Sexual Violence Begins in Middle School

A recent survey of 1,391 students from four Midwest middle schools (grades 5-8) indicated that middle school-aged students are experiencing real acts of sexual violence. The survey sample was evenly split between boys and girls.

According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

these findings are consistent with studies of high school and college-age students that find that sexual harassment is quite prevalent; two national studies found that by the time students are done with school, 81% have experienced some sort of sexual harassment (Gruber & Fineran, 2007). Students who reported an upsetting sexual harassment experience often indicated that they were physically touched or forced to be kissed against their will. Sexual harassment experiences that were just verbal in nature (e.g., commentary about one’s body parts) were also common.

An interesting pattern that emerged when students were asked to describe the most upsetting sexual harassment experience was a tendency to describe the event as physical or verbal unwanted behaviors, but then to immediately dismiss the behavior as joking behavior. A sizable percentage of students who asserted that the joking, teasing, pinching, and grabbing “didn’t bother” them and was “just joking” seems indicative of a broader societal force to normalize and legitimize sexually violent acts. It is a cause of concern that these youth are at such a young age dismissive of behaviors that are clearly distressing. One study found that being dismissive of sexual harassment creates a heightened risk for being a later perpetrator of sexual violence (Espelage & De La Rue, 2013).

Where does most sexual violence occur?

A study of high schools identified spaces that lacked adult monitoring, like hallways, dining areas, and parking lots, as the most common locations for sexual violence (Astor et al., 1999). In this study, students who reported experiencing sexual harassment indicated that it was most likely to happen in the hallway; this finding is consistent with the previous research. However, the second most common location indicated was the classroom. Presumably, this would be one of the areas of the school that would be the most organized and monitored; the fact that students experienced the most sexual violence here raises some interesting questions. Is this result simply a consequence of the reality that the largest percentage of student time at school is spent in the classroom? In the cases mentioned by these students, was adult supervision absent in the classroom? Or, most worrying, was adult supervision present but in these instances unable to prevent the harassment from occurring?

These disturbing findings raise some serious issues for educators and policymakers:

Middle school youth have experienced a wide range of upsetting sexual violence experiences that seem to be unaddressed by adults in these schools. Prevention efforts to prevent sexual violence and homophobic name-calling must be targeted to young early adolescence before high school. Schools need to recognize that they are legally responsible to talk to youth and adults in schools about the definition of sexual harassment, the reporting of such behaviors, and youth need to understand their rights to attend schools without fear of sexual harassment.

You can access the full results, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Experiences Among Middle School Youth by Sarah Rinehart, Namrata Doshi, & Dorothy Espelage, here.

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James R. Marsh
A University of Michigan Law School graduate, James represents victims of campus sexual assault and rape; Title IX violations; sex abuse in schools, colleges, churches, and government and military institutions; online sexual exploitation; child pornography; sextortion, and revenge porn. His case on compensation for victims of child pornography in federal criminal restitution proceedings was recently decided by the United States Supreme Court. That case, United States v. Paroline, led to the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act currently pending in the House and Senate. James founded the nationally recognized Children's Law Center in Washington, DC, and is an experienced trial attorney, and frequent commentator, lecturer, and Huffington Post Blogger. He now leads Marsh Law Firm in New York which is recognized worldwide for its work helping sexually abused survivors obtain justice and rebuild their lives with dignity and respect.


  • Esther Warkov March 22, 2015 (11:13 am)

    Our non-profit under development, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, is seeking information about similar surveys K-12 as we develop trainings for students and schools. We know first hand the life-scarring effects of sexual harassment/violence so submitted a complaint to OCR against the Seattle School District, opened June 2014

  • Esther Warkov October 11, 2015 (12:18 am) is now online with resources for K-12+ students.

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