The Anita Hill 20: Sexual Harassment and Teens

On October 15th, I had the honor of participating in the "Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" conference. I spoke on an intergenerational panel that also featured speakers Kimberle Crenshaw, Virginia Valian, Gloria Steinem and Devon Carbado, which was terrifying and beyond humbling, but also probably one of the coolest things I've ever had the opportunity to do. Using your feedback about sexual harassment and my own observations, I pulled together a speech that I thought reflected our generation's attitudes towards sexual harassment.

I'm beyond late sharing this with the FBomb community, but I hope you enjoy it and would still love to hear your reactions to my speech or any of the other panelists' speeches and your thoughts about sexual harassment today.

The whole conference was televised by CSPAN, so you can watch my panel here (my part starts at about 1:18:30). Otherwise, here's an approximate version of the transcript.


Founding and running the FBomb, a blog written for and by teenage feminists, has been rewarding in innumerable ways. But I think the most valuable aspect of editing the writing and comments of teenage girls and boys from all over the world has been the insight I’ve gained into the main obstacles my generation feels we face. On the FBomb, my peers have written about everything from personal struggles with body image to double standards to the sexist media coverage of female political candidates to – yes –sexual harassment.

In fact, I recently asked the FBomb community what they thought about sexual harassment – what their opinions were or if they had any stories to tell. Unsurprisingly, the community unanimously responded that sexual harassment is unequivocally wrong, and that we all think it’s ridiculous that it still occurs in 2011. What I found interesting, however, were the stories people chose to share about their experiences with sexual harassment. Specifically, they shared stories that contained a notable lack of action. One commenter described how she was sexually solicited by an older male mentor, then made to feel guilty about refusing him. She was left wondering if he had originally taken an interest in her because he thought she was smart, or just because he might get lucky. Another commenter described how a male peer tried to take off her bathing suit during a middle school swim lesson. Neither did anything about these instances, but admitted they felt horrible about them.

So why, even when we know it’s wrong, do girls still fail to act against sexual harassment? Why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we speak out against it?

Well, there are probably countless reasons why many girls remain silent -- reasons that vary greatly depending on the individual. But, overall, I think there are a few main reasons why girls today still endure sexual harassment.

First, I think we need to look at the gender conditioning we still impose on young children. Despite decades of feminist action, despite the strides we’ve made, I think my generation was still raised with gender stereotypes firmly intact. We still grew up with a social structure that encourages boys to pursue girls and girls to chastely refuse. Because while my generation, the so-called “hook up” generation, may find ways around this, while girls my age may acceptably pursue boys, while our definitions of relationships may have changed, we are still very aware that this archaic structure is our baseline. It is the guideline we must ultimately revert to. And that is incredibly problematic.

The bottom line is boys still believe that they have an inherent entitlement. Many boys still feel that they are allowed to say whatever they want to girls and solicit them in any way they see fit. How else could a group of Yale frat boys march around their campus last year chanting, “No means yes and yes means anal”?

This gender conditioning doesn’t just affect boys, though. There is, sadly, still a large percentage of young women who take these comments as compliments, who see these predatory actions as flattering attention. Because, just as guys are trained to pursue women, girls are still told that our main role is to attract men. We’re taught to compete with our female peers for the most attention, and accept any and all attention we do get.

But even if we reject such harassment, even if we stand up against it, the fact is that we still live in a victim blaming culture. Consider some of the major news headlines of the past year alone. A police officer in Toronto told members of my generation that what we wear determines whether or not we will be raped. When reading the New York Times coverage of the gang-rape of an 11-year-old in Cleveland, Texas, we noted that the reporter quoted her neighbors as saying she wore make up and dressed inappropriately. Our generation is paying attention to all of this. We are internalizing this. And this is evident in even the most superficial aspects of our lives. I think the best example is, when girls my age heard that pop-singer Rihanna was physically assaulted by her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, many of us – too many of us -- asked, “Well what did she do to force him to hit her?”

This is how we’re so easily able to write off sexual harassment. We still look at claims of sexual harassment and first doubt the woman, because that is what we are trained to do. We think any woman who claims she was sexually harassed is probably over reacting, or the whole thing was probably her fault. We blame the victim because that is what credible people, like police officers, and credible news sources do. So why wouldn’t we?

Another significant problem my generation faces with sexual harassment is that we’re still not sure exactly what it is, and I think this stems back to our attitudes towards the feminist movement at large.

For my peers and me, feminism is no longer a fight against obvious obstacles. We won Roe v. Wade. We won Title IX. The list goes on. No, feminism for my generation, for the most part, is not about “getting” rights. It’s about preserving them. Feminism for my generation has largely become a much more subtle fight, full of nuance.

And this is where it becomes complicated for my generation to integrate our feminist beliefs and values into our daily lives. Because while my generation as a whole may be passionate about fighting injustices, while we may theoretically be able to identify what is acceptable and what is not, we find it difficult to recognize the same injustices we speak against on a theoretical level within the contexts of our own lives. We have a semblance of understanding, a superficial acknowledgment of “right” and “wrong.” But it doesn’t always permeate our actions. And I think our relationship with sexual harassment is a perfect example of this paradox.

As a whole, young women undeniably reject sexual harassment: we know that it is wrong and is something that should be fought. I think a lot of this understanding is a direct result of Anita Hill’s courageous decision to publically fight against sexual harassment. Yes, she did so when many of us were very young or (like in my case) before we were even born. Unfortunately, far too few of us even know who she is. But even though we didn’t necessarily witness her actions first hand, they undeniably impacted our lives. Because of Anita Hill, we were born into an environment in which sexual harassment is taken seriously, in which it is legally considered a serious, unacceptable offense.

Yes, in theory, my generation is completely intolerant of sexual harassment and knows that it’s unacceptable. Yet, the same young women who say they’re opposed to sexual harassment often end up enduring it. Because, like many other forms of sexism, sexual harassment in real life doesn’t always have a huge flashing arrow pointing itself out to us. And yet, we expect that it will. We expect that sexual harassment will always take the form of a man physically grabbing us on the street. We think sexual harassment means our boss demanding that we sleep with him if we want to keep our jobs. We don’t think of sexual harassment as uncomfortable come-ons. We don’t think of sexual harassment as comments made to us on the street. We don’t think of sexual harassment as the “uncomfortable” jokes guys in our classes sometimes make. And yet it is.

Whereas many offices and workplaces routinely have seminars and workshops about sexual harassment, the same does not occur in high schools, or even in middle schools. Our exposure to the concept of sexual harassment – as is the case with many things for my generation – is largely delivered to us through the media. Most often, it is presented as humor. It is made fun of and it is belittled. And this is how the line can get blurred – this is how we can experience sexual harassment but feel unsure about whether or not we really did, or what to do about it.

Basically, there’s something missing between the surface communication that sexual harassment is wrong and understanding and integration of this principle into our own lives. We know the “right answer” we’re supposed to give – sexual harassment is bad -- but we don’t always remember the right answer when the hypothetical becomes real.

However, this is not the reality for all of us. There are many young women who are taking action, who are speaking out against sexual harassment and refusing to tolerate it any longer.

I think this is evident from the recent SlutWalks, in which young women marched in the street protesting our victim-blaming culture.

I think this is evident from Hollaback, an organization started by young women that encourages other women, to post pictures of the men who sexually harass us online, and therefore hold them accountable for their actions.

I think this is even evident from recent legal cases, in which young women did fight sexual harassment. 2007 brought the case of Simpson v. University of Colorado Boulder, in which female university students brought charges against fellow male university students who sexually harassed and assaulted them at a party and held the University accountable for their past indifference about such matters. The same year, we witnessed the case of Jennings v. University of North Carolina, in which a female university soccer player brought charges against her coach, who sexually harassed her and her fellow teammates. Both cases were ruled in favor of the women who had experienced sexual harassment. Those young women recognized an injustice and took action, to rightfully successful results.

It’s not that there is no hope left for my generation. It’s just that our work, as the feminist movement and as women at large, isn’t yet done. And believe me, there are plenty of us who are willing to continue the fight. There are plenty of us who are willing to take Anita Hill’s legacy and run with it.

More articles by Category: Education, Feminism, Girls, Gloria Steinem, Media, Politics, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Title IX, Sexuality, Sexual harassment, Women's leadership, College



Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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