Health & Family

That isn't flirting

Sometimes a teenage girl's biggest problem isn't getting a guy to talk to her. It's getting a guy to stop.

Christia Brown, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, and Campbell Leaper, professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, asked 600 girls ages of 12 to 18 about their experiences with sexism and sexual harassment.

What they found was nothing short of shocking.

For starters, nine out of 10 girls reported having been sexually harassed at least once. Those who were good at athletics were subject to sexist comments; so, too, those who were good at science and math. Girls' appearances are openly commented upon; they are being touched.

And how they respond to these assaults depends on each girl's background.

A recent conversation with Brown helped to illuminate further her study's results:

Question: Do most teenage girls recognize sexist statements that are directed at themselves and their friends?

Answer: It is hard to know. There may be things that get said that go unnoticed. But we do know that almost all girls report sexist statements happening at least once. That means that they are recognizing it. We suspect they notice a lot more as well, but they discount it and try to forget about it unless it is so obvious there is just no way to ignore it. In other areas of research, we have learned that people only admit it is sexism when it is very obvious and there is no other explanation. The rest of the time they blame themselves, instead of the other person, for what happened.

Q: Do they understand sexual harassment? And in what ways do they define it?

A: We defined it for them by asking specific questions. We did not use the legal definition that adults know, but asked questions relating to any kind of negative or unwanted behavior based on the girls' gender or sexuality. For example, a lot of girls mentioned receiving unwanted attention because of being a girl. Adults would not call this sexual harassment. But for girls, this was a real problem. They would have boys follow them around school and yell sexual comments at them in the hallway. Their examples were also more extreme. A lot of girls had been touched or grabbed by boys against their wishes. This was often having their breasts or butt grabbed — usually in the hallways or school bus. It was always out of eyesight of adults, but often happened at or near school.

Q: Do they come to expect it in their lives?

A: Yes. This also seems to be part of the problem. It seems a lot of sexual harassment happens to girls but they said, “Oh, that is just boys being boys. That stuff always happens.” They expect it so much, they never report it to any adults.

Q: I understand you found a difference in how girls from higher socio-economic levels experience sexual harassment than how girls from lower socio-economic levels do. Can you explain the difference, and why you think there is a difference? How about the difference between girls from different ethnic groups? Do some perceive some behaviors as OK while others don't? Or is this also an issue of self-image?

A: We know that white girls tend to report more sexism than girls from Asian and Latino families. This may be due to differences in traditional gender roles. Some cultures have more traditional gender roles than other cultures. It seems that cultures in which men have a certain type of behavior that is expected of them, and women have a certain type of behavior that is expected of them, that the girls are less likely to report sexual harassment. We don't know for certain, but we suspect that they just accept the behavior as more typical than girls from other cultures. African-American girls seem to experience a lot of sexual harassment. For African-American girls, they live in a culture in which the pervasive stereotype (from movies, music, music videos, TV shows, advertisements) is that they are very sexually active. This stereotype seems to affect how people treat them.

Q: Let's talk about feminism for a minute. Do girls who know something about feminism experience sexism or sexual harassment more or differently than girls who might be more traditionally gender based?

A: They seem to be better at labeling it as sexism. For one, they know that sexism exists and that people can be treated differently because of their gender. Then when that does happen, they are less likely to blame themselves.

Q: How about female high school athletes? Do they face unique sexist challenges?

A: They often get comments about their sexuality or their inferior athletic abilities. However, we also know that those girls have the best outcomes of any girls in high school. They tend to have higher self-esteem and do well academically. They also tend to have better body images than non-athletes. We suspect it is because they view their bodies as powerful and use their bodies for a purpose, instead of just viewing their bodies as something that needs to be attractive for the opposite sex.

Q: In your study, you indicate that repeated sexual harassment tends to make high school girls blame themselves for the behavior of others. It also makes them feel bad about their bodies and erodes their self-esteem. Is there anything to be done about that?

A: It seems that the best way to counteract the effects is to actively deal with it. We know from other research that girls who try to act like it doesn't bother them, who try to pretend it didn't happen or who say it is just normal, are the ones who suffer the most. The girls who say something, either to the person making the comment or an adult, or girls who seek the support of a parent or friend, seem to be less affected.

Overall, we have learned that almost all girls experience sexist comments and behaviors. The key is how girls react to it. Do they internalize it and blame themselves, or do they blame the person making the comment and try to actively combat the statement?

If they internalize it, their self-esteem can go down, their body image can be more negative, and they do less well in school.

If they label it as sexism, and try to actively fight it (even if that is just complaining to their mom), they seem to be largely unaffected by the comments. The problem is that most girls internalize it. They seem to accept it as normal and don't want to be seen as someone who takes things too seriously or rocks the boat. That is where the negative effects seem to come from.