Harassment study reveals disturbing results

Sexual harassment in high schools is at a disturbing level that would not be tolerated in a workplace, says York University Professor Jennifer Connolly. “We tend not to take sexual harassment in high school very seriously. But if we had 75 per cent of the employees in a workplace reporting they were being sexually harassed, it simply wouldn’t be allowed,” says Connolly, a professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Arts.

Connolly has been studying bullying and other forms of aggression – such as sexual harassment – for more than a decade, with York Professor Debra Pepler and Professor Wendy Craig of Queen’s University.

Right: Jennifer Connolly

The studies conducted by Connolly and her colleagues do not include questions about sexual assaults of the type recently alleged at Toronto’s James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School. However, they do reveal that teen sexual harassment or bullying is common in schools, according to Connolly.

In a study of eight high schools in Toronto, Kingston and Montreal, 75 per cent of high school students reported that they had been sexually harassed within a three-month period, says Connolly. The forms of sexual harassment range widely from unwanted sexual remarks, sexual jokes and comments about appearance to brushing up against classmates in a sexual way, and, increasingly, sexual rumours spread by Internet messaging.

“Sexual harassment in high school has a big impact,” says Connolly. “In the immediate sense, it affects students’ school performance and attendance, particularly for girls. In the longer term, we know that what happens in adolescence sets the foundation for future relationships.”

In the same study, students who experienced a great deal of verbal or physical harassment, bullying or sexual harassment reported a number of effects. Girls reported an increase in depression and a drop in self-esteem, while boys reported higher delinquency (stealing or skipping school, for example) and an increase in substance abuse.

Left: Debra Pepler

The number of reports of bullying declines in high school, but this is small comfort, according to Connolly, who studies bullying in adolescence, and Pepler, who focuses on bullying at a younger age. In fact, bullies just transfer the abusive power dynamics to a new social context when they get to high school. The new form of bullying tends to be very sexualized in the higher grades and occurs between the sexes, in contrast to bullying between members of the same gender in younger age groups.

The language used in high-school corridors is especially sexually aggressive, according to Connolly and Pepler. Research that is currently underway is examining the effects that the media and a culture of violence are having on adolescent harassment and aggression in dating relationships.