Bullying behaviour is all too often grouped together with the term sexual harassment when discussed in the media, tackled in the classroom, or when being addressed within the greater society, but by doing so we are denying the roles of sex, sexual orientation, and sexual identity as active influences in abusive behaviour.
Sexual harassment can be defined as “any uninvited, unreciprocated and unwelcome physical contact, comment, suggestion, joke or attention which is offensive to the person involved and causes the person to feel threatened, humiliated, patronized or embarrassed.”
While bullying involves a power dynamic where the bully intends to hurt the other person (the intent being a core component), sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour that is sexual in nature due to a person’s gender, race, disability, religion, skin colour, or ethnicity. And since sexual harassment revolves around sex and gender, it can affect girls and boys differently.
Many educational institutions do not train their staff and students on how to address sexual harassment, so it is often ignored and impacts both victim support and how the institution responds to complaints.
Modern parents and educators are being asked to learn and understand the difference between harassers and bullies in young children and how they differ in motivations.
We need to be teaching children about sexual harassment too, and not just bullying. It’s a larger subject for discussion that includes bodily rights, personal safety, and gender identity and with that consent, tolerance, and gender equality issues throughout a person’s entire lifetime.
Sexual harassment in children
Children, primarily boys, become aware of their sexual orientation and gender affiliation around the age of four and learn how to use it to their advantage. Sexual harassment between children as young as five years of age takes place during informal time, primarily in the playground or bathrooms.
Gender plays a significant role in the way individuals perceive and experience the world of children, adolescents, and adults. All societies exhibit different treatment of girls and boys. Each gender must live up to different expectations, which in turn dictate how children learn their social roles.
Association with gender stereotypes begins in preschool and manifests through all aspects of young life, including games, dress, and social and emotional behaviour. Media, movies, and computers are all infused with gender-related messages and are becoming an increasingly prominent part of child play.
It is necessary to provide children with parameters for flexible gender behaviour early on, to relieve them of the violent social stigma that would otherwise dictate their lifelong behaviour.
A harassing child who exercises force does so to degrade the victim while asserting their status – gaining social capital, i.e., the admiration of their peers.
Why does sexual harassment require a different response to that of bullying?
If sexual behaviour is ignored, we become partisan to the normalization of widespread discrimination and are tacitly asking victims to conform to current imbalances in the structures of social power.
For victims, we are normalizing and legitimizing the abuse, while students are left hurt, deprived, and limited in social and educational achievement.
Punishment for bullying does not fit the crime of sexual abuse. We need to emphasize how to end sexual harassment and ensure further acts of revenge do not occur.
Leading Research identifies child sexual harassment
My nearly 19 years of research points to sexual harassment as a social phenomenon that can be identified in individuals as young as four. Nevertheless, up until the 1980s, it was attributed solely to adults.
When I set out to expose the prevalence of the issue among children, back in the early 2000s, I was treated with disbelief. The educational sphere, too, was under the impression that the behaviours I brought up exist in a grey-area between normative behaviour and sexual abuse.
- Our programs target children and adults, who are in contact with them, giving them the tools to identify, prevent and cope with the phenomenon.
- Our programming teaches children the values of mutual respect, integrity, and equality, and thus contributes to the self-empowerment of each boy and girl.
- Our work has shown that through prevention programs in schools and pre-schools, children learn to behave in a respectful and equal way towards other children and that it immediately decreases the level of violence among participants.
- The values of mutual respect and tolerance taught in the program are age-appropriate and continue to be utilized in all areas of life.
If you are an educator, parent, or corporate events organizer interested in learning more about child harassment and abuse prevention programs or contributing to the work of the Voice of the Child Association (VOCA), please contact Dr. Ayelet Giladi directly on firstname.lastname@example.org