Your buddy Ben has taken to loudly calling a girl in your class his girlfriend. She doesn't seem into him, but that's not stopping Ben from always catcalling or whistling when he sees her, commenting on her body, and showing up anywhere she might be--the cafeteria, the school hallways, even her bus stop. That's a bit much, you think. What you might not know: It's also sexual harassment.
That's right: Sexual harassment is any unwanted attention that creates a hostile or offensive atmosphere because of a person's sex. There's a federal law, known as Title IX, which is supposed to protect students from sexual harassment: It says that a student can't be denied the opportunity to learn simply because of his or her sex.
Most experts agree we'd all be better off stopping this sort of behavior right where it happens, in our hallways, classrooms, and gym locker rooms. This goes for everyone--even kids who have never harassed anyone or been targeted this way. "We believe that sexual harassment is a community problem," says Esther Warkov, founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS). "If there's just one instance, it creates a domino effect: Other students are going to witness it and talk about it. That creates anxiety and changes the tone in the entire school."
The good news: If we're all affected by it, then we can all work to change it. How do you know what behavior crosses a line? Do you know how to respect healthy boundaries, and the meaning of the word consent? Take our quiz, based on real-life incidents, and ask yourself what you'd do.
1 Caleb has always liked Alex. One day, they drive to get something to eat. As they linger in the car before getting out, Caleb's pretty sure Alex feels the same way, and wants to kiss Alex. Caleb should:
A. Swoop across the front seat and plant a kiss on Alex.
B. Lean over slowly and ask Alex, "Can I kiss you?" before moving in.
Best option: B. You've probably heard of "No means no." But now, experts are also focusing on "yes"--as in, getting a verbal enthusiastic "yes" before making physical contact with someone. As much as Caleb may sense that Alex is feeling the same way that he does, Caleb could be wrong--that's why he needs to ask. And even if Alex gives her consent in that moment by saying "yes" to a kiss, Caleb should still know that Alex might change her mind about it at any time. So if Alex wants to stop kissing, Caleb needs to stop.
2 A guy sitting near Maya in class leans over and snaps her bra strap. Next time you see something like this, you should:
A. Say calmly, "That's disrespectful. Leave her alone."
B. Bust in with something unrelated-like asking Maya what tonight's history homework is--while ignoring her harasser.
C. Circle back to Maya later to ask if she's OK and how you can support her.
Best option: Any of the above. Yanking a bra strap, snapping a towel at a kid's behind in the locker room, calling someone nasty slurs in the hall: These are all examples of sexual harassment. If you see it happening, the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! advocates "The Five D's." Depending on what feels most comfortable, you can be direct (answer A), distract (B), or delay (C). You can also delegate: Tell a teacher or a school counselor. You might also document an ugly interaction to have it on your phone, though some schools have rules about filming, and the record should always be given to the person being harassed. Most important? Do something.
3 All evening long, 15-year-old Dave's been getting texts from two girls joking, flirting, and teasing him. They want him to send a revealing photo, and promise they'll send two back. Dave should:
A. Use a service that encrypts photos or makes them disappear, to make sure they don't spread.
B. Tell them that he can't, saying his parents have access to all his accounts.
Best option: B. First things first: Sending racy pics isn't a joke--it's illegal. Dave might think no one but the girls will see his pic, but no amount of encryption will guarantee it stays private. All it takes is one screenshot or a carelessly misplaced phone for a photo to find its way online or around school. Legally, sexual photos of anyone under 18 are considered child pornography. Of course you can--and should--say no, but many kids who send photos say they just got ground down by the begging. So here's info for anyone pressuring someone about pictures: The law considers even requesting nude pics of teens a crime. And posting private nudes of anyone without their knowledge is a crime punishable by jail time in most states and can get your name on the sex offender registry for life. Not worth it.
4 Jordan and Sophia kissed. Now, though, Sophia finds that Jordan is always pressuring for more. When Sophia says no, Jordan gets whiny and won't let it go. Next time, Sophia should:
A. Try to get out of it or make a joke out of saying no.
B. Tell Jordan straightforwardly to stop pushing.
Best bet: B. Sophia has a right to do what she wants--and doesn't want--with her own body. Jordan has a responsibility to respect those boundaries, period. Consent isn't like a license, good for 10 years; it has to be gotten every time, without whining and pressuring. Since Sophia's said no more than once, this isn't about Jordan being unclear about Sophia's feelings--this is about Jordan just caring about Jordan's feelings more. If addressing Jordan directly feels too overwhelming in the moment, Sophia can choose to put it off with a quip, and then be sure to address the situation later when she's more comfortable. If Jordan's persistent in other ways--like texting nonstop even when Sophia's with friends, or rude when she's not available--this may also mean Jordan is overly possessive and controlling, or, at the very least, the relationship is out of balance. To be safe, Sophia should definitely tell a trusted adult about it.
5 When Aamir came out in 8th grade, he felt safe at his school doing so. Yet there's one group of boys who are always trying to needle him with it, suggesting he should use the girls' locker room or do ballet instead of soccer. If you see this, you should:
A. Loudly tell them off.
B. Say calmly, "That's not cool, guys. Stop it."
C. Check in with Aamir at a later moment to say you were a witness to the harassment and want to help.
Best option: B or C. Sexual harassment is also about gender--for example, the taunts Aamir hears because he doesn't fit someone's narrow idea of being male. If anyone compares you to another gender as an insult ("You throw like a girl!" or "You look like a dude!"), that's sexual harassment. Getting heated won't make things better; treat it like the harassment that it is by, for example, pulling out the "Five D's" in answer 2.
6 James is always making gross jokes and "funny" comments about girls' bodies. It's obviously uncomfortable for the girls in your class, but James doesn't seem to notice or care. Next time he drops a quip, you can:
A. Chuckle to appease James and change the topic as quickly as you can.
B. Stay silent after the punchline, and exchange a look with the others around you--James'll get that you're not loving those lines.
C. Ask, "Why is that funny? I don't get it." And try to get James to explain.
Best option: B or C, depending on how comfortable you feel taking James on. If you're close, you can challenge James to spell out the humor--which will make him confront straight-out how sexist it is--or talk to him when you're alone. If that doesn't feel comfortable or safe, refuse to engage, and look to others to join you. The important thing is not to laugh along with James's jokes. James'll likely read that as a positive reaction, and feel encouraged to keep going--exactly what you don't want.
SOURCES: Michelle Borba, educational psychologist and best-selling author; Equal Rights Advocates; The National Women's Law Center; Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., Ph.D., ABPP, Licensed Psychologist and creator of the SECS-C (Sexual Ethics for Caring Schools Curriculum); health educator Shafia Zaloom
By SANDY M. FERNANDEZ * Illustration by CRESSIDA DJAMBOV
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.