As she left for a friend’s house to work on her Halloween costume, a San Dieguito Academy (SDA) student was followed by a man in his early 20s, who constantly elevator-eyed her.
“It just felt so disgusting,” said the girl who wished to remain anonymous. “After he looked at me like that, I felt the need to put my cardigan back on.”
“At work, customers….will comment on my appearance,” said another SDA student who asked not to be identified. “It might be flattering if I didn’t feel so uncomfortable,” she said. “I get winks from a lot of men. At first, I thought it was endearing. But then I realized it wasn’t ‘a grandpa winking at a little girl’ type of thing. I became aware that I’m not a ‘little girl’ anymore, and they didn’t see me that way. A lot of it comes in forms of jokes: ‘If I was 20 years younger, I’d be one happy guy’ or ‘I’ve got a wife and three daughters so I know what women want and I can treat you right.’ And all I can do is smile and tell them to have a nice day.”
“I was sexually assaulted by this one person I trusted,” said a third student who wanted to remain anonymous. “He took advantage of me in a way I didn’t think he would,” she said. “I kind of brushed off that situation, thinking it wasn’t that big of a deal until a few months later, when [I found out the same person assaulted others]… I immediately told my friends after it happened… but they didn’t take me seriously. They just thought it was a joke… so I brushed it off and… Pretended everything was ok when it really wasn’t.”
Eventually, though, she opened up, and police got involved.
These three students talked about being sexually harassed and assaulted, and their struggles are not unusual. Eighty-seven percent of women said they had been sexually harassed in a study conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in October, 2017.
The prevalence of sexual harassment and assault was revealed through social media hashtags #metoo and #timesup following assault allegations against celebrities, many interviewees said. Film producer Harvey Weinstein was one of the celebrities called out through #metoo and was recently arrested on rape and sexual assault charges.
Closer to home, an LCC teacher was reported to the police in 2016 after he participated in a sexual relationship with a student where he allegedly abused her. The teacher resigned two weeks after being placed on paid leave on February 19, 2016, according to an article published in The Voice of San Diego.
More recently, at SDA, a former math teacher resigned after female students said in witness statements that he commented on their appearance and, in some cases, touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable.
Though many students have not experienced sexual harassment, many said they fear it might happen to them.
“I think about how it can happen to me as easily as it could happen to anyone else, and it really hits home because just being out by myself, I get worried,” senior Taylor Leslie said.
Senior Olivia Hussey added that the possibility of being sexually harassed causes girls to be more aware of the issue.
“Teenage girls, myself included, often feel afraid to go certain places at night because of the threat of [sexual harassment and assault],” Hussey said.
“It’s really scary to think that you could be in a situation where you feel helpless and like you could be penalized or objectified because of how you look or where you work, or the people that you have to surround yourself with,” senior Rami Ibrahim added, sympathizing with individuals, especially girls and women, who have been sexually harassed. “Nobody deserves to be harassed, especially sexually… I was conditioned to think sexual harassment was bad, and it’s shocking to think that men grow up and don’t understand that.”
The Magnitude of Sexual Harassment
According to SDA counselor Ann Nebolon, sexual harassment is very different from “exploring the sexual side of [a] relationship because sexual harassment is unwanted sexual advancements, or comments, or behaviors.”
The Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed 18 to 25 year olds from around the country in October, 2017. Of those surveyed, 87 percent had suffered some form of sexual harassment. Of that 87 percent, 55 percent had been catcalled, 41 percent had been touched without permission by a stranger, and 52 percent had a stranger say something sexual to them.
While this survey focused on more of a college age group, Nebolon said many girls at SDA have suffered harassment. Though there is no official statistic pertaining to SDA students, Nebolon said she would estimate — based off of her personal interaction with students — that over a third of students that come in to the counseling office saying they had been harassed had dealt with sexual harassment.
The 2017 Healthy Kids Survey revealed that 32 percent of students at SDA had sexual comments made to them.
Nebolon added, “There’s a ton of it out there that is not being reported.”
“Teens need to care… because it affects them,” senior Rachel Kaplan said. “When I talk to adults about going to college, a lot of them will mention safety. They’ll say ‘Make sure you always watch your drink!’, ‘Don’t walk home alone!’, ‘Go out with a group of people that you trust!’ These are all good points, of course, but I have to assume my male peers aren’t getting the same types of pep talks.”
Though both men and women get sexually harassed, a lot more women experience it. In a survey conducted in January, 2018 by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization, 81 percent of women had been sexually harassed, in comparison to 43 percent of men who had similar experiences. The organization said sexual harassment included verbal sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual touching, online sexual harassment, being physically followed, genital flashing, and sexual assault.
“From the time girls have become teens…they have to worry about being victims of sexual assault and harassment, which should not be something a 13 year old has to think about,” sophomore Georgia Goldsmith said.
“My cousin. She’s two. It’s going to happen to her,” junior Agnes Lin added, her voice teeming with frustration.
Nebolon said that while there are various levels of sexual harassment, they are all demeaning and objectifying.
“Catcalling is demeaning to girls and women…. and that’s a pretty low level thing…. But [even though] that is a low level example, it’s still completely objectifying,” Nebolon said.
Nebolon added that higher levels of sexual harassment make “the victims feel horrible about themselves…it’s violating…you have a right to your body, and when someone takes that right from you or violates you. It doesn’t feel good.”
The causes of sexual harassment
Nebolon said the prevalence of sexual harassment among teens can be largely attributed to messages media conveys.
“A lot of stuff out in the media demeans girls and women,” she said. This, according to Nebolon, is harmful because it teaches people it’s ok to objectify others.
Leslie said people in positions of power, including President Donald Trump, have normalized sexually harassment, and in some cases assault. They are “where [they are] now and there’s no repercussions for what [they] did to all those women…it can just show you how far men can get in society when they do things like that,” she said, referencing Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood bus and the sexual assault allegations made against him.
According to Nebolon, sexual harassment is especially difficult to mitigate among teens since they are “becoming more interested in relationships.” She added that in the process of exploring relationships, teens often struggle to define their boundaries.
“It’s kind of accepted that sexual harassment and sexual assault is [a part of]… women’s lives,” senior Samantha Bellier Igasaki said. “A lot of times, when…something [is] widely accepted in our culture, it doesn’t really go away quickly, mainly because the majority of people have to [identify] it as a problem and work against it in order to [incite] change.”
Senior Isaac Rosenbaum had a more optimistic outlook: “I think the culture has definitely made catcalling and other relatively minor forms of sexual harassment okay, but I can see that the culture is changing for the better…Now there seems to be a growing realization that women and men ought to be viewed and treated with more respect than they have been in the past.”
Social media movements: a good first step
The me too movement garnered much attention since its founding in 2006 after multiple celebrities posted #metoo on social media, indicating they were survivors of sexual harassment and/or assault. Film producer Harvey Weinstein was one of the first to be called out after Actress Ashley Judd posted the hashtag in October, 2017. Later that month, Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney said Team USA’s doctor, Larry Nassar, assaulted her and other members of the team. Most recently actor Morgan Freeman was called out on May 24.
Though the movement gained momentum through celebrity postings, Georgetown University’s PEORIA project found that between January, 2017 and January, 2018, #metoo was posted 7.7 million times, and #timesup was posted 816,000 times. Of those that posted, 63 percent were female, and 37 percent were male.
“I think those movements are really beneficial for the people that feel like they’re the only ones enduring sexual harassment. Because your world is so small, to see people go on stage and go on the Oscars and Emmys and defend you is really important,” Ibrahim added.
Hussey said that #metoo and #timesup were important because they are “shining light on issues that have faded from less media coverage.”
While Kaplan supports the movements’ intentions, she believes they are only a first step. “There was little dialogue other than the warranted outrage. Awareness is the first step to creating change, but it can’t be the last,” she said.
Senior Kylie Ade said that while many survivors of sexual harassment and assault posted #metoo, few chose to act proactively afterward and seek help. “A lot of people spilled their stories but never got help. It didn’t go anywhere…it was good to bring awareness but awareness is nothing without action,” she said. “We should be addressing the fact that the people who have been mistreated need help. Sharing isn’t enough to cope and mend.”
Leslie said she believes some men misinterpreted the meaning behind the movement and took it too personally instead of seeing it for what it was intended to be. “A lot of men felt that it was an attack on them rather than just bringing awareness to an issue that’s been happening,” she said.
Bellier Igasaki said that while posting is a good first step, people need to start looking into their own actions and assessing their own behaviors. “Part of the issue is that even some celebrities who have claimed to support these movements haven’t really looked into their own actions,” she said. “People need to think about how they’re contributing both positively and negatively.”
If sexually harassed, a student should “stand up for yourself…make what you want very clear to that other person because communication is number one for everything,” Nebolon said.
She added that students should also “tell a trusted adult,” including counselors, administrators and teachers.
“Luckily, here at this school, it’s a school full of trusted adults,” Nebolon added. “It always feels so much better to share that kind of a secret because by keeping something like that a secret… can become like a burden and bring you down more.”
“I would just hope that if something has happened for any student here that they would seek out some help and come in and talk to an adult because…when something like that happens, especially if you don’t really understand it, it can feel very isolating and can make you feel bad about yourself, and we don’t want that,” Nebolon said.
Nebolon added that if students do not wish to talk to an adult, they can go to PALs, who are also trained to help students who have suffered sexual harassment.
The student that had been followed to her friend’s house said, “I know that other people have gone through similar things, and so I knew that [my story] would be understood and that it wouldn’t just be mocked… I told people because I needed some kind of confirmation that what I was feeling wasn’t wrong or wasn’t false.”
“If I hadn’t told anyone, it probably would have eaten away at me more,” she added.
The student who was assaulted described how difficult it was for her to come forward.
“I had to tell my parents…It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said, adding that coming forward was especially difficult since she suppressed her emotions. Memories of the incident “all just came back up when I reported it, and it was just really difficult for me to grapple with,” she said.
Though she struggled to open up, she believes doing so was vital. “Opening up to the people that really supported me was very helpful because they gave me everything I needed at the time. I would talk about how I was feeling, and they would offer what they could do to help me out. I really appreciated that,” she said.
While she said she hoped opening up would be helpful to her, she came forward mainly to prevent others from being assaulted by the same person.
“I felt that it was important because I was afraid that it would happen to other people as well.” she said. “I wanted to prevent any more trauma and damage they could do other people.”
What needs to be done: education and empowerment
As a part of Wellness week, SDA dedicated May 24 to healthy relationships; and, PALS visited each homeroom, educating students about characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
In addition to teaching students about healthy relationships, “There needs to be some education around [sexual harassment] so that everybody would be clear on what’s appropriate and what’s not,” Nebolon said, noting that many parents avoid discussing topics like sexual harassment because they are seen as uncomfortable.
Bellier Igasaki said that “It’s kind of [girls’] mentality to keep quiet,” when they should be taught to stand their ground.
She also said boys should be taught to express their emotions instead of being encouraged to be tough and powerful. By enabling boys to be more open about their emotions, she said they would find other ways to deal with them without demeaning others: “Everyone needs to be taught that it’s ok to not be ok, and it’s ok to show emotions and talk about our emotions and to have deeper friendships.”
According to the survey conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, parents rarely discuss sexual harassment with their children, especially when it comes to teaching their children how not to sexually harass others. Of the respondents, 72 percent of men and 80 percent of women were never taught how to avoid perpetrating sexual harassment.
Goldsmith said those that sexual harass others “need [to] be aware that girls are not just sexual objects…. Just because a woman’s body is exposed doesn’t mean [one] can objectify them.”
Kaplan added that it is wrong to assume “boys are always the guilty party….Instead of focusing specifically on what boys need to be taught, we should focus on teaching boys and girls alike about consent [in the case of sexual assault] and respect.”
Speaking more to serious cases of sexual harassment, and some forms of assault, Lin said students need to receive sexual education at a young age, so preteens do not seek out their own sources of information, that may reinforce what she sees as society’s objectifying attitude toward women: “Even when boys say [girls should be treated respectfully], they don’t always follow through because they don’t know what that means.”
She also said boys need to be educated about the magnitude of sexual harassment, since it happens to them less frequently. “When I talk to my male friends, they don’t even realize what a large problem this is,” she said.
Lin added that it is too late to prevent current teenagers from suffering sexual harassment, but she does feel the teens have an obligation to future generations.
“We are the next generation, and we are capable of making change,” Goldsmith said.
The girl that had been followed to her friend’s house said girls need to feel more empowered. “Be brave. Know that it’s not always your fault,” she said. “Know your power and know your voice.”