school youth with a mobile phone and a backpack sitting on the floor looking troubled

“It becomes so normalised that they stop thinking about it as sexual harassment”

In one way or another, almost all pupils are subjected to what adults would call sexual harassment. This is stated by Liselotte Eek-Karlsson who conducts research on how sexual harassment in school can be understood, handled, and counteracted. Her new research makes us question how equal Sweden really is.

It was the MeToo movement that made Liselotte Eek-Karlsson curious. She wanted to learn more about what everyday life looks like for young people, and how they face and deal with sexual harassment.

Eek-Karlsson, who is senior lecturer at the Department of Education and Teachers’ Practice, applied for and was granted funds for the research project #Silenceintheclassroom – young peoples’ talk about sexual harassment. Within the project, she and her colleagues have interviewed 50 pupils, girls and boys, from year 5 in elementary school up to year 3 in upper secondary school.

“We asked what they think about MeToo. But young people like to talk about themselves, what they think and what they have experienced. Thus, there was a lot of talk about their everyday lives, what they do, and what their thoughts are on sexual harassment”, Eek-Karlsson explains.

“The girls generally don’t think ‘I have been sexually harassed’, as it is part of their everyday life. They avoid certain corridors, they think about what they are wearing… Naturally, we also interviewed boys, and asked them what their world looks like, and how you should act to fit in the group. This is what we’ve been trying to write about in different ways, to disseminate our findings”, Eek-Karlsson continues.

Understanding sexual harassment

In one of the studies, Eek-Karlsson and two of her colleagues created a pedagogical tool to sort out gender-related reasoning in discussions. The tool was used on two women upper secondary school pupils’ stories about sexual harassment during their school years and contains three different explanation models. Some models can facilitate the work to counteract sexual harassment, while others can make it more difficult, according to Eek-Karlsson.

“When you point out gender differences as the explanation, the conclusion will be that boys are ruled by their biology and cannot be held accountable for their actions. If you put emphasis on gender neutrality, the consequence will be that sexual harassment cannot be linked to a certain gender, but instead the specific situation or individual is the decisive factor. If you focus on gender norms, sexual harassment can be understood as something that young men in group use to strengthen and confirm their masculinity in a heteronormative order”, Eek-Karlsson explains.

Three important articles

So far, the research has resulted in three articles (see fact boxes) and two more are in the pipeline. The first article is about explanation models; how I, as an adult, act when I’m told a story about sexual harassment.

“If I see something and say ‘Boys will be boys, don’t let it get to you, he is probably in love with you’…. Such a simple sentence could be devastating for both the boy and the girl. Thus, it is very important how we understand sexual harassment”, says Eek-Karlsson.

“The second article focuses on how we can work with these questions in school”, Eek-Karlsson continues.

“The third one is about how girls sort of try to avoid these situations in their everyday lives. It’s a sad read, as the girls take huge responsibility for the boys”, Eek-Karlsson explains.

Counteracting sexual harassment

Another study investigated how 50 girls and boys in secondary school and upper secondary school view teachers’ teaching linked to the work to counteract sexual harassment. This is usually conducted in a formal way at specific classes, which can be both relevant and irrelevant according to the pupils, but also in a more informal manner between classes.

“Some classes are based on the pupils’ own experiences and focus on limiting gender norms. These have a dialogue-based approach where the teacher and pupils learn together based on a good relationship. According to the pupils, a trust-based relationship between teacher and pupils is a crucial factor to successfully counteract sexual harassment”, says Eek-Karlsson.

  • The study: Att motverka sexuella trakasserier – en didaktisk fråga [Counteracting sexual harassment – a didactical issue] by Liselotte Eek-Karlsson, Ragnar Olsson, Gunilla Gunnarsson

Almost everyone, in one way or another

That sexual harassment is commonly occurring in school is beyond doubt.

“We didn’t carry out a questionnaire survey, which means I don’t have any percentage figures. Nonetheless, I would say that almost everyone is subjected, in one way or another, to what adults would call sexual harassment. However, young people would not always describe it that way themselves. It becomes so normalised that they stop thinking about it”, Eek-Karlsson continues.

It is difficult for young people to know what can be considered sexual harassment, and it also varies a lot between individuals, Eek-Karlsson explains. What is more, it depends on the context and who performs the act.

“There are many different perceptions of what sexual harassment is. Some girls may feel threatened by a glance or a whistle, but I also remember one girl with whom the boys got to do more or less whatever they wanted. She described being bullied in school. In this way, she got attention, so she almost considered it something positive”, Eek-Karlsson continues.

school girl sittin alone on a flight of steps, burying her face in her hands

Handling sexual harassment

The third study investigated school girls’ perspectives on sexual harassment and their relationship to schoolmates when they are subjected to these, both online and offline. The strategies found by the researchers were divided into three different categories: Problem-focused coping strategies, emotion-focused cognitive strategies, and emotion-focused coping strategies.

“The results show that the girls use different strategies based on if the harassment takes place online or offline, and if perpetrator is someone they know or someone they don’t know. Problem-focused cognitive strategies are used based on the specific context. Emotion-focused cognitive strategies are primarily used if the perpetrator is a known friend”, Eek-Karlsson explains.

Can boys be subjected?

When Eek-Karlsson talked to boys, there was a lot of focus on what they think is the reason boys subject girls to sexual harassment. Why a boy would send a dickpic to a girl was another aspect. But they also talked about whether boys can be subjected or not.

“Yes, we can, the boys said. But there was also one boy who said ‘I would be happy if a girl groped me’”, says Eek-Karlsson.

“And then we have this ‘gay warning’ thing. Gay is a word just like any other, almost everyone uses it. However, boys also think about what pictures they post and how they act, as they don’t want other people to think that they are gay. But boys also often talk very respectfully about others who they think might be homosexual, that it’s important to consider their feelings. The norms are very limiting, so it’s not easy being a boy either”, Eek-Karlsson continues.

“Thus, it’s not about the mean boys and the good girls, that’s not the case at all, it’s about everyone having a hard time. It’s a pretty tough world”, says Eek-Karlsson.

Still a long way to achieve gender equality

Already in middle school, girls are fully aware of how different teachers behave differently towards girls and boys. Patterns can be seen already at this age, where boys pull girls’ skirts or say things that would be obvious sexual harassment in puberty. At an early age, children learn patterns for how to act as a boy and a girl respectively.

The serious thing about sexual harassment according to Eek-Karlsson, is that it strengthens and maintains the masculinity culture with superior men and subordinate women. A culture in which men feel entitled to send a dickpic to someone who has not asked for it. Or whistle when someone walks by. Like one girl said “I don’t want to feel like a dog that someone whistles to”.

“We have this picture that Sweden is a country with gender equality. And it is, if you think about Qatar and the World Cup, for instance. In one way, our society is equal, concerning pay and work conditions, but not in the relationship between men and women. Far from it, I would say.”

dinosaur skeleton behind four sheep

Network for equal treatment

In Nätverket för likabehandlings- och värdegrundsfrågor [Network for issues relating to equal treatment and values], Eek-Karlsson and her research colleagues meet 300 active teachers, counsellors, and other school staff, from pre-school to upper secondary school. The network has a monthly newsletter and meet on a regular basis.

“We try to focus on what’s topical around issues of equal treatment. In this context, we also send out all articles that we write. This is a way to disseminate the important research that we conduct”, Eek-Karlsson concludes.

Four white cardboard figures around a smaller red one