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Haaretz August 24, 1998
Reading, Writing - and Sexual Harassment
When a little boy taunts a girl, teachers often just shrug it off. But experts say such incidents can leave lasting scars.
By Orna Landau
The children sat quietly in the Havatzelet kindergarten in Jerusalem. In this game, the children who were the most silent got to sit in the teacher's chair, and that was enough to keep everyone's mouth tightly shut. But then Maor decided he wanted to be a lion. He crawled over to a group of girls and roared at one of them. "Stop it," one of the girls responded - thereby losing her place in the game. Then, Maor crawled over to another girl, who didn't react. Bored, he pushed his face under her skirt, lifted it and tried to pull down her underpants.The girl jumped up from her place and screamed. She also lost her place in the game and that was that. The teacher did not pay any attention. The boy was not punished and within a few minutes the children were playing another game.
In the United States, this could have ended very differently. In one well publicized case, a boy in first grade who kissed a girl was suspended from school.
A California school where a sixth grade student was subjected to verbal abuse was obliged to pay $500,000 in damages. Another California school settled a similar lawsuit for $250,000, while yet another girl received $40,000 in damages after classmates insulted her. All of these penalties and settlements fell under the heading of sexual abuse.
Until a few years ago, lifting up a girl's skirt, pulling her hair or stealing a kiss were considered naughtiness, nothing more. But this "naughtiness" leaves its marks on its victims. Girls in kindergarten who suffer sexual abuse are embarrassed, stop playing, burst out in tears and in many cases withdraw from other children. Studies suggest that the impact of sexual abuse in school is not too different from its effect on grown women: psychological and behavioral disturbances that can lead to loss of appetite, difficulties in sleep, a marked distance from social activity, depression and frequent absences.
Such incidents are not rare. On the contrary, studies show that four out of five American children have reported suffering abuse such as having their pants or underpants pulled down, forced kissing, touching the genitals or verbal threats of rape. One-third of these events took place before the children enrolled in elementary school. A survey conducted by the American magazine Seventeen showed that 83 percent of a sample of 2,000 teenagers said they had been physically abused in one way or another in school. A similar number complained of verbal sexual abuse and 45 percent of the respondents said there had been no reaction from teachers after the event.
The lack of reaction from educators contributes to the enduring phenomenon of childhood sexual abuse. Ayelet Giladi, a researcher at Hebrew University who completed her master's thesis on sexual abuse in kindergartens and elementary schools, says that in this country too, many incidents go unnoticed. After observing games in kindergartens, Giladi concluded that 15 to 20 percent of the games she watched had an element of sexual abuse in them. "Sexual abuse at this age is a manifestation of power, not sexuality," she says. "The payoff for the abuser is not sexual fulfillment, unlike adults. The abusive child wants social gains, which he does get from his peers."
In her thesis, Giladi says that sexual abuse usually takes place in secret, when the teacher is not watching. Giladi observed two kindergarten classes and one first-grade class and says that this principle is true even in kindergarten. "It starts from boredom, and one boy's success leads others to imitate him," she says.
In this sense, sexual abuse among children is similar to adults. It is an expression of power, not only of one individual over another but of one sex over the other. On several occasions, a group of boys staged the abuse against a girl. The motive was not sexual, but came from the desire to humiliate the victim and strengthen the harasser's own position. The message that children get in school and in society thus perpetuates boys' superiority and encourages this behavior.
This is the secret social agenda that encourages boys to dare and humiliate girls with an active pattern of behavior, and leads girls to react by ignoring them, crying or withdrawal - all passive patterns. Even more shocking, says Giladi, are the teachers' reactions. In her thesis, she describes how a girl complains to her teacher about a boy's harassment, and the teacher tells the girl that he behaved in this way because he liked her "and that she should simply give him her telephone number." In other cases, the teachers react by ignoring the harassment. Giladi says that even when the harassment does not ever get to real sexual assault, it leave scars for many years. "While studying the subject I met women who said they were still smarting from events in their childhood 20 or 30 years ago," she said.
Giladi has developed a program to teach teachers to stop sexual abuse and children to complain and say no. The Education Ministry declared 1998 the year of "human dignity," but the dignity of a woman's or girl's body apparently does not, in the eyes of the ministry, justify spending money on programs to fight childhood sexual abuse. Until then, forcing a kiss on a girl or pulling down her pants will be regarded as a romantic gesture by the Israeli education system.