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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