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Sexual harassment in education is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with a student’s ability to learn, study, work or participate in school activities. In the U.S., it is a form of discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. [1] Sexual harassment involves a range of behavior from mild annoyances to sexual assault and rape. (AAUW 2002, 2006,Dzeich et al, 1990) See Sexual harassment: Varied behaviors and circumstances for examples.

Most sexual harassment is peer-peer, but sexual harassment by teachers and other school employees has also been reported. (AAUW 2002,2006) While sexual harassment is legally defined as "unwanted" behavior, many experts agree that even consensual sexual interactions between students and teachers constitutes harassment because the power differential creates a dynamic in which "mutual consent" is impossible. (Dzeich et al, 1990)


Sexual Harassment Support reports:

"Sexual harassment is common at every stage of education. Verbal and physical harassment begins in elementary school, and 4 out of 5 children experience some form of sexual harassment or bullying. Eight out of 10 will experience this at some point in their school lives, and roughly 25 percent will experience this often. Boys are more likely to physically harass and bully others, or to be physically bullied themselves. Girls are more likely to use, and experience, verbal and psychological harassment and bullying. Six out of 10 students will experience some form of physical sexual harassment." [2]

A survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW 2002) on 2064 students in 8th through 11th grade:

  • 83% of girls have been sexually harassed
  • 78% of boys have been sexually harassed
  • 38% of the students were harassed by teachers or school employees
  • 36% of school employees or teachers were harassed by students
  • 42% of school employees or teachers had been harassed by each other

In their recent study (AAUW 2006) on sexual harassment at colleges and universities, the AAUW reported:

  • 62% of female college students and 61% of male college students report having been sexually harassed at their university.
  • 66% of college students know someone personally who was harassed.
  • 10% or less of student sexual harassment victims attempt to report their experiences to a university employee.
  • 35% or more of college students who experience sexual harassment do not tell anyone about their experiences.
  • 80% of students who experienced sexual harassment report being harassed by another student or former student.
  • 39% of students who experienced sexual harassment say the incident or incidents occurred in the dorm.
  • 51% of male college students admit to sexually harassing someone in college, with 22% admitting to harassing someone often or occasionally.
  • 31% of female college students admit to harassing someone in college.

In the "Report Card on Gender Equity," the NCWGE that 30 percent of undergraduate students, and 40 percent of graduate students, have been sexually harassed. (NCWGE, 1997)

Student-on-student sexual harassment

Most sexually harassing behavior is student-on-student. In "The Report Card on Gender Equity", by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE), it was reported that, of students who have been sexually harassed, 90 were harassed by other students. (NCWGE, 1997) And in their 2006 report on sexual harassment in higher education, the AAUW reported that 80% of students sexually harassed were targeted by other students. (AAUW, 2006)

One of the most common reasons reported for sexually harassing behavior is because the harasser thinks it is funny to do so. In their 2006 study, the AAUW found that this was the most common rationale for harassment by boys--59 percent. Less than one-fifth (17%) of those boys who admitted to harassing others say they did so because they wanted a date with the person. (AAUW, 2006) Other researchers assert that the "I thought it was funny" rationale is a fallacy, and the true reasons align more with that of a need to assert power and induce fear in others--more in line with bullying. These hazing behaviors develop in school, continue in high school and college, eventually moving into the workplace. (Boland, 2002)

Sexual harassment and abuse of students by teachers


In their 2002 survey, the AAUW reported that, of students who had been harassed, 38% were harassed by teachers or other school employees. One survey, conducted with psychology students, reports that 10% had sexual interactions with their educators; in turn, 13% of educators reported sexual interaction with their students. [3] In a survey of high school students, 14% reported that they had engaged in sexual intercourse with a teacher. (Wishnietsky, 1991) In a national survey conducted for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000 that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000. And in a major 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 10 percent of U.S. public school students have been targeted with sexual attention by school employees. Indeed, sexual harassment and abuse by teachers has been described as 100 times more frequent than abuse by priests. [4]

In Japan, sexual harassment of students by teachers is so prevalent it has been given its own acronym--SHOC, for "Sexual Harassment on Campus." [5]

Psychology and behaviors of teachers who sexually harass students

Most complaints about teachers' behavior tend to center around what is felt to be inappropriate talk in a class or discussion, such as using sexist or sexual references to make a point. However, some teachers can take things to a more extreme degree. Relationships between students and teachers can be often quite intimate and intense as they share common passions and interests. Students are dependent on their teachers' approval for academic success, opportunities, and later career success. They will talk about personal issues, such as problems at home, or with boyfriends/girlfriends. Such closeness and intimacy can blur the professional boundaries and lead people--both school employee and student alike--to step over the line. [6] Martin writes,

"...teachers hold positions of trust. They are expected to design teaching programmes and carry out their teaching duties to help their students develop as mature thinkers. This may involve close working relationships in tutorials or laboratories, individual meetings to discuss projects or essays, and more casual occasions for intellectual give and take. For impressionable young students, the boundaries between intellectual development and personal life may become blurred. In this situation, some academics easily move from intellectual to personal to sexual relationships."[7]

A teacher who harasses a student may be doing so because they are experiencing the stress from various personal problems or life traumas, such as marital trouble or divorce, professional crisis, financial difficulties, medical problems, or death of a spouse or child. The behavior can be a symptom of the effects of such stresses, and may stop if the situation changes, or the pressures are removed. (See Prekel, The Situational Harasser)

Personality traits and attitudes

People who engage in sexual harassment and abuse in school don’t necessarily look as if they would ever harm a student. Attorney Mary Jo McGrath writes:

"Most of us have a mental image that people who hurt other people look odd and act differently than ordinary folk. To the contrary, frequently the perpetrator is someone we think of as a winner. Though always dangerous to generalize it is important to challenge our beliefs with some disconcerting facts." [8]

Zalk has described several personality dimensions, or "themes," evident in teachers who sexually harass students. Each dimension is comprised of two profiles, each representing the end of a “pole.” (These are not entirely mutually exclusive dimensions, and a harasser's placement into any is a matter of judgement.)

The Untouchable and The Risk-Taker: The Untouchable does not consider the consequences of his or her actions, believing themselves to be in control, free of any real risks, and beyond the ranks of censorship or reprimands. They may flaunt sexual liaisons with students, viewing this as a challenge to the system. For the most part, they are narcissistic and grandiose, viewing themselves as “untouchable,” much like the egocentric adolescent who does not believe they will ever “get caught” or who continually drives drunk. The Risk-Taker knows they are being “naughty” and their actions are a statement, but at the same time, the risk-taker fears punishment for the transgressions. They will vacillate between the “high” of breaking-the-rules and guilt at the immorality of their actions. The student will symbolize the transgression, and symbolize the harasser’s weakness. Because of this, the harasser will blame the victim, labeling them a “tempter” or “temptress” who has taken advantage. Indeed, the Risk-Taker will view themselves as being the victims, and not the other way around.

The Seducer-Demander and the Passive-Initiator: The Seducer-Demander is a “power player” who actively plots sexual encounters using his or her position to do so. A Demander has little more than contempt for their targets, and they broker favors for sex as their way of keeping people in their “proper place.” A Seducer also uses their position to facilitate sexual encounters but they have a need to be desired and loved, and the power of their position, and the effect it has on their targets, is part of this dynamic. The Passive-Initiator is the person who pays special attention to a student, is flirtatious and flattering, but who does not make the first overtly sexual overture. They will argue that, if the student is the one to initiate sexual contact, then the teacher is not guilty of any transgressions. However, it has been argued that an unequal power distribution in this kind of relationship makes the teachers concession to the overtures exploitation. That the subordinate "asked" is not an excuse for complying. The Passive-Initiator "draws the line between morality and immorality at who does the asking."

The Infatuated and The Sexual Conqueror: The Sexual Conqueror is the typical Don Juan (or Juanita) who seduces many people. They will remember little about each conquest, as they are only interested in numbers. In many cases, they will not even be able to match a name to a face. The Infatuated begins by developing a “crush” on a student which may evolve into stronger feelings. The primary attraction to the target is that they are student which makes the Infatuated feel stronger and more powerful than they would in a relationship with a peer. They want to be looked up to, and to be the center of the relationship. They want to be the teacher who “guides” the lover. In many cases, the Infatuated are very discontented with their own status within their departments or companies, and the relationship with the students is a panacea to this, and helps to bolster the Infatuated's self-esteem. (Zalk, 1990)

For some examples of these kinds of personality traits at work, see Naomi Wolf's article The Silent Treatment, about her relationship with her professor, the renowned writer Harold Bloom, while she was a student at Yale University. See also SESAME survivors stories, Mary Kay LeTourneau, Pamela Smart, and Debra Lafave.

Sexual relationships between students and teachers

There has been debate over whether or not sexual interactions and relationships between students and teachers constitutes abuse, or if there are benefits that outweigh the risks. In Britain, sexual relationships between students under the age of 18 were not outlawed until 2003 in The Sexual Offenses Act. Pat Sikes, an education lecturer, has written a paper in defense of pupil-teacher affairs, arguing that it is wrong always to cast students as victims when they are often the initiators. She met her husband in 1970 on her first day at school when she was aged 14, and his first day as a teacher, aged 22. "It wasn't until two years later, on the evening that he left the school to take up a post elsewhere that we declared our feelings for and to each other ... I returned to school, after the summer vacation as [his] girlfriend," she said. She suggests that about 1,500 pupil-teacher affairs develop in Britain every year. She argues that expressions of sexuality provide a "major currency and resource in the everyday exchanges of school life ... and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the seductive nature and 'erotic charge' often characteristic of 'good' teaching which provokes a positive and exciting response." [9]

While sexual relationships with pupils under the age of 18 is illegal in the U.S., this is not the case in higher education. Like Sikes, Jane Gallop argues that students learn more effectively in a sexually charged atmosphere. She writes, "In fact, it seemed to make it somewhat easier for me to write. Seducing them made me feel kind of cocky, and that allowed me to presume I had something to say worth saying." In her book, she describes the separate occasions she slept with two male professors on her dissertation committee, and when she first began sleeping with her own students as an assistant professor. (Gallop, 1997).

However, in recent years, there has been controversy over even consensual sexual interactions between students and teachers, especially within the last decade. [10] Like many, Gallop asserts that the relationships between a teacher and a student is very much like that of a parent and a child. (Gallop, 1997) However, it is this parallel that many say is the reason teacher-pupil sexual contact and relations are immoral because they are too closely akin to incest, and similar long-term damages can result. Some draw parallels with the phenomena of therapist abuse, or priest abuse. (Martin, 1993) Of his sexual relationship with Gallop at Cornell, Richard Klein admitted, "For decades I have felt guilt and shame for having performed toward her in a way that was unprofessional, exploitative, and lousy in bed."

Many experts argue that even consensual sexual interactions between students and teachers constitute sexual harassment. The most commonly expressed concern is over whether "mutual consent" can exist in a relationship where there is such a disparity in power between the people involved. Because of this, more and more schools are adopting policies that forbid amorous relationships between students and professors "in the instructional context" even when they are consenting (Smithson, 1990). Dzeich et al writes:

"Physical intimacy with students is not now and never has been acceptable behavior for academicians. It cannot be defended or explained away by evoking fantasies of devoted professors and sophisticated students being denied the right to 'true love.' Where power differentials exist, there can be no 'mutual consent.'" (Dzeich et al, 1990)

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, a dean at the University of Texas stated he'd like to crack down on consensual relationships between professors and students. "Wait until she graduates," he says he tells male professors. "We have a kind of sacred trust to the students," he explains. "They're coming here to get us to evaluate what their abilities are and what their future could be. These relationships poison the whole academic well." [11]

Dzeich argues that much damage occurs because of the betrayal by someone that the student trusted and respected. Moreover, seduction attempts which are masked by pretenses to academic and personal attention are particularly damaging because the student feels complicit in their own abuse. (Dzeich 1990) Another consequence is that, when sex is an accepted behavior between teachers and students, it can be more difficult to raise concerns about sexual harassment. For example, unwanted sexual advances by a professor may be intimidating or even frightening, however, if sexual relations between staff and students is common at the school, it will be difficult for a student to identify this behavior as harassment. (Martin, 1993)

Sexual relations between teachers and students raises concerns about the abuse of trust and conflicts of interest--and these points are not usually covered in sexual harassment policies.

Conflicts of interest can arise when the professional responsibilities of a teacher are affected, or appear to be affected, by a special personal relationship with a student. These can include showing favoritism towards a student sexually involved with the teacher, or hostility towards a student due to a past relationship. If a teacher is sexually involved with a student, colleagues may feel pressured to give preferential treatment to the student, such as better marks, extensions on essays, extra help, or academic opportunities. When there are multiple relationships between several staff and students, the possibilities for conflict of interest are enormous. Even if there is no favoritism or hostility, it can be perceived by others to be exhibited.

There is also the question of the abuse of trust. This occurs when the trust associated with a professional relationship is destroyed because of non-professional actions or requests for non-professional actions. Martin writes, "Teachers are in a position of authority and trust to foster the intellectual development of their students. When they engage in sexual relations with a student, they violate that trust implicit in a professional teacher-student relationship." (Martin, 1993)

Effects of sexual harassment in education

Sexual harassment by teachers

After her experience as a student with Harold Bloom, Naomi Wolf wrote, "I was spiraling downward; I had gotten a C-, a D, and an F, and was put on academic probation. My confidence shaken, I failed in my effort to win the Rhodes Scholarship at the end of the term....Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothing—because the teacher was valuable to them—they had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because I—and other young women who could be expected to remain silent—would never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth." Of the effects she now struggles with so many years later, she writes, "Keeping bad secrets hurts. Is a one-time sexual encroachment...a major secret or a minor one? Minor, when it comes to a practical effect on my life; I have obviously survived. This is the argument often made against accusers in sexual-harassment cases: Look, no big deal, you’re fine. My career was fine; my soul was not fine." [12]

The gender double standard

There is a myth regarding the extent of the damage caused by women who sexually abuse or harass. In an interview about the rise of sexual abuse by female teachers, Dr. Jeff Brown, a psychologist who treats female sex offenders stated, "There is definitely a double standard.....The impact they have is significant on their victims and sometimes we don’t regard the impact in a similar way as we do men." Moreover, female teachers who sexually harass or abuse students are consistently given significantly lighter punishments or reprimands than males who engage in the exact same behaviors. [13]

It has been argued that the effects of pupil-teacher sexual harassment vary depending on the gender of the student and the harasser. In some states in the U.S., sexual relations between a woman and an underage male did not even constitute statutory rape until the 1970s. Many assert that most boys would be happy to have a teacher show sexual interest in them. [14]Others say that this is short-sighted, and the seriousness of the long-term effects far outweigh any immediate gratification. Experts say sexually victimized boys experience difficulties later in developing age-appropriate relationships and gravitate toward pornography and one-night stands. They are also more likely as adults to suffer depression, anxiety and drug addiction. The 16-year-old boy in California who had an affair with his 30 year old teacher proclaimed in a letter to the court, "I'm not the same boy." According to the boy's mother, he was so traumatized that his hair was falling out. "(She) took away my best friend, my hunting buddy. I can't have him back now. He is gone, " proclaimed the father of a teenage boy molested by a teacher who held drug-alcohol-and-sex parties at her home. [15]

See also


  • American Association of University Women. Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School. AAUW, 2002.
  • American Association of University Women. Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus. AAUW,2006.
  • Boland, Mary L. Sexual Harassment: Your Guide to Legal Action. Naperville, Illinois: Sphinx Publishing, 2002.
  • Dziech, Billie Wright, Weiner, Linda. The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus. Chicago Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  • Finkelhor, David. Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory & Research. Free Press, 1984
  • Gallop, Jane. Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Martin, Brian. Campus sex: a cause for concern?. EEO Sexual Harassment Sub-committee Pamphlet, University of Wollogong, Australia, 1993.
  • National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, (NCWGE) Title IX at 30: Report card on gender equity. Title IX report card. Washington, D.C.: National Women’s Law Center, 1997.
  • Smithson, Isaiah. "Investigating gender, power, and pedagogy," in Smithson, Isaiah, and Gabriel, Susan eds. Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy. University of Illinois Press, 1990)
  • Wishnietsky, Dan H. "Reported and Unreported Teacher-Student Sexual Harassment." Journal of Education Research, 1991, Vol. 3
  • Zalk, Sue Rosenburg. "Men in the academy: a psychological profile of harassment." in Paludi, Michele A. ed. Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment On Campus. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1987.

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