June 12, 2011 / Safety, Sexism

Teen Girls Sexually Harassed and Assaulted at Work


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Is your daughter safe at work? Watch this video from NOW PBS, wherein Correspondent Maria Hinojosa interviews young girls who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by the men for whom they work.


When boys are placed in our arms, swaddled in blue hospital blankets, we adore them, but then we prepare them for life. We put them in sports to learn about competition and sportsmanship. We teach them to fight back when they are bullied in school. We give them high-fives when they throw their first punch and when they lose their virginity. Their daddies talk to them about sex and masturbation and may even give them some porn magazines to peruse in the dark spaces of their rooms. We tell them that boys don’t cry, and we teach them to be tough. And if we’re not doing any of this at home, as their parents, then don’t worry — video games, advertising, media, and television shows will teach them all of these things with or without parental advocacy.

But when girls are placed in our arms, swaddled in pink hospital blankets, we treat them differently. We say we won’t, but we do. We dress them in frilly dresses with stockings and hot pink girly shoes. We fix their hair every morning, brushing it, putting barrettes in it, and we smile at their reflection in the mirror. We tell them how cute and sweet and nice they are. How beautiful and adorable. We squeal at their cuteness, and we take pictures as they pose with their ballerina tutus and Princess tiaras. We put them in ballet and gymnastics and cheerleading and modeling classes, in hopes that they will feel confident in their looks. Some of us may even place them in T-ball, but that usually stops in third grade, when it is obvious that they are the only girls on the team. We paint their bedrooms with purpleicious or pinkalicious shades and buy them books on how Princesses can slay dragons too. But they are always princesses. As daddy’s little girls, we train them to be docile, not to do anything wild lest they get booboos or scars on their faces.

As Princesses, we don’t teach them about sex or masturbation or how to be in possession of their own bodies. We don’t give them the arsenal with which to fight against domineering men. They don’t know how to fight back or use force or assert themselves physically or verbally to get what they want. We pacify them out of love and protection, surrounding them with barbie dolls and babies and strollers. They’re girls, so it’s OK to be second best; it’s in their nature to be meek and sweet and maternal; it’s OK to let the boys ask for a date or buy the ring or get on one knee to propose for marriage. And if we don’t do this at home, then don’t worry — video games that present the girl as a sexed up bimbo, advertising, media, and television teach girls what their roles will be in life with or without our permission.

While boys enter the precarious realms of adulthood prepared and armed with the aggression necessary to survive within the confines of corporate America and on the streets with equal success, girls are not prepared for either because we have already domesticated and pacified them. We send them out into the world as innocents, having to weather the storms of sexism, male privilege, and violence against women without any arsenal necessary to defend themselves. We failed in preparing them for life and the bad wolves skulking behind bad intentions and lustful wants. We drop them at the storefront of life and drive off, letting them fend off demons we never talked to them about.

We do not prepare them for the trusted 70-year-old violin teacher who will pay them $20 to feel them up during their 30-minute lesson.

We do not prepare them for their first steps into the workforce. We do not arm them with appropriate tools necessary to thwart sexual harassment by male managers with photographs of their wives and children to the left of their computers. We don’t tell them that when the owner of a business demands that they wear skirts, albeit short, that they don’t have to stand for it. Or that when a serviceman slaps them on the ass and says, ” I couldn’t help myself; it just looks so delicious,” that they can smack him in the face and then file charges. They’re not aware that when they ask for a letter of recommendation and the manager writes a very offensive and sexually implicit letter recommending them for their sexiness, a mock letter that he tears to shreds after it’s read, that they can sue him or quit. We don’t tell them that when a Forbes 500 business owner calls them to the office and unzips his pants, as a joke, that they don’t have to stay or keep quiet. They don’t know that this is illegal — that they have rights.

But these were just my experiences.

As in the aforementioned video by PBS, these girls are between sixteen and eighteen years of age. They are shocked at the treatment they receive, but they remain silent because they were never prepared for a world of men, older men, lying in wait to see how much they could get away with. They are innocent, unarmed, and uninformed. We have failed them because the only things we ever prepared them for was dealing with peer pressure, love, fashion, popularity, and teaching them to cheer on the local boys who were busy achieving and working towards a future. We have to do better.

We have to do better because “According to one estimate, 200,000 teenagers are assaulted at the workplace each year” (PBS NOW). And it’s our job to prepare them — no one else’s.

In a study conducted by the Psychology Departments from the University of Kentucky and the University of California Santa Cruz, Professors Brown and Leaper found that out of 200 girls interviewed, 90% of them had been sexually harassed in school and at work. Their ages ranged from 12-18 years. 90%. Among their findings they discovered that girls who knew about feminism or had an awareness of sex discrimination were more likely to report the harassments. They note that “it is important for girls to be able to identify sexism and sexual harassment as environmental factors, lest they attribute negative experiences to their own faults and suffer erosion of self-esteem. Frequent sexual harassment may lead girls to expect and accept demeaning behaviors in heterosexual romantic relationships.”

What’s difficult to accept is the fact that these young girls are exposed to assaults they didn’t expect; and because they were unexpected, they didn’t know what to do how to perceive it. Some of them don’t even see this kind of attack on them as sexism or as harassment. They stay quiet to keep their job; they deal with ridicule if they do say something; they contend with the verbal and physical assaults thinking that there is something wrong with them  — they asked for it somehow. They internalize the attacks and attempt to alter the way they dress or talk or even walk.

We need to equip our daughters with knowledge, information, and most of all with power. If 90% of only 200 girls deal with sexual harassment at least once in their teens, then we are doing something wrong.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began a Youth@Work program to inform our youngsters about sexual harassment at work, defining the criteria and what the girls can do about it, and forcing places like McDonald’s and other corporations under suit for having employed men accused of sexually assaulting their younger female workers to educate everyone in the field about sexual harassment. In addition, the Teen Victim Project has an equally informative site on the subject. But our daughters should not have to find these sites on their own, after they have been assaulted.

We need to engage in conversations that make us uncomfortable, and we need to start raising strong daughters, warriors, not pacified and domesticated Princesses. It’s the only way we will stop the way men treat women and young girls — as commodities, as second best, as objectified and sexualized entities without voice or volition.

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  • Kathleen Wynne


    Thank you for pointing out how we prepare boys for life and encouraging their fulfillment of their dreams in every phase of their lives, while we teach our girls how to be vulnerable and to deny themselves and to complacent and submissive in living the life that men impose upon them.

    This is the core reason for the imbalance of life due to the monolythic views imposed upon the world predominately by men and has placed it on the road to self-destruction.

  • marille

    thank you Marina for addressing these consequences of sexual stereo typing. I full-heartedly subscribe to teach our girls self defense, teach them about what is awaiting them. the sexual harassment of girls seems to start earlier and earlier. they need to be aware to take at least the surprise out of it.

  • Henrietta


    I absolutely agree that we are not teaching girls to defend themselves. Isn’t there a study that up to a certain age girls and boys both dream of being President in equal numbers? And then it drops off signifigantly with boys favoring being Prez while girls do not? I thought this age was somewhere in the tweens (a term that I despise).

    But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with girly stuff. I think the problem is equal access and the perception of all things girly.

    My daughter has girly stuff, play jewelry, etc. My daughter has spent hours going through my jewelry and my closet of fancy dresses. I have to pull her away. When her little boy friends come over to play they love trying on all the plastic jewels. I’ve seen little boys pulled away from the jewelry sections in the kids departments by their parents. All kids love glitz. All kids love glitter. At least most of them do. The problem is, IMO, that girly things are a lower status. What in the world is wrong with baby dolls for girls or boys? Although boys and girls have innate differences, they are both capable of nurturing. We squash this out of the boys.

    My daughter takes ballet and next year when she turns 4 she will be old enough for karate. She loves to respond to beautiful music and so the ballet is great. She also likes to throw punches and kicks (at imaginary adversaries) and went wild while watching Kung Fu Panda. It’s fabulous. I know she’s going to love doing both ballet and karate. Occasionally little boys sign up for ballet. They are adorable and enjoy the class but it doesn’t happen so often.

    My daughter loves pink and I’m sure this is entirely conditioning. She knows pink means girl. Some parents take the step of NOT dressing their child in a dominant pink wardrobe but I did not since this would have cost way too much for me financially. Most of her clothing is hand-me-down and thrift store and much of it is pink. I like pink but I think it looks great on little boys too. In fact, pink used to be the color of choice for little boys as it was seen as an agressive color. So nothing wrong with pink. It’s how we view pink and how we classify it.

    Worse than pink and princesses I am noticing a lot of anti-mom and anti- female storylines in television shows, movies and even children’s literature! I’m talking stuff for girls ages 3 and 4 even! Women are witches, men are kings and other girls are mean, petty and cruel. Ugh!!! Honestly, I think we are teaching girls to fight other women and girls instead of defending themselves from men. And yes, at such a young age…

  • Kathleen Wynne

    After reading the responses, it seems to me that all of the focus is on the girls basically “defending” themselves from bad male bahavior towards girls and women.

    Why aren’t women demanding more efforts being made in figuring out when and how young boys begin to believe that “disrespecting” girls and women is how they define themselves as men and do something about stopping that, instead of..as is always done…putting all of the responsibility on the girls? Yes, sadly, it is necessary to teach girls how to protect themselves, but at the same time, we are still forcing them to live lives that require them to always be looking over their shoulders and curtailing their individual freedom in order to deal with bad male behavior.

    Or is the reality that girls must face at birth must be that it is simply not possible to change the negative attitudes and violent behavior men are “taught” to show towards girls and women is simply part of the male psyche, “hard wired” in their DNA and they are incapable of seeing women as nothing more than property and not human beings deserving of the same full, unencumbered lives and respect that men expect for themselves?

  • My entire family has been taking TaeKwonDo (Korean Martial Art) for almost 7 years. I never signed up for this as a defensive class for me and my daughter. Martial arts is primarily about teaching self-respect, self-control, and respect for others. My daughter is a 2nd degree black belt and is only 10 years old. She carries herself differently (in all her pink, bling covered, girlywear) at school. She is kind and respectful, but not a push-over. She knows that a boy who is bullying her is not doing it because he likes her and has a difficult time showing affection, it is because he is a bully. She stands up for herself and uses language to reinforce that she is not a victim and she will defend herself whatever way necessary to stop any kind of harassment. When she stands up for herself, the bullies retreat. She is also aware of the unequal treatment of men vs. women on television and through the media.

    If you look for a martial arts school for your children, look for the ones that the instructors build your children up. They need the tools for self-assessment first and foremost before they learn how to kick and punch. If the school just reinforces fighting instead of respect then look for another school.

  • Kathleen, I think women are just at fault for subscribing to these gender stereotypes — and I think that their insistence that their girls remain girly disempowers them. My daughter turns four this week, and since she’s been in pre-school, she has come to understand that if she dresses nicely, the girls in her class will like her more. I never taught her this. I wear jeans and sneakers and no makeup. She was into princesses also for a bit, but I do not reinforce it at home. I tell her that she’s smart AND beautiful. And she loves that I call her a “tough cookie.” Men have set the stadard, but women/moms believe in the standard. And this is the problem and why we hold our daughters back.

  • Henrietta, yes. Studies show that girls turn away from STEM subjects and any other subjects that can empower them by middle school — I hate the “tween” term as well. It’s when socializing takes priority, and while boys socialize via sports — many girls don’t have those options, so they socialize via fashion, cheer leading, boys, and cliques. Never been a fan of any of those things. It’s also when all the stereotypes about boys and girls become a reality for them. Girls are not good in math or science and cannot be Presidents or CEO’s or scientists. They can be pretty.

  • Jen, my son has been taking Tae Kwon Do since he was five, and it has increased his confidence and the way he carries himself. My daughter won’t start Tae kwon Do until she’s five (it’s a waste of money before that), but my husband and I already decided that eventually we will sign her up for Muay Thai, which is great for girls because it teaches them to kick in areas of the body that will render an opponent weak. Since there is so much violence against women, girls need to be taught to assert themselves physically and intellectually. Our physical limitations make us weak and powerless, and is used against us. We are the second sex primarily because we are the weaker sex — and this is in terms of our inability to defend ourselves. Women can throw a punch as well as a man, and we need to teach girls to more aggressive in their self-defense. I was just talking to my neighbor who has four girls that she should arm them with mace. Any rapist will think twice about attacking a girl if he is thwarted by having mace sprayed in his eyes.

  • Kali

    Yes, girls should be taught to defend themselves (mentally, emotionally, and physically) against men and boys who have been brought up to view them as targets for sexual abuse.

    And talking about bringing up boys to view girls as targets for sexual abuse, this:

    Their daddies talk to them about sex and masturbation and may even give them some porn magazines to peruse in the dark spaces of their rooms.

    is not ok.

  • Kathleen Wynne


    I don’t agree that girls and women are at fault for buying into the stereotypes because conditioning is just as prevalent on girls as it is on boys and just as difficult to change in mid-stream.

    Just like it is with gays/lesbians and the awful stereotypes branded onto them, doesn’t mean they agree, but just trying to survive in a hostile social environment, which, is the same situation with girls and women. I can’t any girl/woman willingly accepting these stereotypes if she felt confident that she had a choice. Another example of how stereotypes dictate behavior is when young girls feel they have no choice but to turn to prostitution in order to survive, because they didn’t have the proper education or family support system while growing up, which could guide and help them develop a healthy self-image, which is absolutely necessary in order to compete in this world.

    Furthermore, when you don’t have real power in society with which to fight a system set up by men to favor them over women, then I don’t think it’s either fair or realistic to condemn girls who fall into the role these stereotype are taught for them to have of themselves.

    If we teach both the boys, as well as the girls, to deny these stereotypes when they are young, then I, like you, would find fault with those young women who chose to accept them anyway.