A crude comment gets thrown at a girl, a supposed joke taken a little too far. Perhaps someone whistles as she walks by or asks her repeatedly for naked photos. Any one of these may sound familiar to you or, if not, certainly to someone you know.
Sexual harassment is widespread globally and can vary from something as simple as a crude joke to a catcall to physical assault, and it is present among teenagers and on high school campuses.
Carmel is no exception. According to the 2016-17 California Healthy Kids survey of Carmel Unified School District, 31 percent of seventh graders and 19 percent of eleventh graders reported experiencing sexual comments or gestures directed at them.
While the definition of sexual harassment in the Carmel High School Code of Conduct is “unwanted or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” students’ perception of sexual harassment is vague and varies greatly. What one girl might consider harassment another might simply take as a joke. There is no clear line or boundary that determines what will make someone uncomfortable and what will not. This makes the disciplinary action regarding sexual harassment more difficult.
“There are things that are a little more gray, and I think it’s more about how that person perceives it,” assistant principal Craig Tuana says about administration’s definition of sexual harassment.
According to Tuana, the most obvious offenses that involve physical contact or repeated and unwanted sexual advances are fairly straightforward when it comes to discipline—the offender usually gets a suspension and police involvement can vary based on the severity of the offense. In terms of the murkier cases, it all comes down to how the victim perceived the encounter and whether the victim felt safe.
CHS sophomore Scout Curry’s experience with harassment began in middle school when many students first started going through puberty.
“It really affected me in middle school,” Curry says. “It made me really self-conscious. I didn’t feel comfortable going to school.”
While the harassment has lessened during her time in high school, Curry says it is still an issue on campus.
“The harassment is a lot of gestures, people just saying really disgusting things, either on social media or to my face or behind my back,” Curry says about the nature of the bullying, which began with peers making gestures like they were touching her chest and escalating to classmates openly making comments about her body and spreading rumors about her sexuality.
Senior Kylie Lawrence believes sexual harassment is an issue at CHS, explaining that her freshman year of high school was her worst regarding unwanted sexual attention.
“There were four guys in one class that made me feel super uncomfortable by touching my butt and catcalling and stuff like that all the time,” Lawrence says.
Even with a definition outlined in the CHS code of conduct, students have a variety of perceptions and misconceptions for what they consider to be sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment is not verbal,” sophomore Thomas Fontenay says. “It’s physical, and it’s if the man or woman does not want it.”
While some consider simply a look or a whistle to be harassment, others say they draw the line at physical contact.
“I don’t think stares are a big deal,” senior Katie Benson says. “As long as they’re not grabbing me or groping me, I don’t really care.”
Not all girls feel the same way, making it difficult to gauge what is okay to say and what is not. This is also why policing and punishing sexual harassment is so difficult. While students and site administrators agree that anything involving unwanted physical contact is a clear case of sexual harassment, Lawrence didn’t report the incidents at the time, saying that she didn’t see the point.
“It happens all the time,” Lawrence says. “What’s gonna come of it?”
This is a common attitude, and many girls feel that these small acts of unsolicited sexual attention are so widespread that there is no point in reporting them. In conversation with multiple female students, the majority say they have felt objectified or harassed by other CHS students at some point, but only one girl had thought to report anything. The others note, like Lawrence, that they didn’t see the point.
“That doesn’t seem to be something that’s discussed often,” CHS support counselor Lauren Capano says of sexual harassment reporting. “That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It just hasn’t been shared.”
Assistant principal Tuana agrees with Capano, saying that the administration deals with roughly three to four reported cases of sexual harassment each year, but this does not mean that the experience is not more widespread.
While the lack of extensive sexual harassment cases going through administration may be a good sign on the surface, the implications of this are complex.
Social media adds a new platform for sexual harassment to occur. According to assistant principal Debbi Puente, this is the most common form of sexual harassment reported to administration. Online harassment can be anything from unsolicited sexual messages to repeated requests for nude photos.
“It is illegal, and if you receive a photo and pass it on, it is called distribution of child pornography,” Tuana says about the phenomenon commonly referred to as “sending nudes.” “We would definitely call the police.”
The consequences of sending or distributing nude photos in high school are especially high because it is occurring between minors, and the district is required to involve the police if they find out it is happening.
About a photo of her distributed her freshman year, Curry says, “At this point, I was having an anxiety attack and the police were involved. I was worried that I was going to get arrested.”
One junior remembers hearing about a group chat that was created among students in her grade with the sole purpose of sending each other nude photographs they had received from various girls. Even though this behavior is highly illegal, it is not uncommon.
Students generally agree that the conversation about sexual harassment needs to go further and that the severity of these issues needs to be emphasized.
“I don’t think they realize how uncomfortable and scared it makes girls,” Lawrence says of those who sexually harass. “They think it’s just guys messing around.”
If students were more aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and the impact it can have on girls, many believe that the issues would lessen.
“The fact that [some students] laugh at rape jokes and stuff proves that they don’t take it that seriously,” junior Zeh Szestowicki says. “I think combating sexual harassment needs to be more of an initiative among students. People who do know better need to speak up and try to tell people when they’re being disrespectful.”
On March 2, all CUSD staff attended a Title IX training on noting signs of and reporting sexual harassment among students, and CHS students attended a similar training Monday. The student training covered everything from the definition of sexual harassment and real-life examples to what to do if or when it occurs, also addressing what “affirmative consent” is and how to prevent sexual harassment on campuses.