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#MeToo in Middle School: Talking About Sexual Harassment and Boundaries with Tweens

56% of girls say they have been sexually harassed at school, but little is being done to help them and 79% of schools claim there were zero incidents of sexual harassment during the entire school year.

For many women, their first experience with sexual harassment doesn't happen in college or at a job: it happens when they are schoolgirls. Among girls in grades 7 to 12, one national study found that 56% of experienced sexual harassment at school, and the impact of this harassment on girls' well-being was often substantial with 22% reporting trouble sleeping and 37% not wanting to go to school as a result. Adults are sometimes hesitant to talk about this topic in middle school, but there's increasing evidence that these discussions about boundaries, respect, and consent can pay off in unexpected ways. "Sexual and gender-based harassment can be difficult subjects to broach, but abuse thrives on silence," writes Dr. Jasmine D. Williams, a research scientist at the Committee for Children. "By taking harassment seriously, educators and families help empower students to address [these] issues."

Among middle schoolers specifically, a 2016 study found that 43% had experienced verbal sexual harassment, like sexual comments, jokes, and gestures, in the past year, while 21% of students reported "having been touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way" and 18% of students said "peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner." What's worse, researchers found that many students were "dismissive of these experiences, even though they described them as very upsetting." According to Dorothy L. Espelage, the study's lead investigator, "students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors — in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them." While much of this harassment took place in places where teachers and administrators might witness them — like hallways, locker rooms, and even classrooms — the researchers observed that many adults failed to acknowledge sexual harassment could be happening in their school.

Students' perception that adults don't care about these incidents is reinforced by reports from school administrations themselves. In 2017, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 79% of public schools reported zero incidents of sexual harassment. The vast discrepancy between students and school administrations' reports of sexual harassment demonstrates how negligent most schools are in addressing this issue —  and such neglect sends a clear message to kids that harassment in a non-issue. As a result, many students sexually harassing their peers fail to understand the impact it can have on others with 44% of harassers saying it was not a big deal and 39% saying they were trying to be funny. And contrary to the the tired trope that boys tease girls because they like them, only 3% of them said they liked the target of their harassment and only 6% thought that the target liked the harassment.

What Parents and Educators Can Do About Sexual Harassment in Middle School

Introducing books that explore the topic of sexual harassment in middle school like Maybe He Just Likes You and That's What Friends Do provide an excellent way for parents and educators to start conversations about harassment and boundaries with their tweens. Talking about a fictional character's feelings provides a safe way for both girls and boys to explore this topic, building their empathy for girls experiencing sexual harassment and helping them understand the negative effects of these "jokes" and "games." Holding discussions about harassment through the lens of a story in books clubs and classrooms also provides an opening for adults to show that they consider this behavior inappropriate and that they will act upon reports. Parents can also read such books together with their children and use the opportunity to let their Mighty Girls know that they will support them if they experience similar harassment.

In addition to sharing titles like these with tweens, which we reviewed in our article New Books for Tweens Tackle Sexual Harassment in Middle School, and opening up discussions about sexual harassment, there are more steps that concerned adults should take to tackle this widespread problem. Adults need to take reports about harassment seriously and take decisive action: just because the kids involved are only 10 or 12 doesn't mean that sexual harassment should be waved off as "teasing" or "bad behavior."

It's particularly important for schools to understand their duty to respond and adequately train teachers and staff on how to respond to sexual harassment among students. This is a part of staff training that's overlooked in many districts or viewed solely as a potential problem among the adult staff. Espelage notes that one teacher told her that "most of the sexual harassment training was viewed as a ‘human resource’ responsibility, aimed at adults in the workplace and not as a problem that students experience."

Parents should ensure they are knowledgeable about their school's sexual harassment policies — and if there isn't one on the books, there should be. Although people usually think of Title IX legislation in relation to college campuses, Title IX also applies to elementary, middle, and high schools. The non-profit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools offers this fact sheet to inform parents of their children's rights if they experience sexual harassment, including an overview of what the school is obligated to do to remain in compliance on Title IX's sexual harassment policies. There is also a U.S. Department of Education checklist for schools addressing harassment that parents and teachers can reference. If these policies aren't followed, don't let the subject drop; speak to your school district's Title IX coordinator.

Parents should have regular discussions with their kids about respecting boundaries, especially during the tween years when romantic feelings start emerging and kids may struggle with finding the line between flirting and harassment. Our article, 8 Ways Parents Can Prepare Their Daughters for Dating and Healthy Relationships, offers tips for parents on having these important conversations with their daughters. Since many girls are told that when a boy is mean, it's a sign of his affection, it's necessary to address this toxic message head on. Parents should make it clear to girls that harassment is never an acceptable way to show affection and studies have even demonstrated that this unhealthy cliché has no basis in reality.

Girls are often shocked and unsettled by their first experience with sexual harassment. Many are left feeling uncertain, scared, or embarrassed, and they may even experience feelings of guilt by thinking that they somehow encouraged the harasser or are at fault for his behavior. While many parents believe their daughters will naturally come to them after such an experience, more often than not, if this isn't a topic that they've broached with her previously, many will not tell their parents even when harassment is on-going. This is another reason that it's essential to discuss sexual harassment with girls early. By doing so, and making it absolutely clear that she will have your support no matter what has happened, it significantly increases the likelihood that your daughter will reach out to you for support if she ever needs it.

These conversations aren't always comfortable, but they've never been more important — for both our girls and our boys. We can no longer shy away from the topic saying they're "too young" since many girls experience harassment from their peers in middle school and some experience it starting in elementary. By having these conversations and building respect for boundaries early on, we set the framework for healthy relationships for all of our kids, now and for the rest of their lives.

Books About Teaching Boundaries and Respect at Every Age

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Written by: Jayneen Sanders
Illustrated by: Sarah Jennings
Recommended Age: 4 - 7

It's important for kids to understand that bodies have boundaries, and that everyone has a right to their own personal space. Jayneen Sanders, an experienced early years educator, provides simple and familiar scenarios — from giving a hug to pushing to get to the front of a line — to illustrate how "body bubbles" surround everyone and how to figure out when and if it's okay to cross those boundaries. Throughout, she empowers kids to speak up if their body boundaries have been crossed. Notes at the end include suggestions for adults reading the book with kids to further the discussion, building an understanding of respect and consent that will serve them throughout their lives. For another of Sanders' books that empowers kids to assert their boundaries, check out My Body! What I Say Goes! for ages 3 to 7.

That's What Friends Do
New!

That's What Friends Do
New!

Written by: Cathleen Barnhart
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Samantha and David have been friends and Little League teammates for years, but recently David has realized he has a crush on Sammie — only he's not sure how to tell her. When a new boy named Luke hangs out with them, David envies how easily Luke flirts with Sammie, while Sammie doesn't understand why David can't see how uncomfortable she is. And when David badly violates Sammie's boundaries, it feels like it might be the end of their friendship — unless he can figure out a way to make things right. Told in dual perspectives, this important book will generate conversations about rape culture, consent, and positive relationships.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Boys

A Smart Girl's Guide: Boys

Written by: Nancy Holyoke
Illustrated by: Bonnie Timmons
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

The tween years are when many girls start thinking about romantic relationships — but without guidance, it's hard for them to know what a good relationship should look like. In this updated guide from the American Girl Library, girls will get sensitive and honest advice from both girls and boys about being friends versus dating; what it's like to go out with someone; and what to do when you're not interested in someone or when it's time for a relationship to end. Throughout, the book emphasizes confidence and reminds girl that the right person will treat you well, make you feel safe, and appreciate you for who you are.

Maybe He Just Likes You
New!

Maybe He Just Likes You
New!

Written by: Barbara Dee
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

When Mila wears a fuzzy green sweater to school one day, and suddenly, several boys insist on hugging her, even when she doesn't want to. Before long, there are smirks, comments about her body, and more unwanted touching that leaves Mila feeling confused, frustrated, and a little scared. But when she talks to her friends about it, one tells her that she's being immature for overreacting to the boys "just flirting" – after all, she says, maybe he just likes you. Fortunately, a few new friends and a confidence boost from karate classes help her figure out how to set boundaries, stand up for herself, and seek out the adult support she needs to put an end to the harassment. Timely and important, this empowering book draws a clear line between wanted, reciprocal flirtation and Mila's experience, and explores issues of sexual harassment in a manner relatable to middle grade readers.

SHOUT

SHOUT

Written by: Laurie Halse Anderson
Recommended Age: 14 and up

In this searing and raw poetic memoir, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson uses her life story to take an unflinching look at how little our culture has changed since she wrote her groundbreaking novel about sexual assault, Speak, twenty years ago. Anderson describes her own sexual assault when she was 13, her father's struggles with PTSD, and more. Anderson's emotionally gripping poems also remind readers that the greatest power in the world comes when you reclaim your own voice; "the rules they fed you/ were the wrong rules," she declares, rallying them to step up, speak out, and make the world different for a new generation of survivors.

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars

Written by: Ashley Herring Blake
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Mara has always had an especially close relationship with her twin brother Owen, the only person who helped her stop withdrawing after a traumatic experience. Then Hannah, her best friend — and Owen's girlfriend — accuses Owen of rape, and Mara's world is turned upside down. Mara refuses to dismiss Hannah's accusation the way so many others, including her fiercely feminist mother, do, but believing Hannah means accepting that the brother she loves has done something terrible. Powerful and timely questions about consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault take the fore in this novel; resources for survivors are included at the back.

You Too? 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories

You Too? 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories

Recommended Age: 14 and up

The #MeToo movement prompted many women to reflect on their past experiences — and vow that they would do everything they could to prevent the girls of today from living through the same. Author Janet Gurtler created this thoughtful and raw collection to teach teens that sexual harassment, assault, and degradation are not normal, and that if they have survived them, they are not alone. With essays from Beth Reviszi Lee, Ellen Hopkins, Saundra Mitchell, Jennifer Brown, Cheryl Rainfield, and many more, this painful but important read serves as a reminder that, together, we can work for change.

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

Recommended Age: 15 and up

As a freshman at a prestigious New Hampshire boarding school, Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted as part of a ritualized game of conquest — and when she reported the assault and took her attacker to court, her school community turned on her. She was guaranteed anonymity if she chose, but instead she revealed her identity, challenging those who blame faceless victims to confront their prejudice, and demanding that institutions stop turning a blind eye to rape culture under their roof. This empowering story of survival turned into advocacy is a painful but critical read.

The Nowhere Girls

The Nowhere Girls

Written by: Amy Reed
Recommended Age: 15 and up

When Grace Salter moves to a new town, she's shocked to discover words scratched into the walls of her room — anguished messages that she can't forget. To find out what happened, she approaches two of her new school's misfits, Rosina, a queer Latinx punk rockers, and Erin, a Star Trek-loving girl with Asperger's. Rosita and Erin tell her the truth: the previous occupant of her room, Lucy Moynihan, accused three sports stars of gang raping her... and she was run out of town for it. Furious, Grace decides to create an anonymous group of girls who will resist the misogynistic culture of their school. The Nowhere Girls may start with only three voices, but they hope it can be the change their school desperately needs. This searing novel, told in alternating voices, explores attitudes to teen girls and sexuality, and the power of girls to rise up together.

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Written by: Cindy Pierce

Kids are increasingly immersed in highly sexualized content — and that gives them a broad and often distorted depiction of what is acceptable in sexuality and relationships. Cindy Pierce, a sex educator and comic storyteller, show parents how they can talk about sexuality, pornography, and relationships with kids, establishing themselves as reliable, accessible sources of information when kids (accidentally or on purpose) see material that they find upsetting or confusing. The overall tone is one of optimism and confidence: parents can discuss these issues with their children, and those discussions can — and do — make a difference.

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

Written by: Al Vernacchio

With sex education today often leaving young adults ill-equipped to make safe decisions, they often turn to peers, the Internet, and the media, where they receive problematic messages about sex: boys are studs, girls are sluts; real sex should be like porn; hookups are better than relationships. In this book, sexuality educator Al Vernacchio offers a progressive and realistic approach that challenges traditional teaching models and instead embraces 21st century realities by promoting healthy sexuality, values, and body image in young people. Filled with real-life examples from the classroom, exercises and quizzes, and a wealth of sample discussions and crucial information, For Goodness Sex offers the tools and insights adults need to talk young people and help them develop healthy values and safe habits.

Written by: Peggy Orenstein
Recommended Age: Adults

Best-selling author Peggy Orenstein's book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape started an important conversation about the pressures girl and young women face, and their right to seek agency and pleasure in their sexual relationships. But Orenstein knew that was only half the conversation. Boys & Sex is the other half, exploring how boys and men are taught stereotypes and toxic masculinity that affects how they navigate their relationships and interact with the girls and women in their lives. After speaking to boys across the country, as well as academics and experts, Orenstein presents their experiences in an unflinching but thoughtful way that encourages us to create a new vision of manhood and male sexuality — one that leads to better lives for both boys and girls.

Price: $22.10

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Recommended Age: Adults

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey weren't the first reporters to hear tales about Harvey Weinstein's treatment of women; rumors had circulated for years. Their 2017 investigation — which would win the Pulitzer Prize — involved confidential interviews with actresses and employees, which not only revealed allegations, but also the web of payouts, nondisclosure agreements, and legal threats that kept women silent. And even that didn't prepare them for the cultural response to their New York Times story, which galvanized the #MeToo movement as women around the world told their own stories of harassment and abuse. In this thrilling story of the power of investigative journalism, Kantor and Twohey tell their story and reflect on how they hope it will change the world for future generations of women.

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