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Preventing sexual violence, by raising healthy boys

June 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2017

Thanks to the strong voices and courageous actions of our local middle school students, the opportunity for promoting a school climate that ensures a safe learning environment for all has gotten our attention. Now we need to follow up with action.

Last week, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton, MA peacefully protested — twice — asserting that sexual harassment is prevalent among their peers and that the response of school staff has been inadequate. According to a front-page story in the Gazette, one student said she reported to school officials that she had been sexually harassed by a group of boys and was told that this behavior was common for kids their age and that if she was uncomfortable returning to the class, she could sit in the library for a few days.

As a father to a daughter, who in two years will be a student at that school, and to a son who will be there two years later, I am disheartened — yet not surprised, sadly — at the thought that an adult in a position of power would normalize sexual harassment.

As a neighbor to children who currently attend this school, at least one of whom participated in the protest, I stand with them.

And, as the executive director of MERGE for Equality, a Florence-based nonprofit organization with a mission to engage people and communities in transforming masculinity to advance gender equality, I am emboldened by the determination of the protesting students.

Sexual harassment is a form of interpersonal violence that is offensive, unacceptable — and experienced by many school-age children.

A five-year study led by youth violence expert Dorothy Espelage, found that upwards of 43 percent of middle school students surveyed reported having experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 21 percent reported experiencing physical sexual harassment or assault. This includes unwanted sexually explicit notes, jokes, verbal comments, cyber messages and grabbing of body parts. Findings suggest that girls, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming youth, are more likely than boys to be sexually harassed.

Erin Prangley, of the American Association of University Women, asserts “many school cultures trivialize harassment, tolerate language that degrades women and leave unchallenged the misconception that masculinity means being superior and aggressive and femininity means being inferior and submissive.”

Emily Austin, executive director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a California-based nonprofit organization, stated “unaddressed sexual harassment and assault incidents in K-12 schools are the training ground for college sexual assaults,” which are occurring at epidemic levels.

It is offensive to excuse sexual harassment with the age-old adage “boys will be boys;” it is never excusable. Furthermore, reinforcing this dehumanizes boys and men, by suggesting that males are inherently violent. In fact, all boys — like all children — are born loving, caring and sensitive.

This has been evident to me as I’ve observed both my son and my daughter from the moments I first held each one.

Yet, sadly, we begin shaping gender differences in children before they are born, forcing social and cultural expectations on them.

For boys, that means learning and conforming to social norms that require physical strength, emotional stoicism, and social autonomy as evidence of manliness. As adults we reinforce this message through shame, by telling boys — even the very young — to “man up!”

And, in the classroom, on the playground, and in the locker room, boys who fail to fulfill these cultural expectations — boys who dare to be creative, sensitive, artistic, nurturing and caring — are subject to name-calling: fag, homo, queer, and, what the bullies intend as the ultimate put down, girl.

Sexual harassment is directly linked to homophobic insults, according to Espelage, whose research demonstrated that youths use such slurs to gain social standing over other students. Then, the youth who are victimized in this way are compelled to prove they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.

Recently MERGE for Equality convened its 4th Annual Healthy Men and Boys Summit. This year’s theme was, ‘Raising Emotionally and Socially Connected Boys.’ Keynote presenter and developmental psychologist, Dr. Niobe Way, who has studied the social and emotional lives of boys for nearly 30 years, and whose findings are consistent with Espelage’s research, encouraged those present to “notice and nurture resistance to harmful masculinity norms.”

The JFK Middle School students are giving us an opportunity to do that.

We can do it through compassion, by supporting and nurturing the caring side of boys and men; through accountability, by insisting that boys and men model respect through their words and behavior; and through partnership, by working together to change the way we socialize boys.

MERGE for Equality publicly invites youth and adults from the JFK Middle School community to join us in our recently launched Children’s Book Campaign. Over the next 12-months a diverse committee of educators and literacy specialists will help identify children’s books, which reflect themes of positive masculinity and gender equality. A guide will be offered to initiate discussions among adults and children. Distribution of books will target schools, libraries and settings that support children and will be based on available funding. Stories highlighting the use of these books will be collected and shared.

MERGE is prepared to join with the JFK community to identify a book and support conversations as early as this summer.

Learn more about the campaign by visiting: or contact us at

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2017 4:25 pm

    I endured relentless sexual harassment in junior high and high school, from lewd comments to rumours about whether or not I was a virgin, to an attempted rape in January 1994.

    When I reported the attempted rape to school staff, my attacker and his sister, who helped plan the assault, turned the whole thing around and made believe it was my fault. The case was dropped and I was then an outcast!

    • July 31, 2017 1:43 pm


      I just read your moving note – I don’t regularly check this address. I am sorry that you endured relentless sexual harassment in school. I wish that together we can end this daily form of violence in our schools, helping ensure all youth can experience and express their full, healthy human potential.

      Best wishes,


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