What’s the Boundary Between Bullying and Sexual Harassment?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Nov. 7 2011 3:19 PM

What’s the Boundary Between Bullying and Sexual Harassment?

The New York Times reported today that, according to a study by the nonprofit research organization the American Association of University Women, nearly half of students in grades 7-through-12 complained of being sexually harassed during the last school year. The survey polled 1,965 students from around the country, finding that girls were somewhat more subject to harassment both in person and virtually than boys and that, in the large majority of cases, students experienced ill-effects such as “absenteeism, poor sleep and stomachaches” as a result.

While I certainly don’t recall middle school being the most pleasant place, the severity of these numbers is truly shocking. If this survey is correct, we have a serious epidemic of sexual harassment going on in our schools. But reading further in the article, the question of just what counts as an offense becomes murky. The researcher’s basic definition—“unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically”—seems reasonable enough at first glance, but taken literally, it constitutes a very wide net, particularly in an extraordinarily charged environment in which teenagers are just beginning to confront sexuality, adult sociality and true accountability for their actions. Should immaturity along the lines of calling someone “gay” or “slut” be counted on the same level as unwanted touching?

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Just to be clear, I’m not excusing bullying with some kind of “kids will be kids” wave of the hand. Obviously, name-calling and other forms of aggressive teasing are dangerous—the recent tragic deaths of many teens who were viciously taunted for their perceived sexuality are evidence enough of that—and moves to address bullying through education and legislation are absolutely necessary. However, do we really want to lump those kinds of youthful mistakes in with actual sexual violation? The risk of equalizing everything, as I see it, is to undermine the gravity of acts that are truly more egregious than others and that, consequently, deserve different treatment, whether by parents, school adminstrators or in the courts. Calling a gender-nonconforming boy “gay” out of adolescent ignorance is not the same thing as beating the crap out of him behind the baseball field. Nor is writing on Facebook that a girl is a "whore" (because she has a lot of male friends) equivalent to molesting her at a party for some skewed perception of easiness. All of these actions are undoubtedly bad, but they’re also just not on the same order of magnitude.

Of course, in the adult world of the workplace, most of the corresponding forms of harassment would be treated similarly, as besmirched GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain is currently learning. A salacious joke is just as inappropriate as an uninvited come-on. However, do we really think that 14-year-olds should be held to the same exacting standards as a fully wizened adult? Maybe that’s where we’re headed, but then, under that rightly unforgiving rubric, I suspect that most of us were guilty of “sexual harassment” at some time in our youth.

Were we really that unenlightened before, or is this a definition that simply doesn’t apply at all points in space and time? Do you think there’s a line?

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.