Catcalling in the hallways. Lists in locker rooms. Nude photos over text.
For generations, sexual harassment has been a part of daily life in high school, a time of raging hormones, confusing relationships and peaking insecurities. Boys and girls have rated each other based on looks, reducing a classmate’s worth to a number or letter grade. Girls have walked by, eyes peeled ahead, as boys whistled at them on their way to class.
One study found that nearly half of all students between grades 7 and 12 reported experiencing some type of sexual harassment.
But across the country, some teenagers are not taking it anymore. In the era of #MeToo, of women’s marches, of the Brett M. Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, these high school students are pushing back.
From Sacramento to Thompson Falls, Mont., and Middleton, Wis., students have walked out of their classes in protest, frustrated by school officials’ lack of response to sexist comments. They have posted fliers, created hashtags and confronted classmates.
When teenage boys at a Maryland high school rated their female classmates on their physical appearance in March, dozens of senior girls spoke out — demanding and receiving a schoolwide conversation about what happened.
The Maryland students had a reckoning. For other high school students across America, change still feels far away, but they’re trying to shift the dynamic.
“If not us, who will?” said Jenna Curtis, 18, who lives in a suburb near Orlando. “In high school and in college, we’re all still changing. We’re finding out who we are. . . . Already you’re questioning everything, so why not question this as well?”
Here are some of their stories, edited for clarity and space.
Lucy Polyak Iowa City
Last year, a spreadsheet got leaked that three juniors at the time had made. A good 50 or 60 girls from all grades were listed on it, labeled A through D, letter grade style. F, the top category, was sexual.
I personally was not on the list, but there was a lot of anger on social media. I just sort of was looking at this, and I was like, I want to help, this should not be happening. We’re considered the liberal bubble of Iowa, and you wouldn’t expect that something like that would happen here.
Seeing everything wonderful and awful that came out of the #MeToo movement, I felt very empowered. I figured, why can’t I do that?
I shared a post originally on Instagram, and created a hashtag called #EveryonesanA. And just basically was like, “Here’s some pictures of me and my friends that I feel particularly confident and happy in, please feel free to share ones of yourself as well. It’s stupid to rank people. Everyone’s an A in some sort of way.”
It blew up. We had hundreds of people posting it, students, parents, faculty. It was very, very cool. We were able to put up posters around the school just with sort of uplifting messages, mostly pertaining to women, but also folks as a whole.
Our administration did not do much to reprimand these three boys, much to a lot of our disapproval. These three guys were able to cause a lot of pain with something that seemed as simple as a Google form. There was a lot of backlash as well. People were like, “We should stop talking about it, the more attention you bring to it, the more of a thing it becomes.”
We had a very long dialogue about the concept of “boys will be boys” and why there really isn’t a reverse, flip side of that. You never hear “girls will be girls.” Girls are often held to a higher standard faster.
So many times, high school girls are labeled as overemotional, and dramatic, and [as though they] should just calm down. But that’s not the case. I mean, everybody can be overdramatic, but to feel awful and gross about yourself and objectified because some guy put you on a letter scale list, it shouldn't be a problem anymore.
Makailah Jenkins Los Angeles
Every day, there’s always guys that make comments about girls’ bodies, especially at my school, especially me. Because I’m built different.
I remember one time somebody asked me “How much?” I was being looked at like I was a sex worker while I was in school. I didn’t say anything about it. I wanted to, but it’s just really embarrassing to go to an administrator and say, “People are looking at me this way.”
That was in 10th grade, so this last year. It was somebody I knew. It was at lunch. Usually me and my friends would have a specific table where we’d be, and he was just there at the time. And he just asked me, how much? It just gave me the chills.
When stuff like that happens to me, I’m not sure how to react. Sometimes I’ll just go along with the crowd, because I don’t want to seem like I’m a party pooper.
It just really made me feel uncomfortable. Even before I was insecure about that, but now I feel really insecure. Now I feel like I have to cover myself up and hide myself, and I don’t really like feeling like I have to hide myself.
Teachers don’t really say anything about it, students don’t really say anything about it. Me, my friends, we talk about this all the time. But sometimes we’re not really sure how to feel. We haven’t really been taught about what we should say, and what we should do.
At my school, we don’t have resources. We don’t have anything regarding consent. We don't have anything like that on our campus, or they just don’t tell us.
I really try my best when I see things like that happening [to other girls]. There was a time when I was at this place where I interned at, this community center, and there was a kid there. He was kind of cornering a girl and I didn't like the fact that he was doing that. I knew it was making her feel unsafe. I told him you can’t be doing that. That’s not okay.
I have a really good mentor. She encourages me to speak up for myself. I fight for people who look like me all the time, and people just think it’s weird. They expect me to just take the unjust treatment whether it’s men or systems.
Jenna Curtis, 18 St. Cloud, Fla.
A group of friends and I went up to Universal CityWalk. I knew maybe 10 of the kids. I saw someone brushing up kind of fast behind me, so I jerked around, reaching my hand out, and grabbed his hand. Before I knew it, I was yanking his hand back, reflexively. It was a boy who’s known to treat girls like crap. I instantly went on the defensive.
“What were you trying to do?” I asked. He was like, “Nothing.” I asked him again. “I was trying to grab your ass,” he said. I realized I was pulling his hand back still, and thought, Oh wait he’s probably in pain, so I released it.
“Think about this the next time you try to do something without someone’s consent,” I told him, and walked away with my group of friends.
Another time my friend and I were studying at a Starbucks and this old dude kept walking past our table and looking specifically at her, so we left. A few of my good guy friends were asking about it, because they were there, and they were wondering why me and my other friend were so on edge. We were explaining it and teaching them how to be good allies, telling them, “Yeah, it’s not all men, but it’s enough men that we’re constantly wary.”
One of my guy friends was like, “Wait, is that why sometimes you see someone, and the girls start to cluster closer to the trusted guy friends?” They have just never thought of it in these ways. One of them made the comment: “Oh, it’s kind of like a video game battleground except it never ends.”
I’m really proud of some of them. One of them yelled at his brother for some comments he made one time at a football game. The cheerleaders’ outfits had changed, and the brother was like “They need to show more skin.” My friend knocked his brother on the side of the head. “No, this is more comfortable for them to work out and do their routine,” he told his brother. “So this is what they’re wearing. If you don’t like it, shut up.”
It’s gotten through to them — that’s what counts. I think it’s more widely being talked about and understood, instead of being dismissed.
If not us, who will? In high school and in college, we’re all still changing. We’re finding out who we are. We’re breaking from the molds that our parents indoctrinated us into. Already you’re questioning everything, so why not question this as well?
Alma Alfaro Dallas
There was this one time where I was walking back to my dance class and I was just in my dance clothes. It wasn’t anything bad. It was probably just leggings and a workout top.
These boys were trying to get my attention, trying to talk to me, trying to whistle at me. [Until then,] I had never been approached like that with students in my class or in my school, but it actually happened more than once.
The second time, I was with my friend and I was just going to the counselor.And we were walking by the same hallway that takes us to the dance room, and these boys were still out there. I recognized them from last time but I just ignored them. They actually came up and wanted to talk to us but we just kept walking.
One of the boys was like, “Where are you going?” She was just like, “We’re going back to dance class.” He was just like, “I think your friend is cute and we just want to talk to her.” I just told my friend that I think we should just go back to class. They were laughing about it but you know, for me as this teenage girl, I was really uncomfortable.
I feel like back then when it happened [around December], I was too scared to speak out about it. In the Hispanic community, I just feel like sexual harassment has always been a part of it and I feel like women have grown accustomed to it, and that’s not ok. Like, if I’m out with my mom and this guy pulls up in the car next to her and tries to talk to her, she just brushes it off. It happens pretty much everywhere, and growing up in the community I just feel like I’ve always been around it.
There’s this group of about maybe 8 or 9 girls, and we all got a note from a counselor saying they would like to invite us to come to this girls’ group that would happen on Tuesdays during our lunch period. We talk about a lot of situations that women go through and just high school drama. One of the main topics that’s come up has been going to college, and going to parties and stuff, and how there are so many ways for sexual harassment to happen because you are on your own. It’s pretty scary to think about, but it’s just what happens.
Being in this group I feel like it’s given me the opportunity to be able to inform other girls about the situation and how we should be able to speak out against it if it ever happens.
Now I feel like if [I were sexually harassed] again, I can go up to people and just tell them that this is unacceptable. I should be able to walk the hallways of my own school without the fear of being catcalled.
Lexi Williams, 18 Harrison, Ark.
It was a few weeks ago, and I was sitting in my environmental science class. My teacher stepped out of the classroom and told us he was going to be gone for about five minutes. Through the corner of my eye I saw something get thrown at me. A boy got up and started walking toward me. Another boy said “It’s by her chair.”
I scooted my chair back, and it was an open condom. I was just in disbelief. He picked it up, and I angrily said, “Why would you throw that at me?” They were all laughing, he was laughing, and he said, “I think this is for you.” As a girl dating a girl, I made a comment about me not needing condoms.
The teacher still wasn’t back, so I got up and found a sticky note on my teacher’s desk and I scratched out quickly what happened. The teacher came in, and removed the kid from the classroom. He wrote an email to the principal. The next day, the teacher said that the principal wasn’t going to do any punishment. For about a week, the kid was taken out of the classroom to be separated from me.
I felt violated. I was embarrassed. I felt like even after telling the principal and other people, nobody really batted an eye at it. And I don’t think it should be like that.
In my school especially, in the heart of the South, men are definitely [treated as] superior to women, unfortunately. I’ve never received an apology from the principal or the boy himself. A lot of girls at my school have gotten guys on Snapchat sending them inappropriate pictures without them asking for them. I think that in my town it’s just kind of the way of life.
I try to tell girls, “Don’t let boys talk to you like that.” I’m just hoping to show my community and my school district that times are changing. Girls are not going to be quiet anymore. We’re going to take a stand and push back.
David Winner, 18 Lancaster, Pa.
In January, our school newspaper published a piece on sexual harassment. I think one of the reasons sexual harassment came up is because it’s an issue that seemed to be pretty ubiquitous but never really got talked about in a formal sense. Pretty soon in the reporting process it became very clear that rankings were very prevalent. We found examples of it across all four grades. It had been one of those open secrets.
Going back to eighth grade, there was a girl in my class who took pictures of a bunch of guys’ butts and created a collage and basically ranked them. I didn’t really think much of it, but looking back, I was like, oh my god, that’s extremely horrifying. I did feel a little uncomfortable about my physical appearance being ranked.
But it’s not as structured as guys ranking girls. It was pretty awful, pretty weird hearing about the bracket system that the junior guys had made for the junior girls. It was a council of three guys that would get together and then vote on each bracket match until they ended up with a winner.
I was really hoping for a community response to the article. I don’t think teachers were aware of how extensive the problem was, and part of me had hoped that it would start a dialogue between teachers and students about sexual harassment. The bracket system, I thought that would be the thing that sort of ended it all. But it just fizzled. It just completely fizzled. I was looking for sort of outrage to come out about it, but we never saw it.
There was this guy I interviewed, and when I asked him if he had ever rated anybody, he was like well, “I don’t know, probably yeah, it’s like a scale of one to 10, it’s just what you do.” I was like, wow.
What I’ve been doing lately is sort of interacting with guys one on one. Especially as a senior, you feel okay calling them out.
I wish we had a moment like the school in Maryland where everything broke and we had this sort of rapid shift. But unfortunately I don’t think that’s how it’s working. It’s going to be really, really long term. It’s going to be just a very slow sort of glacial shift to get boys to stop doing that.