Recognizing the Problem
Because sexual harassment is so commonplace most students initially claimed they had never been sexually harassed. Familiar with the term, they were nonetheless unaware of the range of sexually harassing behaviour. Like many adult women, these students had difficulty identifying the ordinary, everyday incidents of sexual harassment because so much of this behaviour is accepted as a natural expression of masculinity (2). The boundaries of normal behaviour for men have always included that which women experience as degrading, humiliating and threatening, and this explains why so many women don't name sexual harassment if it isn't an extreme form of abuse. Despite all the recent media hype about sexual harassment, these young women still felt they had to put up with the sexual bantering and pestering that went on at school, even when it made being there an unpleasant experience. As one student explained, "It always bugged me, but I didn't know about sexual harassment."

Fran Thoburn

I wanted the students to interpret sexual harassment in the context of their own experiences so I encouraged them to keep journals and to participate in group discussions before they were interviewed. For most students, it was the testimonies of other young women in the group that prompted them to re-interpret behaviour they had not considered to be sexual harassment. These testimonies, however, did not come easily. When I asked the students to talk about harassing incidents they were, initially, silent. But, gradually and cautiously, one young woman would relay an incident that she thought might be sexual harassment. Such a story was often followed by the comment, "that happened to me too" and then the stories flowed.

Tanya told me, "This has just totally opened my eyes. I feel like I have been walking around blind while all this stuff was happening around me and I was just looking the other way." Clearly, for Tanya, "all this stuff" is not a new phenomenon. It is only recently, however, that she has been able to label it, which may mean that she and many other students tend to notice it more. These young women did not have their eyes closed but did not have the power of a name. When I asked them how they would have previously labelled what they experienced they used terms like "bugging," "teasing," "flirting," and "annoyances." One student poignantly stated that she had considered this behaviour to be "just a fact of life."

And yet, despite the ubiquity of sexual harassment at school and the anxiety the students experienced as they attempted to weave their way around it, our group meetings were the first place they had openly discussed, and then labelled, the behaviour that so severely limited their education. What follows is a snapshot of their sexual harassing experiences at school.

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