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Sexual harassment in UK schools

Sexual bullying in the classroom rarely makes the headlines. But one in three 16-18 year old girls in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. What does this tacit acceptance of harassment teach our children?

70% of 16-18 year olds say they've heard sexual name calling towards girls at school daily or a few times a week. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s the biggest issue in gender and education today? Girls outpacing boys? Coursework modules favouring a ‘feminized’ style of learning? Or the widespread sexual harassment of girls by their male peers?

Sexual harassment in the classroom rarely makes the headlines. But feminist activists and organisations from UK Feminista to the End Violence Against Women Coalition are increasingly noticing a disturbing trend that is systematically disadvantaging young girls. This sexual bullying leaves girls feeling unable to participate in class. It leads to them attaining lower grades. In extreme cases it forces girls to play truant, or drop out of education all together.

When we talk about sexual harassment, our immediate response is to think of the workplace. According to the World Health Organisation, however, school is now the most common setting for sexual harassment and coercion.

In fact, one in three 16-18 year old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school in the UK and 71% of 16-18 year olds say they have heard sexual name calling towards girls at school daily or a few times per week.

Holly Dustin, of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), who count Amnesty International, Fawcett and The Child and Woman Abuse Study Unit amongst their members, explains the reality of sexual harassment in schools:

"Schools across the UK are grappling with high levels of sexual harassment and bullying, pressurised and coercive 'sexting' and girls being 'groped' or otherwise sexually touched in corridors and playgrounds. Whilst some schools are alive to the problem and actively address it, too many are on the back foot, meaning that girls are growing and learning in an unsafe and unequal environment.” 

In most workplaces there is an official process in place for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment. British sexual harassment law includes rules around displaying sexually explicit and sexist imagery in the workplace, which should also apply in schools. For example, workplaces can no longer have the stereotypical ‘girly calendar’ on the staff room wall, as to do so creates an ‘intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment’ under the law.

But in contrast, girls are often met with a shrug of the shoulders when reporting to their teachers that they have been inappropriately touched, teased with sexual language or physically threatened and assaulted. One in four teenagers report that their teachers have never said unwanted sexual touching, sexual naming calling, or the non-consensual sharing of sexual pictures are unacceptable.

The Public Sector Equality Duty should mean that sexual harassment law applies in schools, as it is a workplace for teachers. So why does sexual harassment law not seem to be properly enforced in the classroom?

When I was at school, in the early days of the “lad’s mag” era, boys would often bring explicit images of women into class, decorating their school books and folders with photos torn out of The Sun and FHM? . Being endlessly exposed to these highly sexualised images of women on a daily basis taught us that no matter how much we shone in class, we, as women and girls, were still chiefly valued as sex objects. The increasing access to pornographic images of women on mobile phone devices has amplified this problem, with boys pressurizing their female peers to view porn. One in three 16-18 year olds say they have seen sexual pictures on mobile phones at school a few times in a month, or more. Girls also report boys using mobile phone technology to take ‘upskirt’ shots – again without the girl’s consent.

This tacit acceptance of sexual harassment at school teaches girls that no matter what they do, no matter how clever they are, how good at sport, how successful, they can still be victimised by men simply because of their sex. It sets up a pattern of behaviour where boys believe they hold rights over girls’ bodies – and that their sense of entitlement will not be challenged by those in charge, i.e. teachers. It teaches boys that girls do not have a right to their bodily autonomy. And it teaches girls that if boys behave inappropriately towards them, any attempts to speak out against the behaviour will not be heard.

One result of this male culture of entitlement is a high level of abusive behaviour in teen relationships. In fact, research carried out by the NSPCC and Bristol University discovered that one quarter of girls surveyed and 18% of boys had reported physical violence within their relationships, with one in nine girls reporting severe physical violence compared to 4% of boys. Three quarters of girls reported emotional violence, and one in three girls had experienced sexual violence within their relationship, with 16% of boys reporting sexual violence. 70% of girls and 13% of boys stated that sexual violence had negatively impacted on their welfare. And although most violence against boys was a one-off incident, girls were more likely to report that partner violence was repeated, and increased in severity over time.

While girls are experiencing unchallenged daily sexual bullying from some of their male peers, it is perhaps unsurprising that the violence continues into intimate relationships.

Just over a year ago, EVAW launched their ‘Schools Safe 4 Girls’ campaign to tackle sexual harassment and sexual bullying. The campaign encourages activists to ask their local schools to take action on all kinds of sexual violence through proper sex and relationships education (SRE). In response to the campaign, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, reiterated Labour’s promise to introduce mandatory SRE. But the coalition has not followed Labour’s lead.

Prior to the 2010 general election, Labour had decided that mandatory sex education should be included in the National Curriculum. The aim was to try and use education to reduce the rates of intimate partner violence in teen relationships, and tackle the high levels of sexual harassment in the classroom through comprehensive sex education, with gender equality, consent, respect and safety at its heart.

The education department has since shown real reluctance to introduce mandatory sex and relationships education that focuses on consent and respect, even disbanding their expert group on sexual violence. In 2011, the government restructured its sex and relationships advisory group – bringing in organisations like Life, who promote abstinence and are anti- abortion. For many, this seems like a regressive step.

There is now a gap left by the ministerial position that schools will only be ‘encouraged’ to include sex and relationships education in their curriculum, rather than the subject being made mandatory. As is often the case, feminist organisations are left trying to solve the problem. Women’s Aid has developed their own toolkit to encourage teachers to start conversations about violence against women, consent and respect.

As the Director of EVAW, Dustin has been instrumental in leading the campaign to make sure sex and relationships education is a mandatory part of the National Curriculum, in order to combat sexual harassment. She said:

"It is crystal clear from the Children's Commissioner's recent report on young people's understanding of sexual consent that teaching young people about consensual and respectful relationships should be a basic obligation for all schools. Our Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign is calling on politicians to make girls' safety a national priority."

Grassroots feminist activism plays an important part in bringing about legislative change and in pushing for existing laws to be better implemented. But activist influence can only go so far, and we can only reach and persuade so many schools. To tackle sexual bullying those responsible for the national curriculum need to lead the change.

We owe our young women more. Sexual harassment and bullying is not understandable childish play. It is sexual violence. 

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence

About the author

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. 


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