More than 20 percent of middle schoolers experience inappropriate touching

April 9, 2014 by Sharita Forrest
Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology, presented new research at the annual meeting of American Educational Research Association indicating that sexual violence/harassment is prevalent in middle school environments. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

(Medical Xpress)—More than one in five youth in middle school has experienced physical sexual violence such as being inappropriately touched against their will while at school, a new study suggests.

More than 1,300 students participated in the study, which was conducted at four in the Midwest. Children ages 10-15 years who were surveyed for the study reported a wide range of /harassment experiences, including 21 percent who said they were physically touched when they did not want to be.

Large numbers of students also had been the target of sexual rumors or sexual commentary (19 percent and 18 percent, respectively) and homophobic name-calling (about 18 percent).

The study is among the first youth surveys to explore the prevalence of and sexual violence among middle school youth as well as the locations where these behaviors occur.

Students completed surveys that measured how frequently they had experienced unwanted sexual behaviors at school within the past year, and were asked to share the most upsetting thing that had happened to them and where it occurred.

Presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, the research was led by bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy Espelage. The meeting ends Tuesday (April 8).

Espelage is a professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Illinois. The department is a unit within the College of Education.

Sexual harassment most often occurred in schools' hallways (more than 22 percent), followed closely by classrooms (slightly more than 21 percent), gymnasiums (13 percent) and locker rooms (9 percent).

However, students reported occurrences in nearly all types of locations inside or outside their school buildings, including cafeterias and bathrooms, and indicated that victimization also occurred during school activities and by means of electronic devices.

The finding that the classroom is the second most common location where sexual harassment occurs raises some interesting and perhaps troubling questions, because classrooms are presumably one of the most organized and monitored spaces within schools, Espelage said.

"Teachers cannot always hear and see everything that is happening in the classroom, but we have to make them aware of our findings and develop strategies to reduce these behaviors," Espelage said.

Another troubling aspect of the findings was that a significant number of the victims – more than 8 percent – denied being sexually harassed, or they normalized or dismissed the behaviors as simply peers joking around with them or seeking attention. Victims downplayed these incidents by saying that the events were "not that bad or serious" or that such behaviors no longer upset them.

"It's rather concerning that at such young ages youth are dismissive of behaviors that are clearly distressing to them, whether it's forced kissing or touching or their peers spreading rumors about their sexual orientation or activity," Espelage said. "This dismissive attitude seems to be indicative of a broader societal force to normalize or legitimize sexually violent acts."

Having dismissive attitudes toward sexual violence and engaging in sexually harassing behavior at a younger age significantly increases girls' likelihood of perpetrating sexual harassment when they are older, Espelage and co-author Lisa De La Rue found in a study published in 2013.

Dismissiveness of sexual violence/harassment could be the result of schools' lack of programming that addresses these behaviors, and treating it as a trivial aspect of students' lives perpetuates a cycle of sexual aggression.

Themes of dismissiveness, homophobia and the locations where sexual victimization occurs are important for researchers to explore to help schools identify problems and develop interventions, the researchers concluded.

Explore further: Skills learning program in middle schools dramatically reduces fighting

More information: The paper is available online: … 20School%20Youth.pdf

Related Stories

Skills learning program in middle schools dramatically reduces fighting

May 7, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Middle school children who completed a social-emotional skills learning program at school were 42 percent less likely to engage in physical fighting a year later, according to a new study in the Journal ...

Coerced sex not uncommon for young men, teenage boys, study finds

March 25, 2014
A large proportion of teenage boys and college men report having been coerced into sex or sexual behavior, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

LGBT youth face greater cancer risks

February 19, 2014
A new study led by City College of New York psychologist Margaret Rosario found that youths of same-sex orientation are more likely to engage in behaviors associated with cancer risk than heterosexuals. The peer-reviewed ...

Military men more distressed by sexual harassment than military women, research finds

March 27, 2014
Military men who are targets of frightening and threatening sexual harassment may experience more distress and work performance problems than military women who face the same treatment, according to research published by ...

Research links risky behaviors of gambling and sex

February 25, 2014
Late adolescence is a period when many youth become involved in high-risk behaviors with adverse consequences. Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University studied the degree ...

Recommended for you

Breathing dirty air may harm kidneys, study finds

September 21, 2017
Outdoor air pollution has long been linked to major health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A new study now adds kidney disease to the list, according to ...

Excess dietary manganese promotes staph heart infection

September 21, 2017
Too much dietary manganese—an essential trace mineral found in leafy green vegetables, fruits and nuts—promotes infection of the heart by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus ("staph").

Being active saves lives whether a gym workout, walking to work or washing the floor

September 21, 2017
Physical activity of any kind can prevent heart disease and death, says a large international study involving more than 130,000 people from 17 countries published this week in The Lancet.

Frequent blood donations safe for some, but not all

September 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—Some people may safely donate blood as often as every eight weeks—but that may not be a healthy choice for all, a new study suggests.

Higher manganese levels in children correlate with lower IQ scores, study finds

September 21, 2017
A study led by environmental health researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine finds that children in East Liverpool, Ohio with higher levels of Manganese (Mn) had lower IQ scores. The research appears ...

Higher levels of fluoride in pregnant woman linked to lower intelligence in their children

September 20, 2017
Fluoride in the urine of pregnant women shows a correlation with lower measures of intelligence in their children, according to University of Toronto researchers who conducted the first study of its kind and size to examine ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.