Teachers routinely overlook sexual harassment of pupils in school, in many cases failing to recognise it as anything more than high-spirited banter.
Researchers from universities in the US state of Georgia define sexual harassment as "any behaviour verbal, physical or psychological that polices the boundaries of traditional hetero- sexual gender norms". However, this includes name-calling, grabbing and hitting, pressure to have sex, and the stereotyping of classmates who do.
The academics interviewed middle- and high-school teachers in a qualitative study intended to reveal staff attitudes to such harassment of pupils.
Many teachers claimed not to have witnessed sexual harassment at school. However, the researchers found that most of them cited incidents that were harassment, despite failing to recognise them as such. Instead, the incidents were regarded as normal parts of teenage life.
One teacher said: "A girl received a text message from her boyfriend that said, 'I want to fuck'... And, you know, for me that is shocking but that is how they communicate."
Another said: "A girl was so worried and upset because she felt so much pressure to be sexually active, and she didn't want to be."
Meanwhile, the researchers observed repeatedly how boys would reinforce their own popularity through references to sexual experiences. But they used rumours of girls' similar experiences to label them as sluts.
"I have heard boys among themselves (saying) 'That's a ho' because they know the girl has been with several boys, or they presume she has been," one teacher said.
This type of conversation did not happen only between boys. One interviewee said: "I have heard guys make comments to girls...referring to her as a whore or...'Yeah, I know how you are. You'll do it with anybody.'"
Teachers not only failed to identify this as harassment but in some cases dismissed any complaints that the girls made to them.
"I never had a case where a student was really being harassed," one said, referring to boys who taunted girls with jibes such as: "Ooh, I'd like to get a hold of that." "I have had a couple of students who would just say things...But in their view they weren't harassing, they were giving compliments. But when a girl is given compliments from a boy they don't like, sometimes they can take that as harassment."
More worryingly, the researchers said, some teachers drift into victim-blaming. These teachers claimed that boys were not responsible for their actions, and that it was up to the girls to serve as guardians of their own reputations.
"Guys are bad about saying mean things to the girls," one teacher said. "Putting their hands on girls ... Those boys do that a lot ... And the girls will usually let them."
Another said: "I walked by two kids the other day, and he was saying something about crabs between her legs, and she was just laughing."
The researchers also noted a racial element at work: teachers were more likely to overlook sexual harassment when it involved black pupils. One teacher referred to teen pregnancy among black pupils as "very accepted and prevalent". She added: "Now you do see some pregnant white girls, but I think ... that community certainly accepts it more often, and that whole group of kids is blatantly sexual."
The researchers suggest that teachers need to revisit common presumptions. Discussions about sexual harassment, they said, tend to be subsumed into a general conversation about classroom bullying. This quickly turns into a discussion of male victims, rather than focusing on the sexual form of bullying that girls face.
And, researchers add, an obsession with targets and test scores limits the amount of time staff have to reflect on the problem.
"As teachers continue to be held accountable through students' test scores, we must also be reminded of the importance of...the need for a safe school climate," they said.
"Race, class and emerging sexuality: teacher perceptions and sexual harassment in school", by Regina Rahimi and Delores Liston, is published in the December 2011 edition of the journal Gender and Education.
Regina Rahimi, Armstrong Atlantic State University
Delores Liston, Georgia Southern University
What they said
"I have heard boys among themselves (saying): 'That's a ho' because they know the girl has been with several boys, or they presume she has been."
"I have heard guys make comments to girls about their behaviour, referring to her as a whore or...'Yeah, I know how you are. You'll do it with anybody.'"
About black girls: "I see, within that community, just a global acceptance of open sexuality. You will see it in the way they dress...You can see their panties, if they have them on."
"I have had a couple of students who would just say things...but in their view they weren't harassing. They were giving compliments. But when a girl is given compliments from a boy they don't like, sometimes they can take that as harassment."
"They cannot quite help touching each other ... The kids in my classroom or whatever, they are just touchy-feely all of the time."