For many people, the last few months have been a flood of new information about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence. But, as an educator who works with youth, you might be asking what does the #MeToo movement have to do with me?
We think the answer is: everything.
Other than parents, educators are the people who can have the most influence on students’ lives. Teaching students that sexual harassment is wrong comes down to teaching them to treat each other well.
Here are five simple ways you can help your students learn to treat each other well:
Empathy is the social-emotional set of skills that helps us understand someone else’s perspective. Published in 2016, “The disturbing connection between bullying and sexual harassment” suggests, teaching any social-emotional learning curriculum (such as Power Up, Speak Out!) can reduce not only bullying but also sexual harassment.
So, stick to that anti-bullying curriculum that your school uses!
Power Up, Speak Out! teaches students that in a healthy relationship, “I can say no.” We want to make sure that students understand they can say no to whatever they don’t want. This covers everything. Students should be able to say no to having their picture up on social media. They should be able to say no to an unwanted hug or other physical contact. They can say no if they don’t want to lend someone their smart phone.
The point is that students get to set their own boundaries. Many middle school students find this revolutionary. They’ve never been told before that they can say no to things they don’t want.
This is a very important point. Especially in middle school. We start to see sexual harassment even in sixth grade.
Let’s examine something most people would agree is sexual harassment: If Sarah doesn’t want Paul to kiss her, she gets to say no, and he should respect that. It’s her body, her decision.
But what about these examples? If Makenzie doesn’t want a group of boys to whistle and catcall her in her gym clothes (which she’s required to wear), does she get to say no? If Ruth doesn’t want Matt to snap her bra strap in the hallway, does she get to say no?
These are also examples of sexual harassment. It’s not just boys being boys. These examples cross someone’s boundaries and make her feel uneasy, embarrassed, humiliated, or hurt. Teaching the students that boundaries need to be respected in all healthy peer relationships and that everyone should get to say no is a start.
And how do we respect other people’s boundaries? We ask for consent!
Power Up, Speak Out! defines consent as permission to cross another’s boundaries. The trick here appears to be getting our students (and our culture) to understand that asking for permission ISN’T a bad thing.
Most of us would be deeply wounded by a best friend or family member reading our diary without permission. Or signing into our bank account and spending our money without permission. Or using our car without permission.
But, for some reason when our culture talks about women’s bodies, opinions about sexual talk, or feelings about being analyzed like a piece of meat, asking for permission isn’t necessary.
We have to keep teaching our students that it IS necessary.
There are plenty of resources out there about the basics of consent. You can learn more about consent with these YouTube videos (PLEASE NOTE: some of these videos are explicit and might NOT be appropriate for a middle school classroom – these examples are to help you educate yourself, so you can speak in a more informed way to your students):
There has been a lot of bickering and positioning on both sides of the political aisle about sexual harassment. But, this ISN’T a political issue – it’s a moral one.
Real people – girls, women, boys, men – are hurt by the words and/or actions of those who sexual harass. There are real consequences for those who have experienced sexual harassment.
Some educators worry that by taking on a topic such as sexual harassment, they will be seen as a politically divisive teacher. We encourage you to communicate openly with your administration. And be clear with your students. This isn’t about keeping one or the other political party in the majority. It’s about treating each other like fellow human beings.
Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” We want to see a world where people get treated like people. But, that can only happen if we start to teach our children that all people ARE people. And everyone deserves to be treated like a person, not a thing.
We all learn by example. Take the time to educate yourself about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence of all kinds. Make sure that you respect other’s boundaries by asking for consent. Model for your students what it looks like to have a respectful, kind, moral classroom and school.
As mentioned before, other than parents, educators are the people who can have the most influence on students’ lives. In some cases, students see you more than they see their parents. This isn’t a comment on the state of our culture – it’s just a true observation. Students spend time with their teachers and their school community. They will remember what you do and say, and how you make them feel. You are making an impact whether you mean to or not.
We’re all in this together. The dream of a future without violence can only become a reality if we can teach our future generations to treat each other well.