Sexual harassment and violence is an epidemic that starts young. About seven in 10 girls will experience sexual harassment at some point in high school, and one in four girls will experience sexual violence before she turns 18. This behavior leaves a lasting impact on young people, particularly girls, affecting their physical and mental health as well as their ability to stay — and do well — in school.
Each May, Girls Inc. highlights an important issue impacting the lives of girls during national Girls Inc. Week. This year, we focused on the roles each of us plays in responding to and preventing sexual harassment. Through the #GirlsToo: Respect Starts Young campaign, Girls Inc. is building a national movement to end sexual harassment and violence by shifting the deeply entrenched norms that fuel these behaviors. Locally, we encourage people in our community to #BeUpstanding with the goal of empowering everyday individuals to be a part of the solution.
Consider these scenarios. You notice a couple fighting outside a store on State Street or in Shoreline Park. As you walk by you hear one person say to the other, “Why do you have to be so stupid? You are so worthless!” You then see the other person walk away in tears. Or, you overhear a colleague or classmate comment on a sexual assault making headlines saying, “She got what was coming to her.” What do you do? Are you a bystander who does nothing, or do you become an upstander?
An upstander is someone who witnesses problematic language or behavior between people, either in person or online, and decides to do something about it. Research points to the fact that we are less likely to intervene in an urgent or emergency situation when others are present versus when we are alone. We tend to assume that someone else will address the problem. But what if no one else does? For many upstanders, this is the question that drives them to act. And when they do, it gives others permission to do the same.
Many instances of harassment and violence occur in the presence of bystanders. Every situation is different, and your own personal safety must be considered when intervening. However, there are so many occasions and opportunities where being an upstander can make a big difference. Consider the fight scenario above. Perhaps it’s asking the person who is upset if they need help and letting them know they don’t deserve to be treated that way. As for the other example, never underestimate the power of calling out problematic attitudes with a simple, “Not cool.”
Until we shift our cultural norms that accept sexual harassment and violence as “givens,” girls need a toolkit for handling the tough situations they will inevitably face. The high school environment teens describe today includes frequent body-shaming comments, sexuality cyber-rankings, unwanted touching, genital grabbing, and sexual assault. Girls Inc. empowers girls and young women to become upstanders and advocates for themselves and for others. The all-girl, pro-girl environment at Girls Inc. provides a safe space for girls to have ongoing conversations to voice their personal experiences dealing with sexual harassment, if they choose. Harassed or supportive, girls can teach each other how to be upstanders by sharing stories of when they stood up for themselves and/or when someone stood up for them in a tough situation. Asking, “What does it look like to be an upstander? How does it feel? What’s the benefit?” helps girls develop their upstander skills and voices to uplift themselves and their friends and family members from bullying, harassment, and violence.
If a person is exerting power or control over another person in some way, is pressuring someone to do something they may not be comfortable with, or is saying things about a person online or in person that are unwelcome or inappropriate, those may all be opportunities for an upstander to step up and help shift the course of the situation, and ultimately, shift deeply entrenched norms.
Join Girls Inc. in sending a message to girls and young woman everywhere that we care about their safety, and that together we can create a community where girls and all young people are safe, respected, and valued. Start today by taking the #GirlsToo pledge at girlstoo.girlsinc.org.
Barbara Ben-Horin is CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara and Suzanne Peck is an educator, author, filmmaker, and the producer and director of the upcoming educational film series Pass the Mic: 15 Teens Talk About Sex.