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Week of 2.20.09

Reporter's Notebook: Teen Sexual Harassment
By Maria Hinojosa

Maria Hinojosa I always talk about the stories I'm working on with people I meet along the way: cab drivers, waitresses, hotel maids, TSA agents, family and girlfriends. Their response typically ranges from casually interested to intensely curious. But the response to my latest NOW report—about sexual harassment of teenage girls in the workplace—has been like no other.

Nearly every woman I've spoken to instantly replies "that happened to me" or "that happened to a friend of mine."

While sexual harassment is something many American women experience in the workplace, it goes mostly unreported. We hear stories about protecting our kids from sexual predators on the Internet and teach our daughters and sons to be wary of strangers. There are programs in high schools that deal with bullies, and programs that deal with sexual harassment in school. Yet, there's never been a national conversation about sexual harassment of teen girls on the job.

"Nearly every woman I've spoken to instantly replies 'that happened to me' or 'that happened to a friend of mine.'"
The five girls I spoke with were 16 at the time they were sexually harassed at work. It was their very first job. Remember your first job? A first job is all about independence, freedom, and moving away from childhood. It's a rite of passage that helps our kids learn the value of work and money.

But for these young workers, it turned into something else, something very upsetting. These teenage girls had no idea about acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior, much less their legal protections. How could they? Who would have told them? Employers don't want to spend money training transient part-time workers. And workplace rules aren't really taught in high school.

Meeting these brave young women—who chose to tell their stories on national television for the first time—was a moment I will not soon forget. Their trauma was real, and reflected as much in their faces as in their words. When these girls shed tears about what it was like to be groped and followed and threatened by their first boss, to have their shirts ripped or be forced to look at pornography, I felt more than sympathy. In fact, it brought up an emotion I didn't expect: pride. Through their actions, these young women were patriots.

"Even though these young women were thoroughly embarrassed and afraid, they found the strength and courage to take their abusers to court."
Even though these young women were thoroughly embarrassed and afraid, they found the strength and courage to take their abusers to court. These young American teens understood that one of their basic rights is to try to right a wrong through our system of laws. Starting from a position of powerlessness, these young women eventually came to own their own power and exercise it. It's a lesson I will share with my own 13- year-old son and my ten-year-old daughter, because I never want this to happen to them.

I will watch this show together with my children, and encourage you to do the same with your children and grandchildren.

I am proud of this show, and as much so, proud of these women. With this important investigation, NOW on PBS launches the first ever beat of its kind on a network magazine show, covering women, girls and families involved in issues that affect and should concern us all. And it's about time. We call the series "Life Now."

Read Previous Essays by Maria Hinojosa

Women, Power and Politics

On the Border Fence

Inside a Private Prison

From the Middle East

 
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Reporter's Notebook: Teen Sexual Harassment

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