Adolescents' perceptions of peer sexual harassment in school

Colleen Patricia O'Sullivan, Fordham University


In recent years highly publicized lawsuits and costly financial settlements have garnered increasing public attention to the problem of peer sexual harassment in school. Still, the extant literature on peer sexual harassment among secondary school students is extremely limited. The great majority of research has focused primarily on issues of prevalence with little empirical work directed at adolescents' perceptions of sexually harassing behavior from peers. Thus, the purpose of the present study was to examine adolescents' perceptions of peer sexual harassment with the goal of further elucidating the role of key developmental and contextual factors in students' evaluations of social-sexual behavior initiated by peers. One hundred and twenty adolescents ranging in age from 13–18 years were surveyed. Adolescents' ratings of hypothetical sexual harassment scenarios, reported experiences with peer sexual harassment, perceptions of sexual harassment outcomes, and views of reporting options and sanctions for peer sexual harassment was assessed. The extent to which adolescents' responses to these questions differed based on gender, age, gender role identity, harassment type and gender composition of the dyad described in the scenario was examined. Analyses revealed that harassment type, gender composition of the dyad, and gender of the respondent emerged as most influential in adolescents' judgements of behavior as sexually harassing, perceptions of the academic and emotional consequences of sexual harassment, and opinions of appropriate reporting options and sanctions for peer sexual harassment. Significant gender x harassment type interactions were found for questions relating to the potential consequences of peer sexual harassment, with males and females evidencing greater similarity in their views of sexual coercion forms of harassment versus gender harassment. Age and gender role identity were not found to have an impact on adolescents' ratings with minimal differences emerging between these groups. With respect to the frequency of harassment experienced, mean ratings among adolescents evidenced minimal differences, resulting in no significant findings for this dependent variable. The present research yielded several findings that may enhance our current understanding of the variables that influence adolescents' perceptions of sexually harassing behavior. The implications of these results on current conceptualizations of peer sexual harassment in adolescence are discussed.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Psychotherapy|Social psychology|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

O'Sullivan, Colleen Patricia, "Adolescents' perceptions of peer sexual harassment in school" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3017559.