OUP user menu

Perceptions of sexual harassment in Swedish high schools: experiences and school-environment problems

Eva Witkowska, Ewa Menckel
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cki119 78-85 First published online: 23 March 2005

Abstract

Background: Sexual harassment in schools is recognized as a public-health problem detrimental to girls' psychosomatic health. This study examines the magnitude of sexual harassment and types of behaviours related to sexual harassment that female students are exposed to in a school environment, and their perceptions of them as problems in school. Method: A random sample of 540 female high school students, from all over Sweden, responded to an anonymous self-report mail questionnaire consisting of items related to personal experiences of different behaviours related to sexual harassment during the previous school year. Results: Sexual harassment was identified by 49% of the female students as a problem present in their schools. The most common types were verbal behaviours, such as: sexualized conversations, attractiveness rating, demeaning comments about gender, name-calling, and sexual personal comments. The most common non-verbal displays were: sexualized contact seeking and sexual looks. Behaviours in the sexual assault and teacher-to-student categories were less prevalent. In all four categories, the respondents who reported exposure to a particular behaviour were significantly more likely to identify that behaviour as a problem in their school. However, many non-exposed respondents also perceived such behaviours as problems in their school. Conclusions: Female high-school students in Sweden are exposed to a variety of inappropriate and/or unacceptable behaviours of a sexual nature, or based on sex, that may infringe their right to a supportive, respectful and safe learning environment or their dignity. Greater efforts are needed to analyse and prevent sexual harassment in schools.

Abstract

Key points

  • This study examines the exposure to and perception of different behaviours related to sexual harassment in Swedish high schools.

  • Female students are exposed to a variety of inappropriate and/or unacceptable behaviours of a sexual nature or based on sex.

  • Most of the exposed, but also many non-exposed respondents, perceive such behaviours as problems in their schools.

  • Greater efforts are needed to analyse and prevent sexual harassment in schools.

  • education
  • girls
  • school violence
  • sexual bullying
  • sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in schools is recognized as a public-health problem detrimental to girls' psychosomatic health,1,2 and, as a social problem, expressed by students, educators and community officials throughout the last decade.3,4 Harassment and discrimination are often unnoticed types of violence that frequently makes it difficult for affected individuals and groups to realize their full capacity. Thus, harassment and discrimination may lead to substantial losses in human potential for the community and the workforce.5,6

In an EU project Tackling Violence in Schools,7 including 17 member countries, most of the theoretical definitions and frameworks used are not sensitive to sexual harassment and violence against women in general. Reports from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain include some representation of sexual harassment or sexual aggression/abuse. The definitions used and their operationalisations, however, are very fragmented, arbitrary, and difficult to interpret. The results vary from 0.8%, in the Italian study, to 42% in Portugal.

The sexual harassment studies available, mostly from north America and the UK, show that–although largely not acknowledged–a hostile environment in school has a significant impact on girls' confidence and level of achievement.5 Girls sexually harassed in school show lower commitment to education and lower self-esteem, and report a multitude of psychological, somatic and social consequences–including lowered hopes and expectations for the future.812 Awareness of harassment in an organization also gives rise to psychological distress among individuals who have not been directly victimized.9,13 Many sexual harassment behaviours are also forms of sexual assault and may include the act of rape. Sexual assault and rape are traumas with lifelong consequences.14

Sexual harassment of students by their teachers and other school staff has been subject to very little research. In a recent survey, called Hostile Hallways, conducted by the Educational Foundation of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 38% of respondents reported having been harassed by school employees.12 In a study of secondary schools in the Netherlands, 27% of students reported being sexually harassed by school personnel.15 Timmerman15 also found that sexual harassment by school personnel appeared to be more disturbing and caused more psychosomatic health problems than peer harassment.

Sweden's Work Environment Act stipulates that all Swedish schools be considered as workplaces for students, just as they are for adult employees. The school is an arena for children's first contact with working life, and a place where they spend a large proportion of their time. Despite recent media interest in sexual harassment in schools, and also genuine interest on the part of students and many school staff and officials, research in Sweden and other Nordic and European countries remains limited.

The project on which this paper is based was designed as a step towards ameliorating this situation. The paper examines the magnitude of sexual harassment in Swedish high schools, the types of sex-related behaviours girl students are exposed to in the school environment, and their perceptions of these behaviours as problems in their school.

Materials and Methods

Research into sexual harassment in the workplace has ante-ceded research on school sexual harassment and offers some models and classifications. Most of these are based on the US legal definition of sexual harassment as either ‘quid pro quo’ harassment (sexual coercion by a person in power, e.g. teacher-to-student harassment), or ‘hostile environment’ harassment (behaviour that is sexual or related to sex, which creates a working climate that impedes the academic performance of a student, e.g. peer harassment).16

The definition of sexual harassment adopted by the European Commission in 1991 refers to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This includes unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct. The definition specifies three alternative conditions for a behaviour to be unacceptable:

  1. that it is unwanted, improper, or offensive;

  2. that its refusal or acceptance may influence decisions concerning a job;

  3. that it creates a working climate that is intimidating, hostile or humiliating for the person in question.17

For this study, sexual harassment is defined as inappropriate and/or unacceptable conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex that interferes with a student's right to a supportive, respectful and safe learning environment in school, and/or affects a student's dignity in a negative way. This includes different types of conduct, with verbal, physical, and other manifestations.

The definition includes both the quid pro quo and hostile environment types of harassment, and also the three conditions of sexual harassment listed by the European Commission. It captures a broad spectrum of behaviours so as better to describe the nature of sexual harassment in school. Also, since schools are primarily educational institutions, it is necessary to evaluate standards of school behaviour related to sexual harassment in a broader learning context than is the case for working adults.

Questionnaire

A questionnaire was developed to capture the prevalence of sexual harassment. The questionnaire consisted of 29 items directly related to personal experience of sexual harassment, and 55 related to the school environment. All questions, except for four open items, were multiple choice. The exposure questions were based on two time frames–the last school year, and the student's entire period of schooling. In this paper only data on the last school year are discussed.

The list of questions directly related to sexual harassment was organized according to Gruber's typology of sexual harassment18 to ensure satisfactory content validity. The questions were based on existing sexual harassment measures, such as the Hostile Hallways questionnaire ‘School Life’, Fineran's questionnaire ‘Peer Sexual Harassment Survey’, and also on youth risk behaviour surveys, such as the ‘School Crime Supplement’ to the US National Crime Victimization Survey, and the Center for Disease Control's ‘Youth Risk Behavior Survey’. Copies of these questionnaires were obtained from their authors.

The Hostile Hallways check list is the best established and most widely used tool for schools. Its items were translated to Swedish and then retranslated to English several times during the process of developing this questionnaire. The items were evaluated by six independent experts in the area of sexual harassment and also survey research. Three of the experts were Swedish. This study is a collaboration between Swedish speaking and English speaking researchers.

The items were also discussed in four focus groups with 16 Swedish high school students, and the complete questionnaire was carefully analysed question by question during individual sessions with seven adolescents through a process of concurrent and retrospective probing.19 This process includes reading each question and commenting, ‘thinking aloud’, on what it means and how an answer is chosen. Internal reliability of the 15 exposure items, tested with Cronbach's alpha, was 0.86.

None of the questions were found objectionable or irrelevant by the participants. At the end of each questionnaire was included a list of relevant agencies and a suggestion to contact any of them if the questionnaire has brought up disturbing memories or feelings, or if wanting to talk to someone about one's experiences and ideas. Standard ethical procedures for self-administered questionnaire surveys were followed.

Study group and data collection

A random sample of 1,038 girls born in 1983, was chosen from a national register covering all types of municipalities in Sweden.

The questionnaire was administered during late April to mid-May 2001. Our study group largely comprised students in the second grade of Swedish high school, 17 and 18 years old. Subjects received the questionnaire a month before the end of the school year.

Questionnaires were mailed to the home addresses of the young people in the sample along with a stamped return envelope and a covering letter explaining the purpose of the survey and assuring anonymity. The home administration seemed very suitable for such a sensitive topic. After one reminder, and a second reminder, together with a new copy of the questionnaire, 540 returned questionnaires acceptable for analysis were eventually obtained. The response rate among female students was 59% after school dropout rate calculations.

Respondents were from all over Sweden and living in different types of municipalities–29% in large cities and suburbs, 37% in large and medium towns, 8% in rural/sparsely populated areas, and the remaining 25% in other types of areas. This seems to be a satisfactory representation of the actual population distribution in Sweden, according to Statistics Sweden. Sixty per cent of the respondents attended theoretical, and 40% practical/vocational high school programmes. The actual proportions in the school population nationwide for these programmes were 47% and 53% respectively, which means that girls from theoretical programmes were over-represented in our sample. Thirty-one per cent of the respondents attended large schools (over 1,200 students), 56% middle-sized schools (400 to 1,200 students), and 13% small schools (less that 400 students), which is a fair representation of the distribution of high schools by size in Sweden according to the Swedish Education Authority (Skolverket).

Questions investigated

Three areas were addressed. The first pertained to general perceptions of problems in schools, including sexual harassment. The two others related to actual experiences of behaviours and perceptions of these.

1. What conditions are perceived as problems in Swedish high schools and is sexual harassment among them?

Perceptions of different school environment conditions as problems were estimated from a list of eight different alternatives. The question was formulated as follows: ‘What kinds of problems do you think are present in your school?’ Each answer was presented as a multiple choice on a scale from 1 (not a problem) to 4 (big problem). Choices 2–4 were coded ‘problem’ in the analysis. Choices 3 and 4 were considered statements of serious concern and also coded ‘serious problem’.

Behaviours related to sexual harassment in schools were analysed in four categories–verbal displays, non-verbal displays, sexual assault, and teacher-to-student sexual harassment. Such grouping is congruent with available presentations of sexual harassment data from schools.9,15

2. To what extent are female students exposed to various verbal behaviours and non-verbal displays related to sexual harassment, and are exposed students more likely to regard such behaviours and displays as problems in their school than non-exposed students?

Verbal behaviours were covered by nine survey questions, and non-verbal displays by seven. Exposure was measured on the basis of the survey question: ‘How often has it happened to you during this school year that a student, or students…? Responses were multiple choice on a 5-point scale: 1 (every day), 2 (every week), 3 (every month), 4 (occasionally), 5 (never). Choices 1–4 were treated as ‘exposure’ in the analyses. Choices 1–3 were considered statements of a repeating pattern and also coded ‘repeated exposure’.

Perceptions of the behaviours as problems in school were based on the question: ‘How much of a concern, in your opinion, is the following behaviour in your school?’. Response alternatives were multiple choice on a scale from 1 (not a problem) to 4 (big problem). Choices 2–4 were coded ‘problem’. Choices 3 and 4 were considered statements of serious concern and also coded ‘serious problem’.

3. To what extent are female students exposed to different behaviours related to sexual assault and teacher-to-student sexual harassment, and are exposed students more likely to see these behaviours and displays as problems in their school than non-exposed students?

The behaviours related to sexual assault were measured by four survey questions, and the behaviours related to teacher-to-student sexual harassment by three. Exposure was measured on the basis of the question: ‘Has it happened to you during this school year that a student, or students (teacher or other member of school staff)…?’ Possible responses were ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Each ‘Yes’ was coded as ’exposure’.

Perceptions of behaviours as actual/potential problems in school were measured on the basis of responses to the question: ‘In your opinion, how likely are these situations to arise in your school?’ Responses were multiple choice on a scale from 1 (not likely at all) to 4 (very likely). Choices 2–4 were coded ‘potential problem’. Choices 3 and 4 were considered statements of high concern and also coded ‘threat’.

Differences between the responses of the ‘exposed’ and ‘non-exposed’ groups for each of the behaviours were tested for statistical significance using Pearson chi-square.

Results

Bullying, substance abuse, and ethnic and racial conflicts were the problems in school most frequently identified by respondents (table 1). Sexual harassment was the next largest category, followed by gang violence and gay bashing. Overall, 49% of the girls responding to the survey believed that sexual harassment was a problem present in their school. Fifteen per cent believed sexual harassment was a serious problem.

View this table:
Table 1

Proportions of female students (%) perceiving various school conditions as problems in their school (n=540)

Not a problemSomewhat of a problemSerious problem*
Bullying305119
Students doing drugs423919
Ethnic harassment463518
Student drinking472923
Racial conflicts493219
Sexual harassment513415
Gang violence602515
Gay bashing71218
  • *Serious problem=rather big and big problem.

With regard to sexual harassment, the kinds of offending verbal behaviours could be divided into two categories in accordance with their reported frequency (table 2). The most common behaviours, reported by over 50% (56%–77%) of the girls, were demeaning comments about gender and sexuality, sexualized conversations, attractiveness rating, and sexual comments. Many of the exposed respondents (between 23% and 44%) were exposed to the above behaviours repeatedly (daily, weekly, or monthly).

View this table:
Table 2

Exposures of female students (%) to various verbal behaviours and their perceptions of them as problems in their school (n=540)

Verbal behavioursAll students exposed (exposed repeatedly*)Perceived as problem by exposed (serious problem**)Perceived as problem by non-exposed (serious problem**)χ2 (df=1) p<0.001
Demeaning comments about gender77 (32)79 (46)51 (33)38.88
    Students making demeaning comments or jokes about other students gender, e.g. ’all boys are immature’
Sexualized conversations77 (44)68 (49)37 (25)39.37
    Students bragging about their sexual prowess, repetitively, or talking about sex all the time in the presence of other students
Attractiveness rating71 (28)82 (56)57 (25)37.00
    Students publicly “rating” other students  attractiveness
Sexual personal comments65 (23)84 (55)61 (39)35.73
    Students making sexual comments about other students looks, body or private life
Demeaning comments about sexuality56 (23)73 (53)51 (31)26.57
    Students making demeaning comments or jokes about other students sexuality, e.g. ’all girls are whores’ or ’I hate fags’
Name calling–slut, whore, bitch, etc.37 (16)84 (60)59 (40)35.16
    Students calling others slut, whore, bitch, cunt, or similar words
Pressuring for sexual favours26 (14)53 (35)24 (21)39.86
    Students making suggestions, propositions or demands to other students for sexual favors or sexual relationship
Sexual rumours25 (9)91 (69)60 (35)44.35
    Students spreading sexual rumors about other students
Name calling–dyke, lesbian, fag, etc.17 (13)80 (57)57 (46)16.53
    Students calling others dyke, lesbian, fag, or similar word
  • *Repeatedly=monthly, weekly, daily (proportion of all exposed students).

  • **Serious problem=rather big and big problem (proportion of all students reporting ’problem’).

Less common behaviours were those with an explicit sexual reference, i.e. name calling, pressuring for sexual favors and sexual rumors, which were reported by less than 40% (17%–37%). Of the exposed students, 9%–16% reported repeated exposure.

Respondents who reported exposure to a particular verbal behaviour were significantly more likely to identify the behaviour as a problem in their school (P<0.001). However, over 50% of non-exposed respondents (respondents not exposed to the behaviour during the last school year) rated the behaviours, with the exception of sexualized conversations (37%) and pressuring for sexual favors (24%), as problems in their school, and many of those students (between 20% and 46%) rated the problems as serious. The mean difference in rating between the two groups for verbal behaviours was 26%. Lack of recent personal experience did not mean that such behaviours were dismissed as unimportant.

Non-verbal displays were less common, as indicated by reported frequencies of exposure (range: 8%–61%; 8%–28% of those repeatedly), which were lower than for verbal behaviours (table 3). Again, respondents who reported exposure to a particular behaviour were significantly more likely to identify the behaviour as a problem in their school. But many non-exposed respondents also rated these behaviours as problems (14%–53%; 19%–34% of those as serious). The mean difference between the two groups in terms of frequency of rating behaviours as problems was 28%. Every non-verbal item was rated significantly higher among exposed students than among the non-exposed.

View this table:
Table 3

Exposures of female students (%) to various non-verbal displays and their perceptions of them as problems in their school (n=540)

Non-verbal displaysAll students exposed (exposed repeatedly*)Perceived as problem by exposed (serious problem**)Perceived as problem by non-exposed (serious problem**)χ2 (df=1) p<0.001
Sexualized contact seeking61 (28)68 (44)44 (29)29.81
    Students making sexual gestures,  comments or jokes to other students
Sexual looks52 (24)58 (49)30 (22)43.08
    Students looking other students up and down in a sexual way
Brushing up or rubbing against41 (17)51 (42)20 (19)55.83
    Students brushing up or rubbing against other students in a sexual way also ’by accident’
Pulling clothing32 (8)42 (34)14 (34)51.17
    Students pulling at other students clothing in a sexual way
Pressuring for relationship26 (11)50 (36)26 (24)27.21
    Students following other students,  asking for dates, leaving messages  or soliciting information from others,  and not taking ’no’ for an answer
Showing pornography12 (8)58 (26)26 (25)25.85
    Students showing, giving, or leaving to other students sexually offensive pictures, photos or messages
Sexual messages/graffiti8 (0)83 (70)53 (38)13.60
    Students writing sexual messages/  graffiti about other students on  bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc
  • *Repeatedly=monthly, weekly, daily (proportion of all exposed students).

  • **Serious problem=rather big and big problem (proportion of all students reporting ’problem’).

For sexual assault, the frequency of reported exposure was significantly lower (0.2%–27%) than for the two preceding categories (table 4). Perceptions of the behaviours as potential problems by exposed respondents were high (74%–83%; 45%–47% of those considered a threat). For the non-exposed group the proportions ranged between 15% and 51%; and 14% to 33% of those were considered a threat in their school. The respondents exposed to a particular behaviour were also significantly more likely to perceive that behaviour as an actual/potential problem in their school. Estimates for ‘cornering or holding and pulling clothing’ (n=11) and ‘forcing to have sex’ (n=1) could not be made due to the low number of exposed respondents. The mean difference between the exposed and non-exposed groups in frequency of rating the remaining two most common behaviours in this category as actual/potential problems in their school was 31%.

View this table:
Table 4

Exposures (%) to various sexual-assault behaviours and perceptions of them as potential problems in school (n=540)

Sexual-assault behaviourStudents exposedPerceived as problem by exposed (threat*)Perceived as problem by non-exposed (threat*)χ2 (df=1) p<0.001
Grabbing or pinching2783 (47)51 (33)45.47
    Students grabbing, or pinching  other students in a sexual way
Touching private body parts1374 (45)45 (25)21.15
    Students touching other students  private body parts
Cornering or holding  and pulling clothing2 (n=11)n=9 (n=4)16 (23)
    Students cornering or holding other students and pulling their clothing in a sexual way
Forcing to have sex0.2 (n=1)015 (14)
    Students forcing other students to  have sex
  • *Threat=rather likely and very likely (proportion of all students reporting ’potential problem’).

With regard to teacher-to-student sexual harassment, the reported frequency of exposure ranged between 2% and 14% (table 5). Reported perceptions of the behaviours as potential problems in their school by exposed respondents were high (42%–90%, over a half of them considered a threat), between two and three times as high as for the non-exposed group (14%–32%, 17%–27% a threat). Respondents exposed to a particular behaviour were again significantly more likely to perceive that behaviour as an actual/potential problem in their school. An estimate for demands for sexual favors could not be made due to the small number of exposed respondents (n=12). The mean difference between the exposed and non-exposed groups in frequency of rating the remaining two behaviours in this category as actual/potential problems in their schools was 51%.

View this table:
Table 5

Exposures of female students (%) to various teacher-to-student sexual harassment behaviours and perceptions of them as potential problems in school (n=540)

Teacher-to-student sexually harassing behaviourStudents exposedPerceived as problem by exposed (threat*)Perceived as problem by non-exposed (threat*)χ2 (df=1) p<0.001
Demeaning comments about gender or sexuality1490 (48)30 (27)86.55
    Teachers or other school staff making demeaning comments or jokes about gender or your sexuality
Inappropriate touching1273 (57)32 (17)46.98
    Teachers or other school staff touching students in a way that makes students uncomfortable
Suggestions, propositions or demands for sexual favors2 (n=12)n=5 (n=3)14 (20)
    Teachers or other school staff making suggestions, propositions or demands to students for sexual favours or sexual relationship
  • *Threat=rather likely and very likely (proportion of all students reporting ’potential problem’).

Discussion

Sexual harassment in schools has been perceived in the Nordic countries as an aspect of bullying and not researched as a separate, complex phenomenon. The objective of this study was to obtain detailed mapping of the behavioural landscape on which sexual harassment occurs in Swedish high schools.

Mapping the problem

Verbal behaviours were found to be the most common in respondents' school environment reports, followed by non-verbal displays, sexual assault and teacher-to-student sexual harassment. Demeaning comments, sexualized conversations, attractiveness rating and sexual personal comments were the most common verbal behaviours. Sexualized contact seeking and sexual looks were the most common displays in the non-verbal category, followed by brushing up and rubbing against.

The measured exposures were over a period of one school year. Compared with the findings of Hostile Hallways, the largest US study of sexual harassment in schools,12 the frequencies obtained in this study were lower for all comparable questions in all categories of surveyed behaviours. Sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks (the most common category of events) were reported by 73% of female respondents in the Hostile Hallways (AAUW) study, but by only 61% of respondents in our Swedish study. Other common behaviours in the AAUW survey, such as touching, grabbing, or pinching, brushing up and rubbing, sexual rumors, and pulling clothing, were also found to be less frequent.

The AAUW survey found that 38% of female respondents were exposed to teacher-to-student sexual harassment.12 In the current study, 14% reported demeaning sexual comments or jokes, 12% inappropriate touching, and 2% sexual propositions or demands from teachers or school staff.

There are some significant differences between study groups and forms of data collection between the studies. The AAUW survey used a sample of 8 to 11 grade students (approximate age 14–18), and many overt harassing behaviours were found to be more prevalent in the lower grades. Formulation of questions was also different. The Hostile Hallways survey strictly focused on unwanted and upsetting situations, whereas the current study asked respondents to report all kinds of situations, also the ones considered ‘a joke’. The time frame of the Hostile Hallways questionnaire was much broader, encompassing the entire school life of respondents, whereas this paper analyses exposure over the last school year.

The direction and level of the difference suggests that employing a broad definition of harassment will not unreasonably inflate the results. Analysis of the efficiency of specific question formulation in measuring sexual harassment20 suggests that more general questions actually yield lower recognition, and hence give lower frequencies.

Unfortunately, there are no comparable Swedish studies on sexual harassment in schools. The available data are from small, local and unrepresentative surveys with unreviewed administration and measurement procedures, and different age groups. The only other large sampled Swedish school study, conducted in Stockholm's schools in 1993, yield mostly comparable results for comparable questions.21 Forty seven per cent of the respondents believed that sexual harassment was a problem present in their schools as compared to 49% in this study. Reported exposure to verbal types of behaviours was: for sex jokes, 77% (56% to 77% in this study); for sexual comments, 37% (65% in this study); for sexual rumors, 16% (25% in this study); and for sexual propositioning 8% (26% in this study). Inappropriate touching and grabbing was reported by 30% of the respondents from Stockholm's schools as compared to 13% and 27% in this study. Sex jokes from teachers were reported by 16% and 14% respectively.

A European comparison of results of surveys of adult workers showed the lowest incidence of sexual harassment in Denmark and Sweden.22 The differences in measurement techniques makes this comparison also difficult to interpret. However, the results from this study support the notion that exposure to sexual harassment of Swedish students may be actually lower than their US peers.

Comparison between different survey results is always difficult. Divergent question formulation, different time frames, varying lengths of questionnaires, numbers of points on the sexual harassment scale and different ways of survey administration all contribute to differences in results.3,22 Nevertheless, the scale of the problem in Swedish schools has to be taken into consideration.

Perceptions of sexual harassment as a problem

Sexual harassment was identified by 49% of our respondents as a problem in school, and 15% believed this problem was serious. In the Hostile Hallways study (2001) 78% of both boys and girls stated that sexual harassment was present in their school.

Most available studies of perceptions of sexual harassment involve hypothetical scenarios. Our study asked about perceptions of actual behaviours in schools as problems in the school environment. Sexual rumors, demeaning jokes or comments, sex-related personal comments and calling names appeared to be the most problematic by female students who have been exposed to them during the last school year.

The kinds of verbal behaviours that were also most problematic for non-exposed individuals were personal comments (61%, 39% of those considered serious), sexual rumors (60%, 35% serious), being called names such as slut, whore (59%, 40% serious), being called names such as lesbian, fag (57%, 25% serious), and attractiveness rating (57%, 25% serious). They were the most prevalent behaviours, and a relatively large number of students must have been aware of their presence.

In all four categories the respondents who reported exposure to a particular behaviour were significantly more likely to identify that behaviour as an actual/potential problem in their school and to see it as a serious problem. However, many non-exposed respondents also perceived the behaviours as problems, some of them as serious, in their school. They may have been exposed to them in the past, witnessed them, or have heard about them. Harassment in the school environment creates an invisible yet very real threat of hostility of which students are well aware.9,13

Limitations of the study

Home-mail questionnaire studies suffer chronically from a low response rate. They offer, however, a high level of privacy and anonymity, which is desirable in studies of behaviours related to sexuality. Reporting in mail questionnaire studies on socially undesirable behaviour has been generally found to be comparable to or higher than in those employing other modes of data collection.23 Proper study design–such as a clear questionnaire, several reminders, etc.–can also reduce the non-response rate to some degree.24 The cheapness of the method is also often a decisive factor in social research. Some of the most prominent national Nordic studies of sexual harassment–such as FRIED-A in 1987 in Sweden, the SAK study in 1995 in Finland, and Einarsen's study in 1993 in Norway–had response rates of around 50%. The response rate of 59% in this study can be considered satisfactory given the study group and the length of the questionnaire.

To identify possible sample bias, the survey-respondent group was compared with the population of Sweden on key demographic variables–geographical distribution, school size, and study programs attended. The distributions were generally found to correspond to the national composition of school enrollments, with the exception of study programmes attended. Under-representation of students in non-academic programmes and school dropouts was expected and explains some of the non-response. The length of the questionnaire and ‘pen-and-paper’ administration naturally favours students of theoretical programmes. They have greater skills and interest in the type of activities involved in participating. We have found no differences between students in theoretical and practical programmes in terms of the exposure to different behaviours related to sexual harassment. A study in Stockholm's schools21 also found no differences in the reported levels of harassment between both groups. The response rate was adjusted for school dropouts on the basis of the proportion of youth in the age group not enrolled in high school nationwide. The participant group was representative of the Swedish student population, although there is no absolute basis on which non-response bias can be determined.

The study population was relatively old in student terms. However, choosing this group allowed the capture of longer school experience in the long-term questions, and in the text questions, greater possibility for reflection on the matter.

This study employed a very broad theoretical and operational definition of sexual harassment. Formulation of items in a questionnaire that would both yield results comparable with other studies and advancing knowledge in a relatively unexplored area is a difficult task. Lack of questions establishing contextual factors of the incidents may be considered a weakness. However, this study asked about specific behaviours so that sexual harassment was operationalised very specifically.

Our survey was exploratory by nature, and the questionnaire employed had not been psychometrically validated. Thus, it may not fully have represented the higher order construct in which sexual harassment actually consists. In this report, we do not at any point use the behavioural scales as forming an additive representation of sexual harassment as a construct. We have to start with descriptive studies in order to capture different aspects of the actual behaviours identified as related to sexual harassment in previous studies of both a qualitative and a quantitative nature. The scales employed in this study have to be validated for use as tools for the actual measurement of sexual harassment as a construct.

Conclusions

This study shows that female high school students in Sweden are exposed to a variety of inappropriate and/or unacceptable behaviours of a sexual nature, or based on sex, that may infringe their right to a supportive, respectful and safe learning environment or and their dignity.

This study indicates that sexual harassment may create a hostile environment for some female students. Future studies need to be conducted to measure how student's educational gains and career choices and health are affected by these behaviours. The AAUW study shows that some girls opt out from sports and male dominated curricula because they experience, or fear, being exposed to harassment.11,12 This may reinforce the traditional gender patterns in the workforce and family life. Lower income, lower positions in organizational hierarchy, and lower work prestige, prompt women to work part-time and miss career opportunities that would allow them fully to contribute to society. The same dynamics position men as traditional providers and discourage them from taking greater responsibilities in their family life. It has to be explored what are the patterns of sexual harassment of men and what are its consequences.

There is some evidence25,26 that girls, as they grow up, master different strategies–such as building alliances, resistance, responsibility taking and withdrawal–to deal with discrimination and harassment. They also tend to avoid explicitly describing sexually offensive behaviours as forms of harassment.15 Schools, and also state discourse, seem to support Swedish women in taking responsibility for successful inter-gender relationships.27,28 Sexual harassment seems to be part of a hidden curriculum also in Swedish schools, and Swedish girls–just like their north American counterparts9– are not passive victims.

The relationships between a student's personal experiences, normative beliefs and assessments of sexual harassment are not obvious. But they have considerable implications for survey research, surveillance efforts, and also intervention and prevention strategies with regard to ill-health.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank the respondents for their participation in this survey, also Karin Grahn, our project assistant, for her invaluable help with data collection, and Susan Fineran and Mona Eliasson for their indispensable suggestions. Financial support for this survey was provided by the Swedish Council for Work Life Research.

References

View Abstract