Study Shows Sexual Harassment Is Common in Middle School

Student at school opening lockerSexual harassment is common in middle school, according to research published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. Although 43% of middle schoolers reported experiencing verbal sexual harassment, few bullying programs address this highly prevalent form of bullying.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS), 28% of adolescents in grades 6-12 experience bullying, suggesting sexual harassment may be more common than traditional bullying.

Sexual Harassment in Middle School

The study followed 1,300 children in Illinois for five years, beginning in middle school. Verbal sexual harassment was the most prevalent form of harassment in the group. Twenty-one percent of students reported experiencing physical forms of sexual harassment, including sexual assault. Fourteen percent of students were victims of sexual rumors, and 9% had been the subject of sexual graffiti in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Sixteen percent of students reported homophobic harassment such as name-calling and jokes, and 5% said they frequently experienced this form of harassment.

An open-ended portion of the survey asked students to report their most upsetting experiences with sexual harassment. Many students minimized the seriousness of their experiences, with 14% saying the bullying was “not really sexual harassment.” Many claimed the perpetrators were just joking. Despite this dismissiveness, students still reported finding their experiences very upsetting.

Sexual Harassment and Bullying

Boys were significantly more likely to be sexual harassers, whether their targets were male or female. Boys who experienced sexual harassment often reported that the perpetrators were close friends. Harassment was most common in school hallways. Classrooms, locker rooms, gym class, and lunch rooms were also common sexual harassment locations.

African-American students often reported harassment from older students and romantic partners. White students experienced more victimization at the hands of their friends and same-age peers.

The study highlights the role of sexual harassment in bullying, while pointing to the dearth of anti-sexual harassment training in most anti-bullying programs. The study’s authors say the dismissive attitude many students have toward sexual harassment is especially troubling and should be addressed by anti-bullying initiatives.


  1. Espelage, D. L., Hong, J. S., Rinehart, S., & Doshi, N. (2016). Understanding types, locations, & perpetrators of peer-to-peer sexual harassment in U.S. middle schools: A focus on sex, racial, and grade differences. Children and Youth Services Review, 71, 174-183. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.11.010
  2. Facts about bullying. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Sexual harassment common among middle school children, study finds. (2016, December 9). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Phoebe

    January 3rd, 2017 at 11:30 AM

    What?! Middle school?! I would be livid no matter what age my daughter is if she came home saying that this is happening to her but at this age those parents of the children doing that should be mortified.

  • grant

    January 4th, 2017 at 5:07 PM

    It’s disturbing but now that we know that this is a real problem then what we have to do now is work on solutions for fixing this. Teachers and schools are going to have to get more involved in this topic and parents have to stop being blind to the actions of their children.

    Some things really are harmless but there are other things that are truly hurtful and if we try to brush these things off then no one is going to ever be happy about that nor will they feel that their concerns are validated.

    It is time for any of us with children this age to take off the blinders. look at what they are really facing, and work on helping them make things better.

  • Lila

    January 9th, 2017 at 4:56 AM

    Have you seen the documentary Audrie and Daisy? Chilling

  • Mom

    February 14th, 2017 at 8:21 AM

    I hacen’t heard this but I am not surprised. We know our nieces, daughters , neighbors etc. There is obvert and covert. The covert is also dangerous and needs to be recognized before going to a huge HS with a cast of characters. ARGH/

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