 

Related: Teen Girls And Boys Both Take And Send Nude Pics, But For Different Reasons

In fact, 44% of boys who watched porn reported that online pornography gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.Martellozzo, E., Monaghan, A., Adler, J. R., Davidson, J., Leyva, R., & Horvath, M. A. H. (2016). 'I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it'. London: NSPCC. Retrieved from https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/research-resources/2016/i-wasn-t-sure-it-was-normal-to-watch-itCOPY 

We’ve seen it affect virtually every corner of our culture, and to such extremes as prepubescent labiaplasty procedures and the global issue of sex trafficking.

But in addition to these horrifying issues, there’s another issue taking center stage as a result of our porn-obsessed society: sexual harassment and bullying, especially in schools.

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Here’s what’s going on.

There have been reports of school-aged children as young as five years old exhibiting unprecedented sexual behaviors at school and in classrooms.Smith, A. (2017, August 6). Teachers need more training to deal with problematic sexual behaviour. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/education/teachers-need-more-training-to-deal-with-problematic-sexual-behaviour-20170803-gxov5h.htmlCOPY  Note that bullying/cyberbullying (to include varying degrees of sexual harassment) are largely recognized as a national public health concern in the US.Keck School of Medicine of USC. (n.d.). How Bullying is a Public Health Issue. Retrieved from https://mphdegree.usc.edu/resources/articles/how-bullying-is-a-public-health-issue/COPY 

Related: Parents: If You Don’t Teach Your Kids About Sex, Porn Will

And here’s where it gets a bit worse: bullied students are 24 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than their non-bullied counterparts,Suicide Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/suicide-statistics.htmlCOPY  and studies have found school to be the most common location of peer sexual victimization.Young, A. M., Grey, M., & Boyd, C. J. (2009). Adolescents’ experiences of sexual assault by peers: Prevalence and nature of victimization occurring within and outside of school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(8), 1072-1083.COPY 

One study concluded that at least 1 in 4 students experience unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment on school grounds.Bidwell, A. (2014, April 6). Study: Sexual Harassment Frequent Among Middle School Students. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/06/study-sexual-harassment-frequent-among-middle-school-studentsCOPY 

Clearly, this is an issue that needs addressing.

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For good reason, the question is circulating: are schools equipped to prevent, correct and discourage peer-to-peer unwanted sexual attention?

Related: For Parents: Your Child Just Told You They Struggle With Porn. Now What?

The answer, for the most part, is a resounding no—not yet, anyway. This is due, in part, to a lack of training to recognize sexual harassment and intervene, but also unclear administrative disciplinary protocol. Without these important steps, the “sexual bullying” arena is a huge grey area and difficult for teachers to control.

Here’s why.

1. Sexual bullying takes many forms.

The days of “innocent bullying” (if that was ever a thing) are dead, and in their place, a spectrum of sexual harassments, included but are not limited to: jokes, gestures, name-calling, drawings/graffiti, touching, grabbing, cyberbullying, propositions, rumors, revenge porn, catcalling, gossip and sextortion.Bidwell, A. (2014, April 6). Study: Sexual Harassment Frequent Among Middle School Students. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/06/study-sexual-harassment-frequent-among-middle-school-studentsCOPY Espelage Professor of Psychology, University of Florida, D. (2018, February 27). The disturbing connection between bullying and sexual harassment. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/the-disturbing-connection-between-bullying-and-sexual-harassment-68033COPY ”HowCOPY . (2007, October). Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center.” link=””]Young, A. M., Grey, M., & Boyd, C. J. (2009). Adolescents’ experiences of sexual assault by peers: Prevalence and nature of victimization occurring within and outside of school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(8), 1072-1083.COPY Amrein, M. (2012). Preventing Sexual Harassment, Sexual Bullying, Sexual Abuse, Acquaintance Rape, and Date Rape Among Students at Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio: A Teacher Resource Guide and a Student Awareness Pamphlet.COPY  And seeing as sexting is massively normalized, if you add smartphones in the mix, child exploitation image distribution (if senders or recipients are underage), and sexual coercion, and blackmailing.

Related: How Many Teens Send And Receive Nudes? More Than Ever, This Study Shows

Ever had your bra strap snapped or been called a homophobic slur? Both of these qualify as sexual harassment punishable by Title IX (US) but are often dismissed by teachers and administrators, if they’re even reported.

The thought is that it is easier to dismiss the harassment or encourage the victims to ignore the offense, than to determine the severity of the harassment and, therefore, the severity of the punishment. As we said before, sexual harassment is a huge grey area as determined by school administrators, except in instances of the most severe cases of sexual violence.

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2. Sexual harassment is determined by the victim, and generally, school-aged children are misguided to tolerate unwanted sexual attention.

If teachers and administrators do not see the bullying with their own eyes, they can only be held accountable for the way they did or did not respond to reported incidences. That requires both a reliable system for reporting and informed, confident, supported students who recognize harassment and self-report.

However, researchers suspect that the majority of peer-to-peer sexual harassment goes unreported—studies show that students can’t easily tell the difference between sexual harassment and harmless teasing, and students often share instances of sexual harassment only to entirely dismiss the event as “messing around.”Bidwell, A. (2014, April 6). Study: Sexual Harassment Frequent Among Middle School Students. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/06/study-sexual-harassment-frequent-among-middle-school-studentsCOPY Espelage Professor of Psychology, University of Florida, D. (2018, February 27). The disturbing connection between bullying and sexual harassment. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/the-disturbing-connection-between-bullying-and-sexual-harassment-68033COPY Amrein, M. (2012). Preventing Sexual Harassment, Sexual Bullying, Sexual Abuse, Acquaintance Rape, and Date Rape Among Students at Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio: A Teacher Resource Guide and a Student Awareness Pamphlet.COPY 

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

In addition, hypersexualized media and porn consumption by kids younger than 11—as mentioned before—seriously normalizes sexual harassment, convincing students even more that unwanted sexual attention is actually acceptable. These are the lies that much of mainstream porn sells.

3. Historically, school-aged (sexual) harassment has often been dismissed as not a big deal.

Not only have students been misguided to tolerate and dismiss sexual harassment because of what the large majority of them are seeing on their own or friends’ screens, but also the adults responsible for informing, guiding, and instructing them.

Peer-to-peer sexual harassment has long been dismissed as “boys will be boys” or “he likes you” or even “harmless fun”—and, unfortunately, the students who are convinced to accept bullying and sexual harassment today are often the adults who will be misleading students in the future.

It’s a continuous cycle of, “That’s how it was when I was in high school, that’s how it is for everybody.” But it doesn’t have to be.

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Why this matters

Similar to the porn industry, bullying is universally characterized by a real or perceived power imbalance. A bully demands the power, a bully takes power from the victim, and the victim ultimately shrinks.Bullying Basics. (2017, August 14). Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/bullying-basicsCOPY 

Related: Should Teens Be Taught How To “Responsibly Consume” Porn?

We can obviously recognize the universal normalization of abuse and violence in both porn and sexual bullying, both of which are widely normalized. And unless we actively fight and work to educate our peers and the next generation, the porn industry will continue to saturate every corner of our culture and infect our interactions, relationships, and personal health.

Knowledge is power for everyone. Now that we know the issue of normalized sexual harassment and bullying in schools, we can take the needed steps to fight back. Together, we can make an impact.

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More Resources

– Schargel, F. (2013, October 17). Bullying: What Schools, Parents and Students Can Do. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/franklin-schargel/bullying-what-schools-par_b_4103901.html
–  Get Help Now. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/get-help-now/index.html