Academics see sex crimes in schoolyard 'Kids need to think'
NATIONAL POST, May 9, 2002, by Tom Blackwell
Anyone who spends much time in an elementary schoolyard has likely seen it -- children making lewd jokes at others' expense, pinching fellow students' buttocks and rating their classmates' body parts.
A new Canadian study confirms that such behaviour is, in fact, widespread among both boys and girls as early as in Grade 6. But the authors say the conduct should be viewed as sexual harassment, with the potential to do real damage to young people.
Previous studies had suggested the roots of the problem lay in the high school years.
But psychologists at York and Queen's Universities found that sexual harassment begins much earlier, perhaps related to children entering puberty.
Jennifer Connolly, one of the key authors along with Loren McMaster, acknowledged that many people would consider the behaviour to be a relatively innocuous part of growing up, just as they viewed bullying until the last few years. But it is time for schools and parents to make it clear that such harassment is not acceptable, she said yesterday.
"If 70% of a workplace reported they had been victim of that in the last six months, can you imagine the lawsuits? And yet we allow this to be common in the school environment," said Ms. Connolly, a psychology professor at York University.
"Kids need to think and talk about it and become aware of what they're doing... Certainly in the adult world it's against the law to act that way."
Examples of the actions ranged from spreading sexual rumours about someone to showing explicit pictures, and "flashing" another student, said the paper published recently in the British journal Development and Psychopathology.
Other research in high schools has determined that students who are victims of sexual harassment tend to suffer from depression and miss school, she said.
Judith Levine, a New York-based writer who argues that society has a dangerously punitive attitude toward any form of sexuality among children and teenagers, said she is not surprised by the Canadian study's findings.
"Hang around with three sixth-grade boys for 20 minutes and you will hear some vernacular expression for penis. They're obsessed."
Ms. Levine contends in a controversial new book that society does Read More ..rm than good when it clamps down on natural sexual exploration in the young.
But she agreed with the authors that sexual harassment -- unwanted sexual conduct -- is unacceptable and should be discouraged by the school system. "It's extremely distressing to see that we haven't made much progress," she said.
Researchers surveyed 1,213 Grade 6-8 students at Toronto-area schools on whether they had perpetrated or been the victim of unwanted sexual behaviour in the previous six weeks.
Among the boys, 36 per cent reported doing the harassing, while 42 per cent said they had been victims. Of the girls, 21% admitted perpetrating the behaviour and 38% said they had been victims. The most common behaviours were anti-gay name calling, sexual jokes, comments and gestures, and being flashed or mooned.
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