In a classroom at Gardena High School, just outside of Los Angeles, a group of young Black women and women of color stand in a row and listen to a prompt: “If you don’t think young men respect you, step forward.” Each of the young women takes a step.
“If you’ve ever decided not to wear something tight or short because you thought men may talk to you or about you when you walk down the street, step forward.” Again, the young women all take a step.
Sexual harassment disproportionately impacts young Black women and women of color of all sexual orientations. Harassment can include physical, mental and emotional abuse, ranging from a stare that makes a girl feel unsafe to objectifying remarks to unwanted sexual contact. As one high school student explained: “Sexual harassment to me is tearing down anyone, really. Physically, by touching; mentally, by calling them [sexualizing] names.”
In a recent survey conducted at Los Angeles high schools, more than half of the girls said that they had been sexually harassed on campus or in their communities. As girls of color face violence and harassment with alarming frequency, their schools fail to support them. A lack of culturally responsive curricula and health education in schools means that the problem is multifaceted. In order to ensure the mental health, wellness and academic success of Black girls and girls of color, schools must make sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention a priority.
Indeed, most school curricula only touch on the rampant problem of sexual harassment in health and sexuality education. Although large urban districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District have sexual harassment policies on the books, health education prevention that actually addresses sexual harassment is scant. And when Black girls and girls of color speak out about or push back against the abuse they have experienced, they are often disciplined instead of supported. As a result, youth victims don’t trust educators, principals and other adult staff to safeguard their rights. The fight against sexual harassment and sexual violence on K-12 campuses is ripe for a national movement.
The stakes are especially high for Black girls: 67 percent have reported being “touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way” at school. Forty percent of Black women report that they have had “coercive contact of a sexual nature” by age 18. In Los Angeles County, black girls have the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization and are more likely to be locked up for “child prostitution” (as opposed to being identified as rape victims) than non-black girls. Thus, for many Black girls, sexual harassment and rape culture have become a way of life. Yet mainstream focus on white female victims often eclipses the specific ways black girls are targeted for violent exploitation and harassment. Rebecca Borden, a student at King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, spoke to the pervasiveness of the problem: “I can’t walk down the street, I can’t walk anywhere and feel at ease, I have to worry about maybe they might say something this time or they might go a little further than just a look.”
The Step Forward curriculum is designed to address the gap between education and prevention. It uses sexual violence statistics — which are dismal — as a jumping-off point for discussion about topics like street harassment, the normalization of violence in communities of color and sex trafficking. Step Forward lifts up the voices and experiences of Black girls and girls of color in their schools and communities. Rather than employing isolated interventions, the lessons are based on a peer education model that weaves sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention into the fabric of school curricula. Step Forward also encourages young men to become allies in stopping sexual harassment and violence against women.
Schools around the country must adopt programs like Step Forward and implement grassroots approaches to combatting sexual harassment on their campuses. Only by confronting harassment head-on, and providing support and respect to girls who experience abuse, can we begin to break the insidious cycle of violence against Black women and women of color.
Finally, we must call on educators to fully embed culturally responsive policies, curricula and reporting mechanisms within K-12 school cultures. As Gardena high school student Kennedy Moore said, “When someone is being sexually harassed and you don’t acknowledge it, or you know that it’s wrong and you don’t say anything, you’re just as bad as the person that’s doing it.”
Nourbese Flint is Program Manager — Sisters in Control Reproductive Justice for Black Women for Wellness.