Sexual Harrassment Of Young Girls Is Not OK

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Despite high rates of gendered violence among youth, young women vastly under-report sexual assault and recent research helps us understand why this is.

A study by Heather Hlavka, a sociologist at Marquette University, and the Children’s Advocacy Center interviewed one hundred female youths between the ages of three and seventeen, who may have been sexually assaulted.  The study found that “objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives” and are so ingrained into their daily lives, that they don’t see them as inappropriate or unacceptable.

The study, published in Gender & Society, finds that girls and young women rarely report incidents of sexual violence because they view such incidents as “normal.”  They consider these acts as part of everyday life rather than as criminal acts. 

Other reasons why girls do not report include shame (afraid that other girls will label them as “sluts” and “whores”), fear of retribution, and mistrust of authority (such as police officers to whom sexual assault should be reported).

The study aimed to understand how girls negotiate their life experiences in ways that are often ignored by law and policy and how they make use of culturally available discourses to explain their experiences. 

Violence is woven into youth’s sexed and gendered relationships from a very young age.  Dominant discourses include cultural beliefs about gender, sex and sexuality, childhood, victimhood, etc. These discourses, acquired and practised during adolescence, have been termed “sexual scripts.”  They mediate individuals’ relationships and sexual interactions through social context.  Youth must wade through complex and pervasive cultural messages about sexuality, power, and violence.

The study points out that traditional gender arrangements, beliefs, and behaviours reinforce women’s sexual subordination to men.  Female sexuality is consistently linked with passivity, vulnerability, and submissiveness and male sexuality with dominance, aggression, and desire.

Young people are socialized into a patriarchal culture that normalizes and often encourages male power and aggression, particularly within the context of heterosexual relationships.  As men’s heterosexual violence is viewed as customary, so too is women’s endurance of it - with the presumption that women are the gatekeepers of male desire.

Young women often rationalize and normalize assaultive behavior because it is so commonplace. One thirteen year old said harassment is standard in her school. Referring to boys she said “they grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s OK, I mean, I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”  Sexual harassment is never “OK.” 

Those perceptions diminish the likelihood that survivors of sexual violence will report their assaults and that the perpetrators will be held accountable.  The girls doubted that anything outside of forcible heterosexual intercourse counted as an offense.

The study reports that it’s common for young women to trivialize experiences of sexual harassment or assault as part of regular masculinity – “boys will be boys.” Female youth have internalized the sexist notion that men are naturally sexual predators.  They believe the myth that males can’t help it.  And they believe that authority figures would view them as “bad girls” who prompted the assault.

Early adolescence is a defining period for youth.  A study by 2011 American Association of University Women found that almost half of the 1,965 students surveyed almost half had experienced harassment but only 9% reported such incidents.  Almost 20% of girls experience physical and sexual violence from dating partners.  Sexual assault accounts for one-third of preteen victimization.

Hlavka’s study concluded that “young women often hold themselves and their peers responsible for being coerced, for accepting gifts and other resources, and for not fending off or resisting sexual advances.”

Parents, trusted authority figures, and community leaders and agencies need to do more to empower girls and boys with information, resources, and strategies that clearly and unequivocally convey the message that sexual harassment is never acceptable. 

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