Monday, May 5, 2008

sexual harassment in schools

i clipped interesting comments from the new york times' health and medicine blog, which ran a brief story on this topic. those comments which got to the heart of the matter as a phenomenon productive of social dominance made most sense to me. in schools, kids are socialized into the black arts of social power. to whit: "success" means being a bully. three comments follow.

We wore uniforms – long tunics- in the Catholic school I attended (1962-1970). It did not stop the boys /young men from sexually harassing the girls/young women. And this in a place – Halifax NS Canada – outside the overall media-inundation ‘mainstream’.

The harassment I and others experienced were ultimately about our gender, in the context of establishing hierarchy. “You are the school nerd / you are the school poor kid / You are not popular and ‘I am better/ have more power than you ‘were the primary messages. That and ‘You are your biology and don’t you forget it’.

In ‘Anne’s’ post, the terms ‘jail bird’ and ‘jail bait’ – revealing of the thinking underlying them, both blaming the victim, and one far more tellingly and sexually charged than the other, were dispiriting to say the least. That and Chester’s ‘Tune in Tokyo’ comment. I was, as a young teen, subjected to that one too.

It seems to me that over the past several decades, as women have made gains in so many spheres, there has been a relentless, covert backlash: a re-characterizing of girls and women as sexual and - in particular - sexualized units. From the objects of harassment and rape to the objects of the voyeuristic ‘Girls Gone Wild’ gaze that seeks to convince us that exposing our bodies, ourselves, on someone else’s terms, is equated to power, ultimately, we are relentlessly reduced to our biology. Nevermind the “Axe” ads…

Recently I attended a training session at my work where a young man (late teens) wore a T-shirt emblazoned “Girls Gone Wild Film Crew”. After I complained, he changed it. Then he came to me and apologized and asked me what was wrong. He was sincere. He honestly did not understand. He is a nice guy. I think that scared me most of all. Molly

Our nation-wide economic apartheid system (aka suburbs for the well-off, other suburbs for the rich, more suburbs for the really rich, and ghettos for everyone else), segregates children into school systems based on economic status. Therefore, we have a few high-class schools where all the kids go to college and none of the kids are grabbing each other’s crotches in the hallways, and we have loooots of low-class schools, which make the headlines with this kind of behavior.

The real solution is to undo our economic apartheid culture.

Get out of the suburbs and get back into life!

First, I think if the problem were as simple as an “occasional wedgie” or even being groped once, no one would be kicking up this much fuss. The problem is much worse and larger than that, and I find it very interesting when commenters try to reduce it to that and then claim we’re all overreacting. It seems they may have a little denial thing going. I understand, it’s uncomfortable. But that’s no excuse for refusing to face the truth our kids are facing every day.

Another striking thing is the inability of so many of us to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual situations. The first would qualify as sexuality, the second as abuse. It’s the failure to make this distinction that allows so many to claim that victims were asking for it or that this behavior is oversexed and extreme repression is the answer, and allows others to claim that this is simple sexual curiosity, or that to oppose harassment is to be prudish and anti-sex. This claim is often leveled at the old-time feminists, when nothing could be farther from the truth (though it’s a tacit admission of inability to imagine sex as anything other than the expression of power over others).

This isn’t about sexuality. This is about asserting dominance over others — just in a sexualized way. There are other ways to do it as well, but they all center on humiliation, and using sexual themes is a great way to do that, a powerful way. It will always be more effective on females and sexual minorities because the broader culture is still all about the dominance of straight (white) males. So the research mentioned in the post found that all students were harassed, but the girls and sexual minorities were more traumatized by it — because this was messaging about their role in society, their place in the world. It says, you can expect more of the same out there, the world backs me up — and frequently, sadly, there’s some truth to it. That’s what makes it hard to live with, when the perp isn’t just being a jerk, but is part of a broader repression of certain groups and plays that part with relish. There’s a lot more at stake for the victim.

I think America today is at a crossroads. Nominally we are based on the rule of law and the principles of equality and justice, but in reality much of our social system is a raw dominance hierarchy — male-centered, as raw dominance tends to be. This shadow social system is based entirely on might-makes-right — it even celebrates it and those who demonstrate it (who sucks? who wins?), using sexual themes or any other themes to do so. It’s utterly un-American in spirit and goes well with authoritarianism. And I can hear it in all the voices that say those who take these issues seriously are “whining.” (Get back in line!!) Or that this stuff is “normal” — statistically, it may be, but only to the extent that we’re a sick society.

I saw this after Columbine, when suddenly everyone realized that maybe that bullying thing could be an actual problem. And as a society, I watched us fail to come to terms with that problem, because that would involve admitting the covert dominance hierarchy we all live in and resisting it. Bullying is alive and well in schools today as a result, even though from time to time it still ends up in horrifying episodes of violence. It starts with our refusal to acknowledge that bullying itself is violence, because that would challenge the dominance system that the adults too are living in. Adult society is based on bullying, too, we love bullies! We just call them “winners.” Very few people have the courage to stand up to the actual issue here and stand against the system that is based on, and glorifies, the expression of dominance by whatever means are handy and available. But those are the only people worth spending any time with. Seek ‘em out!

— Posted by Chris

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