This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus
The American Association of University Women, the voice of hard-line campus feminism, published a survey today showing that 48 percent of American 7th to 12th graders were sexually harassed during the last school year, with 87 percent of those harassed suffering negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomach aches. These are alarming numbers, but then, the AAUW specializes in quite high, quite alarming numbers, which are typically left unexamined by the journalists who report them.
The current survey shows small numbers of students experiencing behavior that most of us would consider real sexual harassment. “Being touched in an unwelcome way” was checked off by 3 percent of boys and 13 percent of girls. “Being shown sexy or sexual pictures that you did not want to see” drew 10 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls. But the AAUP inflates the numbers with a dubious catch-all category: “Having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures to or about you.” This means that a discussion of the many sexual situations in TV sitcoms could count as harassment, as could the many sexual one-liners adolescents are famous for, not to mention mildly embarrassing but harmless comments such as “You didn’t have a date last Saturday, Matilda?” “Being the subject of unwelcome sexual rumors” is a legitimate category, but broad enough to include nearly all gossip about sex and dating. The category of gestures would surely include flipping someone the bird, and if unwelcome glances count too, as they do, the real question raised in this survey would be why is the sexual harassment rate not at least 100 percent? In addition “being called gay or lesbian in a negative way” (18 percent for girls as well as boys) would include the familiar male-to-male taunt of “faggot” which is certainly not pleasant but not always real harassment either.
The AAUW does these questionable surveys every few years. “Hostile Hallways,” the 2001 version using similar inflate-the-numbers wording, showed that 81 percent of 8th to 11th graders had been harassed, and that 18 percent of those students fear that someone would hurt or bother them. The “hurt or bother” construction is familiar from college codes which commonly forbid explicitly serious offenses then go on to list increasing dubious categories of speech that the offended hearers may regard as “having the intent or result of ridiculing or annoying.” Fear of being bothered is sexual harassment.
As usual, the AAUW benefits mightily from incurious reporting. The Associated Press report today said the study indicated an “epidemic” of sexual harassment in secondary schools with “wrenching” effects. One the study’s co-authors, Catherine Hill, AAUW director of research, was quoted as saying "It’s reached a level where it’s almost a normal part of the school day," an excited conclusion not justified by the numbers provided. No one outside the AAUP establishment was called for a comment. Nor did the AP notice that the harassment rate reported by the AAUW in upper grades in 2001 (81 percent and clearly preposterous) had dropped to 48 percent this time, though still qualifying as “almost a normal part of the school day.”
Media elites were largely responsible for the most influential (and largely false) of all AAUW reports—the 1992 “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” It was a public relations home run, with $250,000 spent on PR. Hugely favorable stories burst onto the first page of the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times with no dissenting comments. The report, which swept through the world of education and led to the many girls-only financial plums of the Gender Equity Act (and legally established women as a victim category similar to blacks), described the American classroom as a hell-hole for girls. Females were allegedly invisible, ignored, silenced and broken by a loss of self-esteem. Reporters seemed not to notice or care that the AAUW synthesis of old studies (no original work was done for the report) ignored findings that didn’t fit the “victim” thesis. Not did any reporters (so far as I know) note that when the report came out, the allegedly short-changed girls had opened up a ten-point gap over boys in college attendance. Many yeas later Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, was allowed to say that the AAUW was “politicized research and “false political propaganda.” By 2000, the AAUW retracted part of the 1992 report but the damage had been done. On the whole, for the education establishment and the press, it’s better to get things right the first time. One thing reporters might do today is to pick up the phone and interview someone not directly employed by the AAUW.
John Leo is editor of Minding the Campus.