Sluts and Suits: Sexual Harassment Lawsuits in Schools
A junior high school girl in Petaluma, Calif., known as Jane Doe was the target of an ugly and persistent rumor. In the fall of 1990, when she was in the seventh grade, classmates spread the word that Doe had a hot dog in her pants. Throughout the year Doe was repeatedly called a "hot dog bitch" and a "slut." And the rumor did not dissipate over the summer. When Doe returned to school the following year, the comments kept coming. One day a classmate stood up in the middle of English class and blatantly said, "This question is for Jane. Did you have sex with a hot dog?" The entire class laughed. Doe ran out in tears. Doe's experience is far from rare. In fact, 42 percent of girls have had sexual rumors spread about them, according to a 1993 nationwide poll conducted for the American Association of University Women.In another survey, conducted by Nan Stein of Wellesley College in conjunction with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and distributed through Seventeen magazine, 89 percent of the teenage respondents said they had been the targets of unwanted sexual comments, gestures or looks. (Eighty-three percent said they had been touched, grabbed or pinched.) In two-thirds of the cases, other people were present. The school "slut" typically endures cruel and sneering comments -- "slut" is often interchangeable with "whore" and "bitch" -- as she walks down the hallway, rides the school bus and gathers books from her locker. She is publicly humiliated in the classroom and cafeteria, targeted in boys' bathroom graffiti and late-night prank phone calls. Teachers, generally speaking, do not intervene; they consider this behavior normal for teenagers. Consider "Marcy," a Catholic girl from Queens, New York then in the ninth grade, who was hanging out at a friend's house one evening when she drank so much she blacked out. A classmate raped her and then spread the news that they had had sex. Marcy, now a college sophomore, comments matter-of-factly that within hours she acquired a reputation as a "slut." "They'd call out 'slut' to me in the halls," she recalls. "There was graffiti." Everybody in the school knew about her, in all the grades. Marcy's reputation as a "slut" is so legendary that the new crop of incoming students at her old high school hears all about her each year. I know what it feels like: I myself had been the subject of painful, mocking gossip in the spring of ninth grade, 12 years ago. A friend felt betrayed after I dated a guy she'd had her eye on. In revenge, she spread the rumor that I was a "slut." It was my first lesson in the sexual double standard: Boys who bragged about their sexual status were routinely glorified, while I was belittled to an extraordinary degree. My sexuality (real or imagined) was, in effect, policed. So what's a high school "slut" to do? Unfortunately, the solutions currently advocated by educators, many of whom consider "slut"-bashing a form of sexual harassment, are ineffective or impractical. The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund counsels schools to develop and enforce sexual harassment policies, so that a strong message is conveyed that verbal harassment will not be tolerated, that students know how to make a complaint and that punishments are speedy but fair. A student who is harassed by another student is advised to confront the harasser, if she feels safe and comfortable doing so. She is encouraged to write a letter to the harasser that describes the behavior, explains that it bothers her and says that she wants it to stop. This is said to be empowering and therapeutic for the student who is harassed. But it can be incredibly difficult for anyone, let alone a child or adolescent, to confront her harasser personally. A group of 15 girls from Santa Clara High School in Santa Clara, Calif., recently banded together to complain to their school officials about boys who circulated sexual rumors, grabbed them and spit on them -- and got the offenders suspended. But very often the one who is harassed is on her own, without any kind of support. In any event, in far too many cases school administrators are uninterested in developing or enforcing policies because they don't consider sexual harassment (verbal or physical) a serious problem. Even when girls tell a teacher or administrator about incidents of harassment, nothing happens in 45 percent of the cases, according to the Seventeen study. Recognizing these realities, and facing school officials who are not as quick to punish harassers as the Santa Clara officials were, a handful of "sluts" have chosen the legal route. In 1992, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that students can collect monetary damages from schools for sexual harassment. The ruling in that case, Franklin vs. Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools, applied to a student who alleged that a teacher made unwelcome sexual advances toward her during her sophomore year in high school, but it paved the way for student-to-student sexual harassment charges as well. As a form of sexual harassment, the taunting of "sluts" violates Title IX of the 1972 amendments to the Education Act, which guarantees equal access to education. Those who say they've been harassed don't have to file a complaint with the government; they can take their claims directly to court. Students who believe school officials have failed to prevent sexual harassment can file lawsuits against school districts within 180 days from the date of the last incident. Since the Franklin ruling, several girls have already sued their school districts and settled out of court -- such as a Midwestern girl whose name appeared on a list of the "25 most fuckable girls" that classmates circulated around her school. Her settlement, in 1993, was a mere $40,000. Today the stakes are much higher: Jane Doe is suing the Petaluma School District for $1 million. Doe appears to have a strong case. She complained about the rumor repeatedly to the Kenilworth Junior High guidance counselor, Richard Homrighouse -- at one point as often as five times a month. But Homrighouse did not lift a finger to help her. His attitude, she reports, was that students had free-speech rights to call her what they wanted and that, in any event, the name-calling was bound to stop sooner or later. It didn't, Doe became increasingly depressed, and as a result she transferred to another school. But her reputation was so well known that she was taunted even there. Finally, her parents moved her to a private school. The monetary amount they are seeking is meant to include Doe's private school tuition and the costs of medical and psychological treatment. The federal district court dismissed Doe's Title IX damages claim because Doe failed to allege that the school engaged in intentional discrimination. But Doe's attorney has amended the complaint and a trial is currently pending. Another pending case is that of Eve Bruneau, 14, who has filed a suit against the South Kortright Central School District in Delaware County, N.Y., because her teacher and school officials refused to intervene when boys would snap girls' bras, grab their breasts and call them names like "dog-faced bitch." Bruneau's teacher told her that people would call her names all her life, and that she would have to learn to deal with it. Like Doe, Bruneau dreaded going to her school so much that she was forced to transfer to another one. Bruneau seeks to demonstrate that her school was guilty of intentional discrimination. "If we show malice," says Bruneau's attorney, Rick Rossein of the City University of New York Law School, "the school will be liable for both compensatory and punitive damages." And if the school is liable, officials will think twice before looking the other way at student-to-student harassment in the future. Her case is set for trial this September. These lawsuits, then, are important and necessary: They send a strong message to schools that they are obligated to try to halt cruel behavior and develop and enforce sexual harassment policies. The lawsuits also make it clear that verbal harassment can be just as damaging as physical attacks. But essential as they are, such suits also have some serious shortcomings. For one thing, the charge of sexual harassment implies that the problem is strictly gendered -- that boys alone are responsible for harassing girls as "sluts." Yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is girls, not boys, who tend to be the most vicious name-callers and rumor-mongers. When the "slut" reputation is shoehorned into a legalistic framework, guilty girls get off the hook. An even deeper problem is that lawsuits may actually promote, rather than inhibit, the targeting of girls as "sluts" -- for litigation tends to reinforce the mindset that leads to girls being labeled "sluts" in the first place. Given the way suits are structured, with clear-cut victims and aggressors, it is nearly impossible to fight the "slut" label on the grounds of sexual harassment without strengthening the boundary between "good" girls and "bad" ones. My own story is instructive. I never considered suing -- I didn't even realize I could -- but my reaction was typical of those who sue: I escaped into the persona of a celibate "good" girl. I feverishly sought to be known as a smart girl, not a sexual one. True, my bookish identity served me well -- I succeeded academically both in high school and college -- but it also made me miserable and inhibited. Looking back, I realize that my defense was a tacit endorsement of the system that says sexual girls are to be avoided while sexual boys are to be congratulated with a hearty slap on the back. When a girl is waging a legal battle against being identified as sexually active, she shouldn't have to defend herself by claiming to be "good." Yet that is what inevitably occurs. The girl harassed as a "slut" can't be an innocent victim, the logic goes, unless she is sexually innocent. It's precisely this mindset that led Katy Lyle -- who sued her Duluth, Minn., high school because she was the object of graphic sexual graffiti and rumors -- to present herself as a virginal "good" girl when she appeared on the Donahue show several years ago. Phil Donahue even hushed an audience member who inquired about Lyle's sexuality. ("If you weren't dating these guys," the audience member asked, "how did this all come about?") The complaints of a "slut" would never be taken seriously, the show seemed to suggest, if she were sexually active. Similarly, in an ABC "after-school special" broadcast last fall, a character who is based on Lyle was portrayed as totally asexual, her figure hidden beneath a baggy madras shirt. The program, which is used in schools across the country as a training tool, portrayed boys (with the exception of Lyle's brother) as oversexed perverts. Schools themselves are also perpetuating the idea that "good" girls are abstinent. Last year, Millis High School in Millis, Mass., went so far as to ban hand-holding, hugging and any other physical contact between students on school grounds. The school adopted the rule in response to a lawsuit brought against a football player who had raped or sexually assaulted 11 students. In its zeal to protect female students, administrators seem to have confused sexual harassment with female sexuality. If girls are "good," if they remain asexual, the policy implies, then they won't be harassed. Small wonder that some former "sluts" themselves pick on others as "sluts." One college student, "Catherine," who settled her high school case out of court, tells me, "There's this 'slut' in the music department who we all pick on, and I'm guilty of it too. She has casual sex with different guys. I don't know why we don't gossip about the guys." Is there any hard evidence against the music department "slut"? Come to think of it, she admits, there isn't. "We say things like, 'We saw her with so-and-so.' But nobody knows for sure if anything has happened. We just assume. But if the gossip starts to get graphic, then I get uncomfortable, and I let my discomfort be known. It's gotten me into trouble a few times, because people think I'm really bitchy." It seems that everyone, the school "slut" included, can always find someone less "good" than herself to police. The lawsuits currently under way are important, but on their own they won't significantly alter the atmosphere that leads to vicious, sexist name-calling. For real progress to occur, teachers and school administrators need to be trained about sexual harassment, but they also need to be taught that teenage girls have just as much a right to be sexual as boys do. Lawyers and others involved in sexual harassment claims need to remember that sexuality is not the same as sexism. Otherwise, one girl in Petaluma may win a million dollars, but at the cost of denying girls' sexuality everywhere. 'Leora Tanenbaum is collecting stories from women who were targeted as "sluts" when they were in junior high or high school. If you would like to be interviewed, please write to her at PO Box 672, New York, NY 10023, and include your address and phone number. Anonymity is guaranteed for those who desire it.Leora Tanenbaum writes for Ms., Mirabella and other publications.