When Luke O’Gorman was in secondary school, groups of boys began to call him names as a result of his sexuality.
It was common in the younger years of his education, he said, as young boys sought to exert their masculinity through sexualised remarks and jokes.
“Definitely in group situations, there is egging on to make them go over and mess with him or go over and mess with her. To pick on the gay kid. It’s a terrible thing to say but I have experienced it myself, the harassment that you experience from these types of people,” he said.
“When names were being called, it was quite difficult to get over. I internalised it quite a bit. Thankfully, I had a good friend group around to help brush it off.”
The Tipperary man, who is now 21-years-old, said it doesn’t stop in secondary school either, and these behaviours continue into young adulthood, particularly for women.
“Even in workplaces now, it would be quite prevalent. It’s often smaller things that come up and it’s a lot more directed to women.
Luke isn’t the only person who experienced this type of harassment during adolescence.
In fact, a report published by the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) on Thursday found 82% of teenagers had experienced sexual harassment over a 12-month period.
Girls were more likely to be harassed in this manner than boys, while the LGBTQ community was more likely to experience sexual harassment than their heterosexual counterparts.
The types of sexual harassment also varies, according to the report.
Some 30% of respondents reported they had experienced mild sexual harassment, which included sexual comments and jokes, while a further 26% reported experiencing moderate sexual harassment including sexting, seeing sexual images or being sent them.
Meanwhile, 20% reported experiencing serious sexual harassment which is physical behaviour including sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault, attempted rape, with 3% reporting experiencing extreme sexual harassment – rape – from members of their peer community within the last year.
Gareth Carey, a youth worker in Tallaght, Dublin said explicit image sharing, in particular, is quite a big problem among this age group.
“They’ve kind of moved away from Snapchat as a social media tool, they don’t use it as much as they used to. But I do think that with the disappearing image… they act as if once the image is gone, then their ownership is gone. It’s the other person’s fault if they screenshot it,” he said.
“Group chats are another problem. Particularly boys, they send the images to you know 15 lads in the group chat, and then that was happening with that.”
However, he acknowledged things have improved in recent years, particularly with the rise of the MeToo movement.
“Young women are standing up for themselves a lot more now,” he said.
Dr Michelle Walsh, clinical project lead at the RCNI, and author of the report into sexual harassment in adolescents, said adults have downplayed the prevalence of these actions among this age group.
“When you're an adolescent it is that thing of ‘oh yeah sure they're making it up, it can’t be true, it's not that bad’. I think it's that piece of, you know, we lie for two reasons: to protect ourselves and to protect people we love,” she said.
“If we tell ourselves that this is actually happening, well then we have to do something. So it's easier to tell ourselves it's not really that bad, or they’re prone to exaggerating.”
Through her research, she heard harrowing stories of sexual harassment among young people. She says that two, in particular, have stuck out to her ever since.
A 15-year-old girl told her of a time when, while sitting in the park having a drink with friends, one of her friends said a boy wanted to talk to her. The girl went down to the boy, who then tried to rape her, and badly sexually assaulted her. The boy said her friend told him she was up for it.
The other incident she has been unable to forget was about a 17-year-old boy who was harassed due to his sexuality.
The boy, who is gay, used to have other boys push into the toilet when he was in there and play music, before forcing him to dance on the supporting beam that was there, like it was a pole. The boy developed Crohn's disease as a result of the bullying, and eventually left mainstream schooling.
“The girls and the LGBTQ community were very much ‘Oh, yes, this is happening’. It's not that they weren't aware that it was wrong, but it was just so normalised, that it was just something that they learned to put up with,” she said.
However, Dr Walsh believes there is a “disconnect” among the teenage boys about what constitutes this harassment.
Only 8% of respondents attested to perpetrating sexual harassment upon members of their peer community, the report found.
“80% of the others have either witnessed or experienced levels of sexual harassment so somebody must be doing it,” she said.
However, she says it is was important not to “crucify” boys for these trends, adding: “It’s not boys that are wrong, it’s society that’s wrong.”
Dr Clíona Saidléar, executive director of the RCNI, said while education around consent was important, unless a societal change occurred then the problem would not be resolved.
“We raise them on misogyny. Whether we like it or not, it comes in on all sides in terms of our culture. Girls do the washing up and boys get their boots muddy. It’s probably more subtle than that but we still have the differences in gender roles and expectations,” she said.
Dr Saidléar has called for a “whole-of-school” response to deal with sexual harassment at such a young age, in order to prevent the learned behaviours from being continued into adulthood.
“Curriculum content is great but it’s absolutely not the answer by itself. If all you do is the curriculum content, there’s a risk that what you tell the kids is such a fantasy compared to their reality then it just puts them in danger, honestly,” she said.
“It’s got to be outside of the classroom as well. We need a whole-of-school response. Because it’s so normal, because it’s our culture, you have to make a conscious effort to stop it. That’s why we need a framework. That’s why we need an anti-sexual bullying policy.”
Luke, who is currently studying to become a teacher, agrees that more needs to be done to educate students in this area.
“We’ve all been taught to rise above it and brush off the comments. It’s about having thick skin I suppose. But it is kind of shocking that we are the ones who have to take the brunt of this problem and not the aggressors,” he said.
“I think it’s a learned behaviour. It’s what’s seen at home or in the playground. They see one lad doing it so they think it’s okay and you’re not taught that it isn’t okay."
He added: “In my opinion, it’s important to bring out different programmes to teach both boys and girls – all students. It is really disappointing that this sort of stuff is still continuing in this day and age.”