Australian youths are at risk of sexual harassment, with peer-on-peer harassment becoming more common, according to an Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS).

The ACMS has shown that 1 in 10 Australians have experienced sexual harassment from their peers during childhood.

Australian Catholic University (ACU), doctoral student in the Institute of Child Protection Studies (ICPS), Gabrielle Hunt told  the ACU that these findings illustrated the extreme need for action against peer sexual harassment.

“For the first time, we have figures that show a significant proportion of young Australians – one in 10 – have been sexually harassed by their peers during childhood,” she said.

“We need national and global conversations to shift the harmful attitudes that allow peer sexual harassment to occur at every age, but especially in childhood when young people are most vulnerable.”

The study represents Australia’s first data insight into peer sexual harassment and its national prevalence, with 8, 503 youth aged 16 and over surveyed on their experiences of child maltreatment and sexual harassment or abuse.

The Juvenile Victimisation Questionnaire (JVQ) has identified the frequency of sexual harassment and its associated factors, finding that 10 percent of participants have been victim to peer sexual harassment.

The findings reflects a disproportionate impact on females and people with diverse genders, with younger cohorts reporting higher rates of harassment.

People of diverse genders have been recognised as the most at risk group, as 24 per cent of the 126 participants having been victims of harassment.

In comparison, 15.3 per cent of the 4,195 women and just 5 per cent of the 4,195 men surveyed, experienced the similar issues.

Similarly, individuals with diverse sexuality, specifically men, also reported increased rates of harassment when compared to other demographics.

Sexual harassment and assault victim, Tamryn Robinson said that peer sexual harassment has deeply affected both her childhood and education.

“In my education experience it has definitely made learning and going to school a negative experience- to go to bed and wake up in the morning dreading going to school (..) because you already know you’re going to get cornered in the classroom, that is something that is almost normal,” she said.

“That is the really horrific reality-  it definitely takes from the experience of being able to enjoy learning and excel because you’re just constantly distracted.”

As shown through the data, harassment is most commonly inflicted by known peers and in most scenarios, driven by male children or adolescents.

Historically, schools have always battled with peer sexual harassment and bullying, with students regularly reporting uncomfortable “sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks” from their peers.

QLD casual relief teacher, Jennifer Cloughley said she is disappointed by the prevalence of the issue, though she is not surprised given the social norms and how much she sees it in the classroom.

“I think it’s a reflection of what they’re seeing in society or their own lives, whether or not its intentional, they’re mirroring what they see around them,” she said.

“I think it’s always needed to be addressed (..), but it’s sort of tricky. If it’s more from outside factors, focusing on it at school hopefully it might spill over- but when you look they’re only at school six hours a day.”

Sexual harassment from peers and in school settings continues to be a universal struggle, the United States reporting 85 per cent of women and 76 pe rcent of men as victims of sexual harassment in the classroom.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in these environments is seen as the result of embedded cultural norms, that lead from the classroom into the workplace.

Former Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Wollongong, Patricia Davidson, discussed the importance of educational institution’s support and social change through a UOW article.

“Although gender-based violence in universities reflects experiences of violence in the general community, universities have a unique opportunity to shape and empower the next generation of leaders to be active participants in changing the culture of violence against women and gender, sex and sexuality diverse people,” she said.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have much further to go, because universities are a microcosm of society.”

Ms Hunt similarly believes that there must be a change of culture and increased awareness to begin addressing the problem.

“We need to prioritise primary prevention messages and public health campaigns to protect children and young people by addressing the cultural norms that contribute to sexual harassment and violence against women, girls, and those with diverse genders and/or sexualities,” she said.

Moving forward, there is hope that Australia will take this next step against peer sexual harassment.

If you are a student struggling with sexual harassment or feel like you need to talk about this topic, please reach out to UOW’s Safe and Respectful Communities team or call the UOW Student Wellbeing Support Line on 1300 036 149.