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Excerpted from Chapter 3: Mediating Conflicts Involving Sexual Harassment in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen


Why Sexual Harassment is Different

From the perspective of mediation, sexual harassment is similar in many ways to other forms of harassment. The characteristic that is the focus of this type of harassment — sexuality — is a part of every human being, and so it is perhaps more common. But even the legal system sees sexual harassment as similar to other forms of harassment, and most legal protections have resulted from analogizing to precedents related to these other types of harassment.

An impressive series of factors set sexual harassment apart and require that mediators take a uniquely sensitive approach, however. The first is that when we discuss sexual harassment, we approach one of the most emotional issues in our culture: sex. Most people agree that someone should not force themselves sexually upon another person. But individuals have powerful and often semi-conscious associations relative to sexuality. North American culture as a whole is very conflicted about sexuality, seemingly promiscuous on the surface (as demonstrated by the widespread use of sexual images to sell consumer goods) but deeply conservative and private underneath (as evidenced by the almost complete lack of open discussion about sex). There is certainly no broad consensus about the place of sex in our lives, especially the lives of our more vulnerable young people. This makes it difficult to address this issue in an objective manner.

Another complicating factor is that sexual harassment is in most cases the stepchild of sexism and the age-old oppression of women. The behavior now known as sexual harassment has been tolerated and often encouraged for centuries. People's approach to this issue may therefore be influenced by justifiable anger at a long history of oppression and denial of basic human rights to women and girls. This helps explain some advocates' motivation to put an end to sexual harassment using an exclusively punitive approach.

Third, innuendo, inference, context and perception are more central issues in sexual harassment than any other form of harassment. Although sometimes it is blatant and obvious, sexual harassment between students often results from actions that are interpreted differently by the parties. If the nature of the relationship, the time frame, or the setting is changed, even the apparent victim might interpret the behavior differently. As Gadlin writes, sexual harassment is often "defined more by a difference in how particular actions are understood than by the actions themselves." Look at the following example:

Keyanna and Justin, both in 9th grade, have been friends for many years. Although they have never actually dated, Keyanna has always liked Justin. For the last couple of months they have been talking so much that she even felt like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. A couple of weeks ago, however, Keyanna learned that Justin was seeing another girl named Andrea. She didn't tell Justin she knew about Andrea; instead she just avoided him as much as possible.

Last week, Justin sat next to Keyanna in chemistry lab. He asked her what was wrong. When she didn't respond, he started fooling around like he always used to, with sexual jokes and the like. He said he could "go down on her and never get tired." This never used to bother Keyanna — in fact, she used to like it. But now Keyanna told Justin she wasn't interested, and he should take his little tool elsewhere. Actually, she muttered to herself, he already had.

Then today Justin approached Keyanna again and started talking the same way. This time it was in the hallway where other students could hear. When Justin joked that Keyanna should step into the men's room with him, she lost her temper and told him to fuck off. She immediately went to her counselor to report that Justin was sexually harassing her.

The counselor, Ms. Locke, spent over an hour with Keyanna. Keyanna was clear that she didn't want Justin to tease her anymore; she wasn't sure she wanted to continue their friendship. After reviewing the ways she could proceed, Keyanna decided that she wanted to speak with Justin directly in a mediation session. (He didn't even know that she knew about Andrea!) She called the mediation coordinator on Ms. Locke's phone.

In this conflict, language and behavior that was acceptable to Keyanna three weeks ago is now unacceptable because Justin is no longer considered a romantic partner. And what had been tolerable in private became too embarrassing when her peers could observe. Justin might not have intended to sexually harass Keyanna, however, and might assert that she used to participate in this kind of discussion and even liked it.

Keyanna and Justin's conflict is only one example. A student might complain of harassment when they are in the vicinity of offensive behavior but are not its target. Or victims might laugh at behavior out of fear or discomfort, unintentionally giving a harasser the wrong message.

Yet another unique aspect of sexual as opposed to other forms of harassment is the profound tendency of the mostly female victims to feel guilty and blame themselves for the situation. This is often matched on the part of the mostly male harassers by an unwillingness to be self-critical and accept responsibility for their behavior. This dynamic, vexing to mediators and advocates alike, is rarely as pronounced in other forms of harassment in schools (over race, sexual orientation, clique, etc.).

Complicating matters still further is that with student-student harassment, both the victim and harasser are young people who by their nature are experimenting with sexuality, sometimes awkwardly and inappropriately, often sincerely unaware of the consequences of their actions. Adolescents are just learning how to flirt, to tell someone they like them, to make a pass at someone they find attractive. Having absorbed countless inappropriate messages from popular culture, they try their best to negotiate this extremely powerful, emotionally and hormonally charged, and often completely new aspect of their lives. One indication of the extent of the confusion here is that many young harassers actually like the people they victimize; some even purport to "love" them.

Finally, young people have a culture and language of their own, and the adults charged with supervising them are not always facile with this culture. When differences of race and class exist in addition to age, even more potential for misunderstanding exists between adults and students. Young people may be more comfortable talking about sex — even within earshot of their teachers — than the latter were when they were students, for instance. One educator has even postulated that young people see women as equal to men more than do most adults over 50; an older man's attitude that young women should not hear lascivious talk strikes many students as absurd and sexist. While it is important for educators to prohibit unacceptable behavior, adults need to be cautious of solely using their own frame of reference to interpret students' actions in these matters.