Me Too: Talking About Sexual Harassment & Assault with Adolescents

I was reviewing my lesson plan and prepping my supplies on Sunday night when I first saw people posting #metoo on Facebook and Twitter in response to Alyssa Milano’s tweet:

My first reaction was as someone who can say “Me too” many times over. My second reaction was as an educator who was about to facilitate a lesson on consent and sexual harassment with a class of middle schoolers the very next day.

I hate teaching about sexual harassment and assault. I hate standing in front of my students and telling them that sexual harassment and assault are pervasive and often supported by powerful institutions and structures. I hate knowing that these students have been and will be exposed to sexual harassment and assault as bystanders, survivors, and yes, perpetrators. I really hate that over the last year, I’ve had multiple discussions with middle schoolers about the adults in their communities that don’t seem to mind so much when people say things like “grab her by the pussy.”

But because of this, I also think it’s one of the most important lessons to facilitate with middle school students. It provides them with the language to name sexual harassment and assault, a space to discuss its impacts, and tools for addressing it. It’s consistently one of the most transformative lessons that I teach, often because it provides a label and a framework for understanding the bad thing(s) they experienced along with the impacts it had. Many students end up asking questions that begin with “Is it sexual harassment if…” and end with something that happened to them and hurt them. The answer to those questions is almost always yes.

I also find this lesson to be incredibly empowering, both for the students and myself. I tell them, in no uncertain terms, that no one should be harassed or assaulted. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries respected. If someone is harassed or assaulted, it’s not their fault. If someone reports harassment or assault, they should be listened to and validated. If people in power don’t listen or act on a report, they are in the wrong. Everyone deserves support. Everyone deserves safety. I want them to walk out into the world believing that someday not so many people  will need to say “me too.” I want them to help create that world.

If you want to talk with your children or students about sexual harassment and assault, here are some tips:

  • Take care of yourself first

Of all the conversations you can have with your children or students, the ones about sexual harassment and assault are probably not going to be the easiest. It may become even more difficult if, while facilitating this conversation, you have to hold space for the trauma and hurt that you experienced as a result of sexual harassment and trauma. Please take the time to check in and to take care of yourself.

  • Provide language and facts

In the abstract, almost everyone is vehemently opposed to harassment and assault. But when you get into specifics, that adamant opposition can quickly morph into “Learn how to take a joke” or “They didn’t mean it that way” or “That’s just the way things are.”  Providing definitions and specific examples of what constitutes sexual harassment or assault can help students greatly as they set and communicate about their boundaries.
This isn’t easy. There isn’t a great straight-forward, all-encompassing definition of what specific actions are classified as sexual harassment or sexual assault. In the Unhushed curriculum, students are led through a conversation about qualities that sexual harassment and sexual assault have. The conversations primarily center around these descriptions:
Sexual harassment…

  • Is the use of power to obtain sexual contact OR the creation of a sexually uncomfortable environment through unwanted flirting, sexual comments, body language, and more.
  • Can be related to sexual activity OR someone’s identity, particularly as it applies to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
  • Often describes actions that are pervasive and/or severe. Sexual harassment can be pervasive (e.g., if you are asked out by the same person every day for weeks), it can be severe (e.g., if someone sends you an unsolicited picture of their genitalia), or it can be both (e.g., if someone sends you unsolicited pictures of their genitalia every day for weeks.)

Sexual assault…

  • “Is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.” (US Dept. of Justice)

These descriptions are a good starting point for a discussion. It is often most powerful (and most useful) to spend less time on identifying “where the line is” and more time discussing what methods can be used to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. For example, rather than asking, “Is calling someone a slut sexual harassment?,” it is often more productive to ask, “How would calling someone a slut make them feel?” and “ How would that statement impact this environment?” Making this distinction give students the language to name sexual harassment and identify why it is harmful.

This is also a good time to discuss how sexism impacts sexual harassment and assault and how it is perceived. While individuals of any gender can experience or enact sexual harassment and assault, men are more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, and women, transgender individuals, and non-binary individuals are more likely to be survivors. However, sexist ideas and institutions create issues for people of all genders who experience sexual harassment and assault, notably by protecting men who offend, ignoring and discounting women who are harassed or assaulted, and pretending that men who are harassed or assault don’t exist at all.

  • Identify support & engage in tangible actions

After identifying a problem and its impacts, it’s important for people to walk away with clear things they can do to address it. Here are a few things you can suggest to or engage in with middle schoolers:

  • Identify who you can report sexual harassment or assault to within your institution or community
  • Identify resources within your institution and community that address sexual harassment and assault
  • Take part in programs that teach students how to be active bystanders, like Green Dot. You can also check out this amazing comic by Maeril that details strategies for bystanders. The comic focuses on Islamaphobic harassment, but the strategies are applicable to any type of harassment.
  • When you see or hear someone you know engaging in sexual harassment or assault, let them know that their behavior is inappropriate and why (if possible)

EDIT: I failed to acknowledge the important, previous work that has been done with the phrase “Me Too.” Tarana Burke created a program called the “me too Movement” in 2007, which focuses on supporting young women of color who have experienced sexual assault, abuse and exploitation. More information about the me too Movement and Tarana Burke’s other work can be found at her organization’s website.