Sexual harassment common in Scotland’s secondary schools

Published: 23 February 2022

Sexual harassment is common in Scotland’s secondary schools, however the ways in which students distinguish between what’s acceptable or not is nuanced, according to new research.

Sexual harassment is common in Scotland’s secondary schools, however the ways in which students distinguish between what’s acceptable or not is nuanced, according to new research.

The study – led by the University of Glasgow’s MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, and published in PLOS ONE – suggests that school-based strategies to tackle sexual harassment must engage with the complexity of the issue, as many participants in the study, aged between 13-17, expressed uncertainty regarding the experience or acceptability of certain behaviours.

The research – which set out to explore the prevalence and perceptions of sexual harassment in Scottish secondary schools – found that overall, almost 70% of students reported having experienced some type of sexual harassment at or on the way to school within the past three months. This included 65% experiencing something visual/verbal (eg sexual jokes) and 34% experiencing a personally-invasive behaviour involving contact (eg sexual touching).

Data suggested a ‘gateway effect’, such that personally-invasive behaviours involving contact are almost always reported by those also reporting more common visual/verbal behaviours.

The study assessed the prevalence of behaviours in the past three months via a student survey of 638 students, 119 of which took part in 18 focus groups to explore which of ten example behaviours were perceived as harassing or unacceptable, and why.

There has previously been very little research in respect of the prevalence of sexual harassment among UK adolescents, and no recent study internationally on adolescent perceptions of ‘what counts’ as sexual harassment.

Some survey participants reported being unsure about whether they had experienced certain behaviours; and in focus groups, participants expressed uncertainty regarding the acceptability of most behaviours.

Ambiguities centred on context of how it happened, including degree of pressure; persistence and physicality; degree of familiarity between the instigator and recipient; and perception of the instigator’s intent.

This means young people need to make complex judgements about the factors which might make a behaviour more or less acceptable. They used their understandings of human rights like dignity, respect and equality, and how well they knew the person as a friend in order to do this.

Lead author Kirstin Mitchell, Professor of Social Science and Public Health at the University of Glasgow’s MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, said: “Sexual harassment is common, and often seen as ‘normal’ among teenagers at school. Our study agrees with others in this respect, but, importantly, also highlights the uncertainties which teenagers may feel around whether many behaviours generally regarded as representing sexual harassment are acceptable or not.

“These results have implications for the design of school-based sexual harassment interventions which, if effective, could generate long-lasting changes in attitudes and behaviours.”

The study data were drawn from students in three Scottish secondary schools that agreed to participate in a pilot of a whole school approach to end gender-based violence (Equally Safe at School) implemented by the non-governmental organization, Rape Crisis Scotland.

The paper, ‘Sexual harassment in secondary school: prevalence and ambiguities. A mixed methods study in Scottish schools,’ is published in PLOS ONE. The study was funded by the MRC and Chief Scientist Office.

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First published: 23 February 2022