Gillian Bridgwood was busy doing her job as a lifeguard at a community pool, so the 16-year-old didn’t hear her phone vibrate with an incoming text message about praise band practice that night. But a fellow lifeguard heard it.
That teen boy thought it would be funny to reply with a sexual message. But the inappropriate text was unknowingly directed to the ministry team leader, a young married seminary student. Gillian found herself in the middle of a sexually charged storm, deeply upset and embarrassed. Her parents had to take the matter all the way to their town leadership, which employed the pool staff.
What one teen thought was funny crossed the line into a violation of his employer’s sexual harassment policy. It nearly cost him his job. And it demonstrated how sexualized teenage pranks can quickly lead to painful consequences.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this and worse have become too common in the lives of our teens. During the 2010-2011 school year, 48 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a national survey by the American Association of University Women. Even our churches aren’t immune. “I see a lot of [teenagers] reporting sexual harassment not only in the school but surprisingly in the youth group as well,” says Rob Jackson, a Colorado-based counselor who specializes in sexual issues.
Our teens are growing up in a hypersexualized culture, and we need to help them deal with sexual harassment and teach them to avoid harassing others.
What is sexual harassment?
Flirting is a natural part of adolescence. But teens can have trouble knowing where flirting ends and harassment begins.
At the most basic level, sexual harassment includes any behavior that is sexual in nature and unwanted. It can take many forms, but according to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, common types include:
• physical contact (including touching, grabbing or rubbing against your body)
• sexual comments or gestures at, toward or in front of you (including name-calling, spreading rumors, telling jokes)
• sexual propositions (such as asking for sexual contact or repeatedly asking you out)
• sexual communication (either personal or electronic, that is threatening, propositioning or explicit)
It’s also worth clarifying that it’s never acceptable for an adult to flirt with a teenager, especially if that adult is a boss, teacher or other person in a position of authority.
What you can do
We should pray for God’s work in our children’s lives and for His wisdom to face trouble if it comes. Consider these tips to help prepare your teen to talk with you:
Teach sex holistically. Engage your teens in ongoing dialogue about sex, giving them freedom to ask questions. “They need to understand that maintaining sexual integrity is not just mere abstinence from physical sexual behavior; it’s an issue of the heart,” Jackson says. As teens get comfortable with discussing sexual purity, they will feel more comfortable discussing issues related to sexual harassment.
Keep communication open. Spend time with them so they know you’re available if trouble comes. “Talk to kids even younger than adolescence about the power of secrets,” Jackson says. “Because if a person is being harassed, typically they’re going to keep that guarded and may be afraid of getting in trouble.”
Be present. Welcome your child’s friends into your home. Talk with them. If your teen has a job, visit her at work and meet her supervisors.
Listen intently. Pay close attention to changes in your teen’s disposition or complaints about school or work. “It’s a sign if you see the teen beginning to isolate, perhaps even seeming fearful,” Jackson says.
Set digital guidelines. Help your family control its technology usage. Discuss dangers, including the permanence of the digital domain and the consequences of sexting (the sending of sexually suggestive or explicit messages or images on a cell- phone or other mobile device).
If harassment happens
Do your teens know how to respond to sexual harassment? Consider the following steps:
Don’t laugh along. A harasser often starts small, perhaps with an innuendo or dirty joke. Zero tolerance can help avoid escalation.
Know the law. Every school and workplace is required to have a policy on sexual harassment, defining what it is and outlining the organization’s process for dealing with it.
Document. Make a written record of dates and specific occurrences.
Report the problem. Seek help from the school system, place of business or church leadership. Some schools allow anonymous complaints to protect students. You can also report directly to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights within 180 days of an incident.
Be persistent. If your complaints are met with indifference, go to a higher level, such as the school district, state department of education or corporate leadership.
Get legal help. If necessary, an attorney specializing in sexual harassment can provide valuable assistance.
If you are dealing with a teen and the issue of sexual harassment, you can e-mail us at [email protected] or call 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) to find the resources you need or to speak with a licensed counselor.