Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why So Many Boys Sexually Harass Girls

A prescription for empathy, assertiveness, and better policies.

Key points

  • Researchers trace high rates of sexual harassment of girls to several key elements of childhood gender socialization. 
  • Many parents reward girls' submissive emotions and tolerate boys' aggression, making girls feel less confident in standing up to harassment.
  • To combat harassment, parents can encourage assertiveness in girls and empathy in boys, and schools can create proactive harassment policies.
Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

Researchers have known for decades that children and adolescents experience sexual harassment at alarmingly high rates. Though all genders can experience sexual harassment or be perpetrators of sexual harassment, research finds that girls and women are more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment, whereas boys and men are more likely to be the perpetrators. (An important exception is found for harassment that involves homophobic slurs, where boys/men are more likely to be both the targets and perpetrators.) In a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers trace high rates of sexual harassment of girls to several key elements of childhood gender socialization.

Though precise estimates of how often young people experience sexual harassment are hard to come by, recent research suggests these experiences are quite common. For example, a 2012 survey of middle schoolers (ages 11-15) asked students how often, in the past year, they witnessed a variety of types of sexual harassment where one student targeted another (for example, someone saying sexually explicit things about another student’s body, calling them sexual names, or repeatedly asking them out even being told no). Nearly all the students surveyed (94 percent) reported witnessing sexual harassment in just the past year. A 2018 Plan International survey of just over 1,000 adolescents found that over half of girls reported hearing boys making “sexual comments or sexual jokes about girls” at least several times a week.

Gender socialization and the harassment of girls

A newly published article led by development psychologist Christia Spears Brown uses research findings from a variety of psychological sub-fields to explain why the sexual harassment of girls is so common. According to the paper, beginning in infancy and continuing through adolescence, parental, peer, and cultural influences create conditions where the sexual harassment of girls becomes both common and tolerated.

In infancy through the early childhood years, parents and educators focus on gender as a category and teach children that girls and boys are quite different. Parents typically dress boys and girls in different types of clothes, prefer different colors for girls vs. boys, and use language that reminds children how important the category of gender is. Educators further encourage a focus on differences between girls and boys, often using gender as a way to separate children into groups.

Over time, these practices contribute to children developing gender stereotypes. By age 4, children already believe that boys are more likely to be angry and girls are more likely to be sad. Parents tend to pay more attention to submissive emotions (like sadness) in girls. When it comes to boys, parents are more likely to tolerate (or even role model) aggression and anger. As a result, by the time they enter school, girls may already feel less confident in standing up to harassment from a peer—especially if that peer is a boy. A second major force of gender socialization in childhood that opens the door to the sexual harassment of girls is the constant focus on how girls look.

By middle childhood, children readily sort themselves into social groups on the basis of gender. This gender segregation further reinforces gender stereotypes, with boys tending to become more aggressive as they spend more time with other boys. Girls learn that being liked comes from being nice and looking attractive; boys learn that being liked comes from being physically aggressive and sexually assertive. As they move into adolescence, girls feel pressure to enact sexualized gender norms associated with teenagers and adult women—feeling pressure to wear revealing clothing, for example.

Media practices reinforce these trends, with toys and programming marketed to boys emphasizing aggression (e.g., action figures; television programs in which boys are shown sexualizing girls) and toys and programming marketed to girls emphasizing sexualization (e.g., Bratz dolls, cosmetics). By the time they reach their adolescent years, both girls and boys readily know the expectations for their gender. As the authors of this paper put it: “Girls are expected to prioritize their sexualized attractiveness for the attention and approval of boys, and boys are expected to be aggressively focused on the sexual pursuit of girls.” Teenage boys who violate gender norms around toughness and the aggressive pursuit of sex are often ridiculed by peers or targeted with gay slurs. By adolescence, many boys have also become regular consumers of online pornography, much of which features men behaving in a physically aggressive way toward women.

Lack of school policies to prevent harassment

In addition to evidence regarding the types of gender socialization that can increase the sexual harassment of girls, the authors of this new paper also review research documenting how schools fall short in preventing harassment. Many schools lack policies around sexual harassment, teachers often feel ill-prepared to identify or intervene when they witness harassment, and students have little trust that adults will protect them even if they do speak up.

The authors conclude with practical advice for reducing the sexual harassment of girls. Parents can encourage the development of assertiveness in daughters and empathy in boys, in addition to offering opportunities for boys and girls to interact together in mutually respectful ways. They can also monitor children’s media use and attempt to limit exposure to sexualizing media. Finally, schools can be proactive in creating policies and training that make it clear there is no tolerance for sexual harassment by any student—regardless of gender.

Facebook image: BearFotos/Shutterstock

More from Renee Engeln Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today