Jennifer Cheung, Tobi Kawanami and Ciara Kosai.
Many Lowell students, including senior Maxima Alexandra, face sexual harassment on almost a daily basis. Alexandra gets catcalled fairly regularly, but the worst harassment she’s faced was when a man followed her home from the bus stop to offer her money in exchange for sex. Most of what she deals with happens outside of school, but at Lowell she has been subjected to inappropriate comments, such as people trying to guess her bra size.
For Alexandra, one of the worst parts about being sexually harassed is that there often is not a clear way for the victim to respond. “Women are taught to be very accommodating, and that, with the fact that we get sexually harassed, teaches us that we have to sit there and take it,” Alexandra said.
RECENTLY, WOMEN OF all backgrounds have been calling attention to the sexual harassment and assault they’ve experienced by using #MeToo on social media. The phrase was first coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an American civil rights activist. In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano invited others to tweet #MeToo if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. The tweet took off, and the movement went viral.
Additionally, allegations against politicians and movie stars like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Roy Moore have flooded the media, bringing exposure to a culture of unwanted advances and unwarranted comments in American society.
In response to this phenomenon and the #MeToo movement, Hollywood celebrities founded Time’s Up, dedicated to preventing assault and harassment in the workplace. The movement encourages women and men to speak up about their experiences and stop tolerating harassment and abuse. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund also uses lawsuits to hold harassers responsible.
Since October, 71 men in politics, media and entertainment have resigned or been fired after allegations of sexual misconduct, according to a New York Times article.
Yet even with the amount of recent coverage, there remains confusion over what constitutes as sexual harassment and what doesn’t. In one survey by The Economist, 25 percent of millennial men thought that asking someone out for a drink constituted as sexual harassment.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. This includes catcalling, obscene remarks and unwanted sexual advances.
Something not everyone understands about sexual harassment is that it has to do with a power imbalance, according to Lowell health teacher Lisa Cole. People who are typically more privileged, namely males and especially Caucasian males, are less likely to experience catcalling, being followed, or other forms of sexual harassment than their female peers, she said.
Gender roles can also play into issues of sexual harassment, according to the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center at the University of Michigan. While women are taught to be passive and accommodating, men are taught that they are entitled to women’s attentions. These ideals can lead into harassment and abuse, according to an article by the center.
Although men do experience harassment, women are harassed at a much higher rate. A national survey by the non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH) found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men have experienced street harassment, which is defined as unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent. Women were also much more likely to say that they experienced harassment on a regular or daily basis.
The Lowell conducted a survey of 301 students and found that 26 percent of female Lowell students have encountered the issue of sexual harassment outside of Lowell as compared to 15 percent of male Lowell students.
Cole remarked that while men do experience harassment, many don’t have to worry about it on a daily basis and may not always understand the gravity of the issue. “I don’t think they’ve ever thought about what the world is like when you fear being harassed or being assaulted, and that’s just the reality for most women I know,” she said.
Women of color report higher rates than white women. A 2014 study by SSH found that 48 percent of black women and 45 percent of Latina women had been harassed on the street compared with 36 percent of white women. “I definitely think that women who look like me get sexually harassed more than other women,” Alexandra said. “I’m biracial, and I think that women of color do tend to get sexually harassed more, and also women who are curvier.”
“I’m biracial, and I think that women of color do tend to get sexually harassed more, and also women who are curvier.”
Because of the imminent threat of being catcalled or street harassed, a lot of women have to take extra precautions, such as avoiding walking alone at night, according to Alexandra. “It’s made me more nervous to talk to people, and a lot more wary, especially of men,” she said.
While the media has recently brought attention to celebrities experiencing harassment, it’s important to remember that the problem is endemic. “It’s not just in the entertainment industry,” senior Feminist Club president Claire Garcia said. “It’s not just in the music industry, it’s not just in politics, it’s everywhere surrounding us. And so to say it’s not in a school site is just wrong.” According to The Lowell’s survey, 7.3 percent of students said that they had experienced sexual harassment at Lowell.
However, more students reported experiencing sexual harassment outside of Lowell, with 21.7 percent saying they had encountered the problem.
One of these students is senior Crystal Zheng, who had an uncomfortable incident at the public library last summer. She was browsing books when a man started standing uncomfortably close to her. She left the area but later ran into him again while reading a book. “I glanced up and he was exposing his genitals, and I was like, ‘Oh God, that is so uncomfortable,’” Zheng said.
She reported it to a librarian, who notified the police. The police told her he couldn’t be charged with any crime and the only thing they could do was to put him on a blacklist and prevent him from entering the library. “I don’t know how they’re going to do that since they don’t keep a very close eye on who enters,” Zheng said.
WITHOUT HAVING A clear definition of what constitutes as sexual harassment, people can find it difficult to know if they’ve experienced it. In one study by the EEOC, only 25 percent of women reported having experienced harassment at work, but when given specific examples of sexual harassment, that number rose to 60 percent. According to The Lowell’s survey, only 60 percent of Lowell students said they had learned about sexual harassment in school.
When people are regularly exposed to sexual harassment, it becomes harder to recognize its more subtle forms, according to Cole. “When people see it all around them it becomes normalized,” she said.
“Hopefully this will be the generation that says, ‘It’s not okay,’ and normalizes healthy and respectful interactions.”
Cole teaches about sexual harassment as part of the curriculum of her health class. Every year, she invites a group called Expect Respect to speak. The group goes over topics such as power and control, both in relationships and in society, as well as sexual assault, healthy and unhealthy relationships, and ways to stay safer. They also provide students with a list of community resources.
LOWELL ITSELF ALSO provides resources for students who’ve been harassed. If a student tells a teacher they’ve experienced harassment from another student, the administration tries to handle the situation internally, according to assistant principal Orlando Beltran. “Our initial reaction is, let’s see how we can discuss this so A, you don’t feel uncomfortable, and B, you learn that personal space is something that we need to be cognizant about whenever we’re talking, communicating, or even touching someone else,” he said.
While Lowell teachers receive training on how to handle sexual harassment between students, the focus is not on the teachers’ own behavior towards students. According to new biology teacher Anjana Amirapu, when she started teaching at Lowell last semester, she received training about mandated reporting, which included how to recognize signs that a student is being abused outside of school, how to approach the topic and how to file a report. “We’ve had some training of sexual harassment in terms of mandated reporting, but if it’s like, ‘Don’t sexually harass students,’ we haven’t covered that — not to my knowledge,” she said. However, Amirapu said that it was implied this behavior was unacceptable, if not explicitly stated.
Teachers themselves can sometimes tread the line of sexual misconduct at school. The Lowell’s survey found that 19 percent of students reported witnessing a teacher making inappropriate comments in front of students.
If a student who has experienced sexual harassment at school wants to file a formal report, Lowell’s procedure for dealing with it involves a long process of paperwork and administrators, according to Cole. First, the dean takes a statement from the person who was harassed, who then has to write down the details of the incident. This is sent to principal Andrew Ishibashi, and then forwarded to Title Nine Coordinator Keasara Williams at San Francico Unified School District, Cole said.
This process might seem intimidating for someone who has experienced sexual harassment, according to Cole. “It might be difficult to report it, or they may not know how to do it or who to talk to,” Cole said. “They may not feel comfortable talking to someone or reliving an experience that was very uncomfortable.”
“Nothing was ever done about it.”
In addition, there’s the threat of being disbelieved or not taken seriously when reporting having experienced sexual harassment. In middle school, Alexandra reported unwanted touching by a fellow classmate to the administration. “Nothing was ever done about it,” she said.
Alexandra has also had friends that were told they were “overthinking it” or “victimizing themselves” when they told someone about an incident.
Many sexual harassment victims are ashamed, blame themselves or fear retaliation, which often hinders them from coming forward, according to Psychology Today.
As a result, most harassment goes unreported. Of the Lowell students who have been sexually harassed, only 20 percent have reported it, according to The Lowell’s survey. A 2018 study by SSH found that, on a national scale, only 10 percent of women in the United States who were sexually harassed reported it to an official.
However, because of recent efforts like the #MeToo movement, more women have felt empowered to speak out, according to an article by CNN.
Although the movement has been mostly met with support, some people fear that there is not enough distinction between different kinds of harassment and assault, and that lumping them together under the same hashtag might minimize the gravity of the issues.
Cole thinks it’s good that people are coming out with their stories, but worries that minor types of harassment, such as commenting on someone’s body or staring at them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, aren’t being given the proper amount of weight. “I hope it doesn’t minimize the more subtle forms of harassment,” she said.
Alexandra, on the other hand, fears that more severe harassment won’t be taken as seriously. “There’s a difference between being sexually harassed, being sexually assaulted and being raped.” she said. “I think the Me Too movement doesn’t recognize that.”
“I think the Me Too movement doesn’t recognize that.”
Photo by Jennifer Cheung, Tobi Kawanami and Ciara Kosai.
SEXUAL ASSAULT is defined by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as any type of sexual contact or behavior that happens without the explicit consent of the recipient. Sexual assault includes molestation, rape and attempted rape.
Sexual assault in America is relatively common. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted or abused before they turn eighteen, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).
People can be assaulted by friends, family members or other people they know. In fact, according to the NSVRC, in 80 percent of rapes, the victim previously knew their rapist.
“It’s not their choice to get their life taken away. Now it’s their choice to take control again.”
Jayem, a Lowell junior who is using a fake name to protect her identity, was assaulted by someone she knew well.
In her freshman year at Lowell, Jayem was living with her aunt and her aunt’s husband. Jayem said that she looked up to the husband. “[He] treated me as a daughter,” she said. “So it was very unexpected how he approached me.”
Jayem recounts that one night in her freshman year, the husband started touching her in inappropriate places and asking questions like, “‘Do you feel good?’” Jayem said she was disgusted by these advances.
She left her aunt’s house right away and got picked up by another relative, who she now lives with.
At first Jayem didn’t want to report the husband because he was family. However, in the beginning of her sophomore year she told her counselor about the incident, and her counselor, as a mandated reporter, was required to report what happened.
All Lowell staff members are mandated reporters, according to Beltran. If a student tells a teacher they’ve experienced sexual abuse, neglect, violence or human trafficking, the teacher is required to file a police report.
Jayem and her counselor filed a police report, but three weeks later, the police called her and said that she didn’t have enough evidence to accuse her assaulter. “It was very unfair,” Jayem said. “Why would I lie about something like that? Obviously, I don’t have enough evidence, I ran away right after the thing happened. I was just upset that they didn’t believe me.”
“It was very unfair”
In retrospect, Jayem said she would have acted differently after the assault. “I should have called the police right after I got out of that situation,” she said.
Sexual assault often has long-lasting repercussions. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, effects of sexual violence can include anything from decreased self esteem to serious mental illnesses, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sexual harassment also has repercussions, although they are usually not as devastating as those brought on by assault. It can lead to anxiety, depression and stress-related physical problems.
MANY VICTIMS OF sexual harassment or assault experience victim blaming, which happens when other people question whether the crime could have been prevented if the victim had acted differently. Victim blaming includes saying things like “she asked for it,” or remarking that if the victim had dressed differently, they wouldn’t have been attacked.
Victim blaming can be harmful because it marginalizes the victim and often makes it harder for them to report the abuse, according to an article by Southern Connecticut State University. In one study by the DOJ, only 33 percent of rapes were reported to the police.
Junior Emma MacKenzie told The Lowell in an interview about having taken a class syllabus test that made her upset. According to MacKenzie, one of the questions was, “What kind of clothing makes you a target for sexual harassment?” The choices listed were “a halloween costume, jeans, a sweatshirt and shorty shorts and low-cut blouses.”
The implication that a person can render themselves a target with their clothing choices reinforces the idea that victim blaming is appropriate instead of teaching people not to harass others, according to MacKenzie. “It’s such an outdated idea that female clothing is the cause for sexual harassment,” MacKenzie said. “The whole problem lies with men who oversexualize girls and their clothes.”
A SURVEY BY the American Association of University Women found that among 7th through 12th graders, 48 percent had experienced sexual harassment at school in the previous school year. That percentage is much higher than the one found by The Lowell’s survey, which reported only 7.6 percent of students experiencing harassment on campus.
Alexandra thinks that, while Lowell is apparently better off than other American schools, there needs to be more discussion about sexual harassment and assault and how to prevent it.
“I don’t think there’s more sexual harassment than other places,” Alexandra said.
“I think that we have a problem with sexual harassment in that we don’t have ways to stop it and we don’t have any kind of ongoing conversation about it.”
She believes that the issues of sexual harassment and assault can be addressed with more general knowledge of the topics and their detrimental effects. “Education is part of the answer to solving this issue, and that requires that everyone has to listen to what women have to say and their experiences with sexual harassment,” Alexandra said.
In addition to becoming better educated, it’s important for students who experience sexual harassment to report it, according to the Equal Rights Advocates. It says there are several steps that students can take to confront the issue. Students should clearly tell the harasser that what they’re doing makes them uncomfortable and talk to a trusted adult, like a parent, teacher or counselor about the issue. If it doesn’t stop, students can file a report with the school or contact their Title Nine officer and ask about the complaint process.
“Education is part of the answer to solving this issue, and that requires that everyone has to listen to what women have to say and their experiences with sexual harassment”
It’s important to remember that societal change doesn’t happen by itself, according to Garcia. “Everyone has a lot going on,” Garcia said, “but at the end of the day something needs to be done and someone needs to step forward and do it.”
Jayem hopes that coming out with her story inspires other people who’ve had similar experiences to speak up. “It’s obviously not their fault,” she said. “It’s not their choice to get their life taken away. Now it’s their choice to take control again.”
CORRECTION: The Lowell originally published this story with Crystal Zheng’s name spelled Xhang. We apologize for this mistake.