Recognising the problem
The world is waking up to an issue that the female population have faced for decades. In an environment which is designed for education and the safety of all pupils, this is often the place when female students face their first real experience of sexual harassment; a place so public and so open that the repeated comments and actions of male students goes unchecked. A dangerous mentality of “boys will be boys” is systematically employed to ensure that the harassment is brushed off the shoulders of hurt and scared girls.
A culture of sexual harassment in schools
The culture of sexual harassment of girls and women starts early; it begins with a game of “kiss-chase” in the primary school playground where children actively run away from being kissed against their wishes – but the teachers never stop it. The notable harassment in girls’ childhoods when boys who try to pull their hair…but that was dismissed as being “oh, he just likes you”. It morphs into playing with the straps of girls’ training bras when they reach the age of 12, which becomes a regular game and a joke for the boys that do it. It changes again to the voyeurism of looking up female classmates’ skirts when they walk up the stairs in high school, each boy bragging about what they may or may not have seen. It escalates into unwanted touching, sending explicit pictures and can culminate in sexual abuse. The continued and repeated dismissal of harassment and the general acceptance of this being a tolerated way of life for adolescent girls reinforces the ideals of abusive love and sexual misconduct being a “normal” way of life; female students can never properly speak out about what they have faced if they are never taught any different from the moment that they enter the English school system.
The reinforcement of rape culture in schools comes in many different forms. It may be peer-on-peer, by the way of groping or unwanted kissing or unsolicited sexual photos. But it can also come from the school itself. In my own childhood, there were female-only assemblies where girls are told to make their school skirts longer, in an effort to stop drawing unwanted attention to themselves and the pre-emptive victim-blaming that went along with it, because the male students “were unable to control themselves”. Boys never had that assembly. They were never told to stop harassing girls or to respect girls; they instead had assemblies on not wearing trainers to school. Schools expect their female students to speak up and report sexual harassment, however they present themselves as a breeding ground for toxicity and ingraining rape culture into the minds of children. Female students are silenced as children and remain that way for years, for fear of being dismissed with a wave of the hand or for fear of being a “spoilsport” who is ruining the laddish fun of young males.
However, the silence is beginning to be broken. The Instagram account @everyonesinvited, founded by Soma Sara, published a list of almost 3000 schools where students have posted testimonies of sexual abuse and harassment on their website. The account published a list of 2962 schools; 406 of which were primary schools. There are now over 51,000 testimonies to read on the website; each a separate, harrowing account, often of a female student that faced abuse at the hands of a male one. Students write of being “scared” to go back to school and see their harasser; facing bus-rides home, full of rape jokes and misogynistic comments directed at them; being repeatedly harassed for pictures online appearing to be the norm, even in pre-pubescent children. The report is one of the most damming accounts of rape culture to be published about British schools, exposing the problem as greater than anyone could imagine – unless you were a victim of it yourself. These testimonies are a symbol of a problem that has gone without a remedy and been subject to ridicule for decades; a symbol of female education being held for ransom over the education of men.
The issue has become so great that Ofsted have conducted an investigation into the issue of sexual misconduct within primary and secondary schools, now having released a report which made the headlines of major newspapers. The report made numerous suggestions for the schools, government and multi-agency partners to enable them to improve their response to sexual abuse and violence faced by young people during their education, but for this to be implemented, the schools must be willing to recognise their flaws and work to change. For the change in attitudes and cultures to be significant, schools need to be assuming that their female students are facing sexual violence from their peers, rather than waiting for students to bring their failings to the forefront. Ofsted concluded that the problem of sexual harassment, particularly online sexual abuse, are far more prevalent that previously noted, highlighting the notion that some young people felt that the issues were “commonplace” and therefore not worth reporting.
This, by definition, is ‘rape culture’. All of us are collective witnesses to the trivialisation and acceptance of sexual violence; we are living the reality where social attitudes and behaviours are normalising the trauma and abuse, disproportionately faced by women, and it is starting with some of the youngest members of our society. It has to change if children are to feel safe, heard and cared for whilst in school.