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A new report released yesterday states that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 experience sexual harassment in school. The report, “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School,” was published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and based on an online survey of 1,965 students (1,002 girls and 963 boys).

The report has caused a furor. A New York Times headline reported, “Widespread Sexual Harassment of Students in Grades 7 to 12.” Other news outlets called sexual harassment in schools “prevalent,” “rampant,” “pervasive,” and even an “epidemic.”

Sexual harassment — in schools, in the workplace, and elsewhere — is a real problem, and if America’s students say they are being sexually harassed at such rates, there is something seriously wrong.

However a closer look at the study reveals some important caveats. Perhaps even more shocking than the claim that half of students are being sexually harassed is the finding that the numbers have actually dropped dramatically compared to earlier AAUW studies: “In AAUW’s previous research, more than 80 percent of students reported that they had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their school career. A broader definition of sexual harassment can also increase estimates of prevalence.”

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Indeed, we see exactly this effect in the new study. The definition of sexual harassment has changed over the years.

Sexual harassment in the workplace often (but not always) involves an imbalance of power, for example a supervisor making sexual advances to workers under their direction. Among school students, however, the situation is different. The harassment comes not from people in a position of power but instead from friends and peers, usually in the context of the ordinary teenage teasing and catty comments common in high school life.

In the AAUW survey, students were asked whether they had experienced the following in person:

“Having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you; being called gay or lesbian in a negative way; being touched in an unwelcome sexual way; having someone flash or expose themselves to you; being shown sexy or sexual pictures that you didn’t want to see; being physically intimidated in a sexual way; and being forced to do something sexual. They were also asked about harassment through text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means: being sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures or having someone post them about or of you; having someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about you; and being called gay or lesbian in a negative way.”

According to the researchers sexual harassment can also include “conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.”

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Clearly the definition of “sexual harassment” used in this survey was very broad, and likely explains the alarmingly high incidence it found.

It’s important to note that the students were not asked if they had been sexually harassed; instead they were asked what behaviors they had experienced (and witnessed) in school, and researchers decided whether or not those behaviors could be considered sexual harassment.

The study found that “unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, and gestures were by far the most common type of sexual harassment, and one-third of students encountered them at least once in school year 2010–11.”

Alarmist Sexual Exploitation Numbers

This is not the first time that a study about sex and children has caused alarm. In 2006, for example, an ABC News report stated, “One in five children is now approached by online predators.” This alarming statistic has been widely cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators for a decade.

That “one in five statistic” can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences.

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Why was the number so alarmingly high? Because the definition of “sexual solicitation” used by the study was very broad; it was defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin — or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”

This is not what most people think of as “sexual solicitation,” and is certainly not the same as “being approached by an online predator.”

In fact if you read the report you find that not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens—in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting.

None of this, of course, takes away from the fact that sexual harassment is a serious issue. There may be cause for concern, but parents should understand that this survey’s ideas about (and therefore the news headlines about) what sexual harassment is may not match theirs—nor even their children’s.

According to the study, most of the sexually harassed students ignored the harassment; a third tried to defend themselves or turn it into a joke; a quarter of them told the harasser to stop; and 7 percent did nothing.

Whether the levels of sexual harassment in schools is indeed an epidemic (as the headlines suggest), or instead the result of ordinary high school social interactions being broadly interpreted as sexual harassment remains to be seen. Either way, as the report concludes, “sexual harassment appears to be a normal, albeit undesirable, part of school.”