Sexual harassment in secondary school: prevalence and ambiguities. A mixed methods study in Scottish schools

Sweeting, H. , Blake, C. , Riddell, J. , Barrett, S. and Mitchell, K. R. (2022) Sexual harassment in secondary school: prevalence and ambiguities. A mixed methods study in Scottish schools. PLoS ONE, 17(2), e0262248. (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0262248) (PMID:35196313) (PMCID:PMC8865636)

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Abstract

Background: Adolescence is characterized by identity formation, exploration and initiation of intimate relationships. Much of this occurs at school, making schools key sites of sexual harassment. Schools often lack awareness and understanding of the issue, and UK research on the topic is scarce. We explored prevalence and perceptions of sexual harassment in a school-based mixed-methods study of 13–17 year-old Scottish adolescents. Methods: A student survey (N = 638) assessed past 3-months school-based victimization and perpetration prevalence via 17 behavioral items based on the most commonly used school-based sexual harassment measure (‘Hostile Hallways’). Eighteen focus groups (N = 119 students) explored which of 10 behaviors were perceived as harassing/unacceptable and why. Results: Two-thirds reported any victimization: 64.7% ‘visual/verbal’ (e.g. sexual jokes) and 34.3% ‘contact/personally-invasive’ behaviors (e.g. sexual touching; most of whom also reported experiencing visual/verbal types) in the past 3-months. Data suggested a gateway effect, such that contact/personally-invasive behaviors are more likely to be reported by those also reporting more common visual/verbal behaviors. Some survey participants reported being unsure about whether they had experienced certain behaviors; and in focus groups, participants expressed uncertainty regarding the acceptability of most behaviors. Ambiguities centered on behavioral context and enactment including: degree of pressure, persistence and physicality; degree of familiarity between the instigator-recipient; and perception of the instigator’s intent. In attempting to resolve ambiguities, students applied normative schemas underpinned by rights (to dignity, respect and equality) and ‘knowingness’, usually engendered by friendship. Conclusions: Our study confirms school-based sexual harassment is common but also finds significant nuance in the ways in which students distinguish between acceptable and harassing. School-based strategies to tackle sexual harassment must engage with this complexity.

Item Type:Articles
Status:Published
Refereed:Yes
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Blake, Ms Carolyn and Mitchell, Professor Kirstin and Barrett, Simon and Riddell, Miss Julie and Sweeting, Dr Helen
Creator Roles:
Sweeting, H.Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review and editing
Blake, C.Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Supervision, Writing – review and editing
Riddell, J.Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – review and editing
Barrett, S.Formal analysis, Investigation, Writing – review and editing
Mitchell, K. R.Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Supervision, Writing – review and editing
Authors: Sweeting, H., Blake, C., Riddell, J., Barrett, S., and Mitchell, K. R.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing > General Practice and Primary Care
College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing > MRC/CSO SPHSU
Journal Name:PLoS ONE
Publisher:Public Library of Science
ISSN:1932-6203
ISSN (Online):1932-6203
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2022 Sweeting et al.
First Published:First published in PLoS ONE 17(2): e0262248
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License
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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
3048231Relationships and healthKirstin MitchellMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_00022/3HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
3048231Relationships and healthKirstin MitchellChief Scientist Office (CSO)SPHSU18HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
727641Understanding and Improving Health within Settings and OrganisationsKathryn HuntMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/12HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
727641Understanding and Improving Health within Settings and OrganisationsKathryn HuntChief Scientist Office (CSO)SPHSU12HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
727631Social Relationships & Health ImprovementLisa McDaidMedical Research Council (MRC)MC_UU_12017/11HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
727631Social Relationships & Health ImprovementLisa McDaidChief Scientist Office (CSO)SPHSU11HW - MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit