Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Getting carried away

There has been a surge in disciplinary action for "sexual harassment" among schoolchildren. "Sexual harassment" appears to mean "hugs." A preschooler was suspended for hugging a teacher's aide. A junior high student served detention for hugging friends. Schools have developed very strict no-contact policies that even ban hand-holding. (Huh? Isn't that how you keep track of your field-trip buddy?)

It seems that the Powers That Be have forgotten what sexual harassment actually is. Sexual harassment is, at its core, unwanted (and unsolicited) sexual attention. It might be overt; it might be subtle; but in any case, sexual harassment creates an uncomfortable and/or hostile environment for the recipient.

Now, I suppose the preschool teacher's aide might have felt uncomfortable when the little boy hugged her. Freud be damned, four-year-olds do not have the same understanding of sexual behavior as do adults--or even adolescents. Can sexual harassment exist where the alleged perpetrator does not know what constitutes sexual behavior?

Plus: if you give your best friend a (totally non-sexual) hug and she welcomes it, an observer should not be able to declare that you have engaged in sexual misconduct. Perhaps the observer is uncomfortable with public displays of affection; but if neither the hugger nor the hugged believes there is anything remotely libidinous about the embrace, then what evidence is there to support a third party's decision that yes, there was something sexual about that 5-second hug?

I suppose I feel rather strongly about this issue not only because it's patently ridiculous, but also because I was sexually harassed in junior high and the perpetrators were not punished. To put it mildly, as a grade schooler I was never among the popular crowd. I was also a year younger than everyone else in my grade. By junior high, not only was I still shorter than everyone else, but I was also not going through puberty with everyone else. The boys teased the more well-endowed girls and snapped their bra straps... but they teased me just as much ("Roses are red, violets are black; why is your chest as flat as your back?") and made a big show of attempting to snap a bra strap I didn't have. At recess, the boys liked to shove me "accidentally" via my equally flat little butt. I complained to the assistant principal. His response? "They like you." (I told him that, if that was the case, they needed some instruction in the proper demonstration of their affections.)

And in eighth grade, the boys whose lockers were on either side of mine for the entirety of junior high (God bless the alphabet) took it upon themselves to say all sorts of bizarre, inappropriate, and unrepeatable things to me, adding the occasional "accidental" shove. Finally, my mother went to our homeroom teacher and demanded that this sort of thing stop. It did, mostly. But not entirely. For although my young, female homeroom teacher sided with my mother and me, the older, male administration still maintained that "boys will be boys."

Yeah, I hated junior high.

I don't think kids have changed much in the 16 years since I began the seventh grade. Boys are still boys, girls are still girls, junior high still sucks, puberty is still long and embarrassing. Forbidding children and adolescents from engaging in "good touch," because it's just a slippery slope down to "bad touch," won't change any of that.

Human contact is precious, instinctive, and important. Perhaps sucking face in the hallway between classes should be banned; but not friendly hugs. When we police innocent displays of friendship and appreciation, we risk instilling outright fear of human contact in a generation already more comfortable with virtual socializing than with face-to-face interaction.


Anonymous said...

I read about the hugging case and found it ridiculous. I think she got like three or four detentions too. And locally there have been kindergarteners suspended for "sexual harrasment." In kindergarten you can't even say the words, let alone know what it means! And yes, junior high sucks donkey balls. -me

Anonymous said...

Grownups are so naive...
Of course kids know what sexual harrassment is. You guys think that kids are innocent little angels. You think junior highschool kids are sweet , kickball playing, huggy little kids. I am in middle school, and you should see the kids here. The girls dress likke they just left a nightclub, and are obbsessed with looking "sexy" and the guys look like thugs, and wear so much metal it's hard to see how they stay up. Last month a girl stromed onto our school bus crying that some f****** h* kissed her f****** man, ad that she would beat the s*** out of her. The girl was 13. The alleged"h*" was 11.
This is true, I swear. I'm not saying that that is how it should be but that is how it is. Before you judge, come to my school and see how it really is.
I'm sorry this is anononous, but I'm a kid and my parents are uncomfortable with me giving out any kind of identity on the interent.

Gerbil said...

Anon(2) - I'm sorry to hear that your school is not a safe place. As I mentioned in this post, I myself was sexually harassed when I was in junior high. I do think that those boys knew exactly what they were doing, and that they knew they could get away with it because of the blind eye the administrators (all men) turned toward such things.

What concerns me is that children and adolescents aren't getting clear messages about what types of touch are appropriate and what types are not. In a way, grown-ups really are naive sometimes--in thinking that a particular behavior (e.g., a hug) means the same thing for adults as it does for children.

(And kudos to you and your parents for protecting your identity on the internet! My parents had similar rules when I was 15 and online for the first time.)