by Heather R. Hlavka
A young man corners his classmate near the school bathroom, forcing his hands under her shirt. Boys grope girls on playgrounds and school buses; they say “I’m gonna rape you.” A 12-year-old girl describes feeling like a “doll” or a “maid” – something to be ordered around, used, and thrown away.
Here, in the pages and passages of interview transcripts, young women described their experiences of sexual violence and harassment at parties, in school, on the playground, on buses, and in cars. Their stories are not uncommon: Based on a AAUW 2011 survey of 1,965 students in grades 7–12, nearly half of the students experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment, but only nine percent reported the incident to an authority figure (here). It is tempting to ask: Why do so few young women formally report their victimization experiences? As I read through the details of their experiences however, I found that many young women did not name what law, researchers, and educators commonly identify as sexual harassment and abuse. How then, did they make sense of their experiences of violence and force, coercion and consent?
My research moves the discussion from the question of reporting toward how violence is normalized among young people. My study findings certainly show that objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives. Their experiences of everyday violence were characterized as a normal adolescent rite of passage. Young women overwhelmingly depicted boys and men as natural sexual aggressors, unable to control their sexual desires. Girls normalized their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse because they were so common and indiscriminate; “that’s what boys do” and “they do it to everyone.” Given expectations of, and experiences with, male aggression, young women were then consistently positioned as the gatekeeper of sexual activity and aggression. Girls in this study said they did not want to make a “big deal” out of their experiences and rarely told anyone. Charged with self-protection and silence, girls also criticized each other for not successfully maneuvering men’s aggressive behavior or for speaking up; if they complained about men’s abusive behaviors, they were disbelieved and policed by their peers through rumors and slander.
So, while over three decades of feminist research and activism has challenged rape myths and gender stereotypes, seeking to empower girls and women to name the injustices done to them, my research shows that there is very little incentive for young women to name or to tell anyone about their experiences of abuse. This work provides fresh insights of how violence is woven into youths’ sexed and gendered relationships from very young ages. The lack of safe, supportive space for girls is palpable. We can thus better understand why young women in this study did not report and why they felt expected to protect themselves from everyday violence with little help from others, including those in authority positions. The lack of institutional support assumed by girls in this study should be deeply concerning for educators and policy-makers. We need to treat young people as agents and decision-makers, create safe spaces for dialogue, and challenge our systems and ourselves to confront the prevalence of normalized, sexualized violence experienced by many children and youth. We must challenge our communities and our families to confront the gendered cultural practices that are so clearly communicated to children and are so frightfully disempowering.
Heather R. Hlavka is an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Here article, “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse,” is forthcoming in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society, and currently available here. For the press release, click here.