According to a recent national survey by Making Caring Common, a frightening 87 percent of 18- to 25-year-old women report having endured at some point in their past at least one of the following: being catcalled (55 percent); touched without permission by a stranger (41 percent); insulted with sexualized words (like “slut” or “bitch”) by a man (47 percent); insulted with sexualized words by a woman (42 percent); having a stranger say something sexual to them (52 percent); and having a stranger say they were “hot” (61 percent). Half of the men in this survey reported that they’d harassed a woman in at least one of these ways in the past. Undoubtedly, some of these incidents happened when the women were in middle school, high school, or college.
We know this problem is pervasive in secondary schools. According to one survey, almost half of U.S. students in grades 7–12 reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous year; 87 percent reported harmful effects—such as absenteeism and poor sleep—from that harassment (Hill & Kearl, 2011). Words like “bitches” and “ho’s” are commonplace in school hallways across the country. Many teens still label girls as “good” or “bad,” with “good” girls defined as friends or romantic prospects and “bad girls” defined as “sluts” or “ho’s.” Those labelled “bad girls” are especially fair game for harassment.
Even the terms many boys and young men use to describe consensual sex these days—”I hit that,” “I nailed that,” “I crushed that”—are unnervingly degrading and violent. As girls and women have made impressive gains in school and work over the last 30 years, it seems that many boys and young men are increasingly bent on diminishing and sexualizing them.
Such misogyny can cause many kinds of harm. It can leave girls and women with lasting fears or shame that get in the way of their success in school, the workplace, and other areas of life, eroding their well-being. It can also corrode men’s capacity to have meaningful relationships with both females and males, to be ethical, and to be fully human. Left unchecked, it might easily slide into sexual assault.