What we are teaching youth about sexual harassment.

Photo by Aricka Lewis on Unsplash

She is in seventh grade. She gets in trouble a lot. She doesn’t get the best grades, causes a lot of drama, and can’t control her temper. This is the girl who came to me this week and told me a boy in her PE class grabbed her breast and ran away. She chased him. She laughed. Later, he told her “that was why she got passed around.” She thought about it all night, feeling sick when she imagined his hand on her body, the look on his face, and the way he laughed and ran away. She said she almost didn’t come to school. She hadn’t eaten since she got home. What should she do?

I told her to hold tight. I was going to take her accusation to the office and we would have her write a statement. She did. She sat with the counselor and told her what had happened. The Principal reviewed the video. He knew the boy from football and took the accusation seriously. But here is where it gets tricky. The boy immediately admitted he touched the girl, but only by accident. There was no actual footage of the grope — only video of the two kids laughing and chasing each other. Then came the questions: why didn’t you report this yesterday if you were so upset? It looks like you initiated contact with the boy, trying to kick him in the butt. Isn’t that crossing a line? Why were you smiling while you chased him?

The assumption was that the girl overreacted. It was an unfortunate accident. She was just trying to get him into trouble. She couldn’t possibly have been that upset over it if she was laughing and playing in the video. The counselor told the Principal that she didn’t think the girl was lying. She had been having disturbing dreams about sexual assault — possibly the grope had been a mistake, but she really did feel violated. She had reported not eating, and not being able to sleep. Regardless, the verdict was she was lying. So as it turns out, this young girl’s first experience with reporting a sexual violation was very negative. She learned that if the stories don’t match, she won’t be believed — and that in fact, she will be blamed.

The first thing that I did was to approach the Principal as an advocate and explain that having been the victim of a couple unwanted gropings, I could attest to the fact that the victim does not always look insulted or upset. When it happened to me I was shocked and embarrassed. I was worried that if I called him out on it he would deny it. I was worried I was wrong. I pretended nothing happened, but when I went home, I cried. It was entirely possible that this young girl was surprised and wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. I also told him that a girl knows the difference between an accident and a touch. The intention is weighted in the fingertips. It is obvious.

He told me I could go and talk to the girl again. I could see if she wanted him to do anything — maybe get the boy to write an apology. I talked to her and she said no. But I was bothered by it. It didn’t feel right. Then at the end of the day, adding insult to injury, a different 8th-grade boy was brought in for discipline because he was making sexual comments during class. He had been sitting at a table with another boy and two girls. He remarked how the girls were going to come over and “suck his toes” later. He then went on to recite a rap about “sweet pussy” and when he was told to stop he admonished the teacher to “quit trippin.” His grand finale was to talk about “slinging his dong” and the specific length of his penis. He was dealt with harshly and immediately by the administration. But what was really bothering me (and the classroom teacher) was the fact that the girls at his table just giggled about it. The teacher went and sat with the girls, expressing the importance of holding boys accountable who cross the line. She asked why they didn’t say anything and the answer was, “that’s just who he is.”

I thought about these things all night. There are three things that bother me about these stories. One: It doesn’t matter if the grope was an accident or not. The girl felt violated. It is important to realize that although situations like this can be sticky and tangled, you are setting a precedent that will be remembered. Though no one could prove the boy's intention, no one could prove hers either. So why is it so easy to err on the side of not believing the girl? Maybe because if I err on that side, she is just being called a liar. But if I err on the side of saying the boy groped her with intention, that is a weightier offense. While I understand that, I don’t think these kinds of situations have to draw those kinds of lines. Which leads me to my second concern.

Assuming something is accidental should not translate into inconsequential. So what if it was an accident? The fact that it was not acknowledged immediately as such and later used as a reason to make the incident meaningless, denies the girl her right to be upset about it. At the very least, the boy should be taught that if he accidentally touches a girl in a place that violates personal boundaries, he should immediately acknowledge it and apologize. Just because you don’t mean for something to happen doesn’t abdicate you of responsibility when it does happen. Maybe instead of choosing who to believe, we can just agree to help young boys understand that accountability means a willingness to talk about what happened and acknowledge the violation felt by the other party. It also means that an accident is not a magic wand that makes everything go away. Assuming lack of intention translates into “no big deal” denies a person's right to respond with hurt. It is like giving a nasty insult with the follow up of “just kidding.”

Lastly, this girl had the right to be hurt. When a boy grabs her boob and doesn’t apologize or acknowledge it in any way, she has the right to feel violated by that. The girls in the class who had to listen to explicit sexual commentary had the right to be upset. It bothers me that “he didn’t mean to” and “he is just that way” turn into justifications that smother any girl's right to hold a line of accountability. It doesn’t matter if he is just that way ladies, you have the right to feel comfortable in your own space and hold a goddamn line.

I don’t think my Principal meant any harm. But harm was done all the same. It is a difficult thing to hold each other accountable, to listen to both sides without judgment. But I am still sad about it. I read once that a man’s greatest fear from a woman is that she will laugh at him, and a woman’s greatest fear is he will kill her. I think this speaks to the physical domination that is still felt and feared by so many women. And the fact that things like this still go unacknowledged for fear of muddying the man’s (or boy’s) reputation speaks to the enduring fragility of the male ego.

I am an intervention coordinator at a large Title 1 middle school. I care deeply about people and I like to find solutions if I can. Life is hard. Let's be kind