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In the "Friends" show that aired after the Super Bowl this year, actress Julia Roberts plays a former classmate of Chandler, one of the guys on the series.

The two arrange a reunion, and Chandler is mightily impressed by Julia's beauty and her willingness to date him. He's such a sucker. He doesn't know it's all a setup.

Julia's character has not forgotten how Chandler humiliated her in elementary school by pulling her dress up in front of everybody. From then on, she was mocked as "Susie Underpants."

Her revenge is not only sweet, it's complete. By the time the show ends, Chandler is left naked and shivering in a public restroom, with nothing to cover him but shame (and a stall door, which he uses to make his exit).

When people say sexual harassment -- name calling, touching and pulling clothes -- is just fun or no big deal, they are probably the people doing the harassing, not the ones on the receiving end.

It has always been out there, but the sexually laden words and comments have become more and more raw and vulgar. To help counteract it, almost all schools have written policies against it. But that's only a beginning.

Callers to NeXt, from the city and the suburbs, had this to say:

"I have been sexually harassed in school, regardless of the school having a policy against it. It's not something I would want anybody else to go through. I wish it would stop. It's really uncalled for."

"I see it all the time, and nothing in my school gets done about it. It's just a major problem, and I don't think we should put up with it."

"I am 15 years of age and I have seen my girlfriends get sexually harassed. You do hear rude remarks, and my girlfriends have been pinched and snapped. I have been sexually harassed and I went down to the principal's office and he said, 'Guys will be guys' and 'They'll grow out of it.' ... It seems like it's always the girl's fault. Nobody will do anything about it, and I'm really worried about our school and our district."

And one mother called to describe her daughter's experience: While the teen-ager was giving a report in front of the class, a boy facing her exposed himself. She was so shocked she started to laugh and then to cry, but was too embarrassed to tell her teacher what happened. It affected her grade.

Lynn O'Connor of Orchard Park specializes in counseling young women between the ages of about 12 and 20. She says she has seen name-calling getting more intense at ever-younger ages.

"The words 'slut' and 'whore' aren't even associated with a girl's sexual activity now," she says. "All you have to do is be pretty, or have a boy like you and think you're out of reach, to have him call you (names)."

She worries that the insulting names are so common that many students think they don't have a choice.

"It seems that girls are shrugging this off, taking it as normal," she says. She would like schools to explain the sexual harassment policies to students and enforce the policies when necessary, to turn the shame from the victim back onto the victimizer.

Riverside High School in Buffalo has a peer mediation program, so kids can work out problems without adults. Some of the student mediators -- all seniors -- got together to talk about their perceptions of harassment -- why people do it and how it makes the victims feel.

So why do kids do it?

"They're ignorant," Heather Kerr says.

"It makes themselves feel better," says Jessie Jarosz. "You feel better if you have people laugh with you at someone else."

"Half the time they do it just to impress their friends," Cliff Aponte says. "They do it to show they're not scared to do it."

Christy Serio, recalling a time when she and her friends picked on some girls they didn't want hanging around them, says: "Sometimes you'll do it to show you're not insecure. ... We didn't want (the other girls) to feel a part of us. I felt insecure that they were there, invading 'our' space.

"I looked at it afterward and felt maybe we were a little mean."

Jessie remembers being harassed about her body when she was in eighth grade.

"The classes where people made fun of me were the classes I hated, the ones I'd try to get out of or skip a lot. I'd sit as close to the teacher as I could get, just so I wouldn't hear them."

Other kids say the same thing -- they try not to let their tormentors know that they are getting to them, but they wind up trying so hard to avoid the harassment they might miss class or school.

Cliff says most kids don't think about how cruel their actions are until later: "I think they realize it, maybe when they get home."

What they may not realize is exactly how much name-calling hurts.

James Harper, a new mediator, says, "Those words have so much power because it hits the person's pride."

But, Cliff says, if anyone confronted the people doing it, "They'd say they were just fooling around."

In a study by the American Association of University Women in 1993, that's exactly what the kids said who admitted to harassing someone. Almost half made comments like, "It's just a part of life," or "It's no big deal," along with "I thought the person liked it" and "My friends pushed me into doing it."

And most of them said they had been harassed, too.

At Kensington High School, a large group of students involved in the Project Respect campaign was as unanimous as the group at Riverside: The kids who are harassed don't like it, they don't think it's funny, and they would like it to stop. And they have all heard and seen it.

In a paragraph summarizing their feelings, Lucia Anthony, Yakeyda Banks and Juanita Johnson wrote: "We don't think it should be allowed in school, period. We prefer it if the boys just keep their hands and other body parts away from the girls. ... It might lead to a fight, and it also gives Ken High a bad rep."
It was easy for the kids to come up with examples of sexual harassment, but not so easy to think of ways to stop it. Most girls say they try to ignore guys who ask for their number, call them names or taunt them by yelling out, "How much?"

Ignoring it doesn't mean they don't hear it, though, and it doesn't make it go away.

Jeff Hine is out of high school now, and graduated from Northeast Oklahoma University, where he was a football player. He works with the AmeriCorps Athletes in Service program as a volunteer in local schools. He helps train teen-agers to be mediators and gives advice on how to handle rough situations, like sexual harassment.

"That's abuse," Hine says. "It's not always physical abuse but it's verbal abuse.

"(The kids watching it) might feel bad for that person, but they're going to laugh anyway. Especially at the high school level, if they're with a bunch of their friends, they're afraid to stand up to them."

He continues: "When we talk about gender violence and harassment, I tell the kids to stand up for what they believe in. Don't be a follower. If your friend says something you don't like, say something to him.

"Now that I'm older, I wish that when I heard things and when I saw things like my buddy slapping his girlfriend -- well, I wish I'd said something."

Read a second report on this issue in today's Lifestyles section.

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