A 6-year-old boy was suspended from his suburban Denver school last week for alleged sexual harassment. According to school officials, the child (child, folks) recited some popular song lyrics to a girl, singing “I’m sexy and I know it.”
(The group that sings the song, LMFAO, is an acronym for another suspend-able phrase.)
Now the boy’s mom has publicly declared that she is going to clear her son’s name, and says the little guy was simply singing in the lunch line. Officials at the Sable Elementary School in Aurora, Colo. have also dug in (although there apparently is a meeting scheduled for today), saying they have a requirement to keep the school safe, undisrupted and sexual harassment free.
There is so much wrong here I don’t even know where to start.
Sexual harassment in educational settings is clearly a big problem. According to an American Association of University of Women study from 2001, peers perpetrate 79 percent of the sexual harassment in schools.
But as schools have responded with stronger anti-harassment policies and “zero tolerance” approaches, little kids are not only being held to standards way beyond their developmental levels, but are being blamed for a culture that sexualizes childhood, experts say.
In their book “So Sexy So Soon,” professors and child development experts Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne write of a five-year-old boy named Jason who was almost suspended for telling a female classmate that he wanted to “have sex” with her. When the school psychologist met with Jason, however, and questioned him about what he was trying to say to his classmate, he burst into tears. He just meant that he “liked” her, he sobbed.
“This was the first time that anyone had bothered to ask Jason what he meant by what he said, a potentially damaging error on the part of the adults,” Ms. Levin and Ms. Kilbourne wrote. “They were all using an adult lens for interpreting what he said about sex, not a child’s lens. Often when adults think “sex,” children have something very different on their minds.”
To blame young children for using sexual terms “inappropriately” is hugely unfair, they and others say.
Children are bombarded with sexualized messages every day. Through everything from television shows to clothing commercials to the magazines at a grocery store checkout counter, kids are taught that “sexy” is good and desirable – well before they have any grown-up sense of what “sexy” actually means.
The American Psychological Association’s 2010 task force report on the sexualization of girls tried to put numbers to some of this. It reported that some content analyses indicate that 44 to 81 percent of music videos contain sexual imagery, and that 80 percent of women in magazine advertisement samples were posed in sexually exploitative positions. Meanwhile, dolls made for children as young as 4 years old are sold in fishnet stockings and bikinis, while 15 percent of songs popular with teens have not just sexual but sexually degrading lyrics.
So ... it’s not really that much of a surprise that a little kid might be humming a tune that we think is problematic, right? Is suspension not a little bit of blaming the victim? Because here’s another problem with schools’ sexual harassment policies when applied to the single digit set:
By assuming – and acting as though – young children have an adult understanding of sex, we’re contributing to their sexualization. A six-year-old should not, in fact, have the same concept of “I’m sexy and I know it” as does a teacher. By insisting that a child fully comprehend the meaning of those words, we’re adding to the problem. We should start trying to fix it elsewhere.