Crossing the Line

The Dearborn Patch recently reported that 4 male Dearborn Public School students were suspended for writing and sending “skank lists” that identified the daughters of Dearborn families. This disturbing and persistent negative behavior in schools across the country targets girls most often, but boys can also be the focus. The Dearborn Public School incident however should more appropriately be called sexual harassment.

The more comfortable term of “bullying,” while it can have negative psychological effects that interfere with education and work, has some distinguishing differences from sexual harassment. According to AAUW’s recent research “Crossing the Line“, bullying is usually defined as repeated unwanted behavior that involves an imbalance of power through which the bully intends to harm the bullied student or students (Espelage & Swearer, 2011). Bullying is not necessarily sexual in nature and the bully may pick a victim for any and no reason.

Another distinction, sexual harassment and bullying differ in the age at which it occurs. Typically, sexual harassment, while it can occur as early as elementary school, its “prevalence increases in higher grades as students hit puberty.” (Petersen & Hyde, 2009)

Sexual harassment is defined by the U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights:

“Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually changed names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.”


Students in the AAUW Crossing the Line survey were asked to share one incident during the 2010-11 school year that had the most negative effect on them. In the section of the survey which examines the emotional toll of sexual harassment, a number of impact areas were evaluated including gender differences. Based on gender differences, the research show girls are more likely than boys to say they have been negatively affected by sexual harassment. Indeed, 36% of the girls surveyed said “having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you” had the most negative impact (AAUW 1993, 2001; Fineran & Bolen, 2006). Also, the gender of the harasser impacted outcomes. “Being sexually harassed by a boy was more strongly related to behavior problems for both male and female victims than was being sexually harassed by a girl.” (Felix & McMahon, 2006).


It is important to understand and know the differences between bullying and sexual harassment in order to effectively prevent and respond to it. AAUW’s Crossing The Line is a comprehensive report that offers administrators, teachers, parents and students ideas for reducing sexual harassment, including: allowing students to report problems anonymously to holding school-based workshops on the topic. The PDF report is available at the AAUW website.

Janet Watkins – AAUW of Michigan

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