Secondary School and Sexual Harassment

** Content Warning: Discussions of rape culture, sexual harassment and abuse **

I would like to start by stating that this article is not intended to be my personal vents about not fitting in, nor a brandishing attack on my secondary school. I have interviewed three different people to help with this article: one boy from an independent school for boys and two girls who also went to single-sex schools. I have spoken to countless other individuals, all in the hope of better understanding the issue of teenage sexual assault and trying to find a solution.

Retrospect is a powerful thing, especially when looking back at something you weren’t aware of or chose not to see. Amidst the recent testimonials and open letters to schools across England about cases of sexual assault and objectification, I found myself looking back at my time in secondary school. I went to an all-boys school that housed the very best of boyish banter and the very worst of patriarchal entitlement. It has led me to write this article.

I have split this article up with a series of open questions that I attempt to tackle. These questions are not definitive, nor do they cover everything that could and should be discussed on the topic of sexual harassment. They are simply ones I have come up with which I feel encapsulate the things I believe in and have learned while having discussions with others on this topic.

What is currently wrong?

Perhaps the best place to start is by discussing what is currently wrong. Sexual harassment is not a problem that is unique to my old school or any secondary school; sexual assault and the objectification of women is a societal problem. While people have stated that many of the assaults were committed outside of school grounds, it is hardly as if the school cannot be held accountable in educating their students not to be sexual predators.

The alarming reality is that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, and 96% of those women didn’t report the assault for various reasons. Beliefs that their assault “wasn’t serious enough” or that reporting the assault “wouldn’t change anything” repeatedly cropped up. Focusing closer on the school environment, 72% of students who did report sexual harassment described receiving a negative response from their school with little to no action being taken.

Speaking to any victim of sexual harassment makes it abundantly clear that these statistics are not just numbers, but a reality. In my discussions with one girl who went to an all-girls school, she expressed her retrospective frustrations of having to live in a world that catered to the male gaze. She felt she was often reduced to merely “a pair of tits and an arse” and wearing any clothing that revealed skin gave the impression of being sexually promiscuous. Both girls I interviewed also complained about the uncomfortable sexualisation of schoolgirls in relation to their uniform, with both being told to “cover up” as they were “distracting the male teachers”. The blame was constantly placed on the girls for being “too revealing”, not the boys and men for objectifying them and equating bare skin with sex appeal.

Both girls also described being conditioned to accept objectification as a compliment, to the point that catcalls or sexual compliments were rewarding, and they felt compelled to seek male approval as a means of body validation. Wearing nice clothes or makeup was reduced to “dressing up for someone”, which is not to say that some people do dress up to impress the opposite sex, but it became a universal assumption that every girl who ‘dressed up’ was doing it to appeal to the male gaze. As one girl noted in frustration, she was conditioned to see her body as nothing more than something for men to merely be excited by.  

This conditioning has created a horrible feedback loop that is so prevalent in secondary schools; it creates a world where women are objects for men, and the men always get what they want. Appealing to men became so widely accepted and promoted for the girls I interviewed that when they were sexually harassed at a young age, they didn’t see it as harassment but as something they should be ashamed of because it was seemingly their fault.

Why are girls blamed for sending nudes, but boys are often never to blame for screenshotting and circulating them?

Placing the blame constantly on girls instead of boys is a massive issue and something which many secondary schools are seemingly guilty of facilitating. Both girls I interviewed expressed how unjust it was that they felt they couldn’t seek help when their nudes were spread around without their consent. Both said they didn’t want to speak up or report anything because they felt they were the guilty party by sending illicit photos. Why should girls be blamed for being pressured by boys into sending these photos? One of the girls had explained how sexualising herself for boys became a skewed way of validating her own body, and with this in mind the blame shouldn’t lay on the girls for sending nudes. One of the girls also recalled how her school had warned her year group that if they were found to be sending nudes, they would have to have a meeting with the head of year with their parents present to be told off. Regardless of the school’s intentions, their warnings put people off speaking up about their situation as a victim instead of putting people off sending nudes in the first place.

For the boys who spread the nudes by screenshotting and sharing to everyone, the blame is frustratingly not put on them enough. In conversations with people on this subject, I heard of group chats that would post various nudes and rate them out of ten. At my school, we were told not to screenshot nude photos and send them around and we were warned that in some cases this would mean punishments for possession of child pornography. But that was if anyone was caught. Since the girls were usually trapped into taking the guilt and not reporting anything, boys rarely, if ever in my memory, were punished for anything. If there is to be change, a system needs to be put into place to anonymously report the spreading of nude photos, and this system needs to support the girls and openly offer that support. Ofsted have claimed a system like this with a helpline will be introduced, and I can only hope that this is adopted by all schools and followed to stop implicitly reinforcing a culture that facilitates sexual harassment.

The punishments for boys who are caught spreading nudes, or committing any form of sexual harassment, need to change too. The current format usually involves a suspension from school for a few days, or meetings with the head of the year. Telling them they have done wrong, but not explaining why is not going to solve the problem. In many corporate spheres, a re-education program is in place for workplace harassment, and I think a similar approach should be adopted by secondary schools. I don’t think sending someone home for a few days is going to teach them anything, especially when they are just plonked back into the school a few days later and life for them returns to ‘normal’. Boys who are suspended should be given some form of lessons where they are taught why what they have done is so utterly wrong, and what the effects of their harassment are.

Why is our sex education not working?

The sex education that I received was similar to everyone I interviewed: lacking and quintessentially British in ‘beating around the bush’ awkwardly. As one girl stated, she was taught how to put a condom on a cucumber before she was taught about consent. It seems there is more focus on preventing unsafe sex than preventing rape and non-consenting sex. Surely it would make more sense to stop unwanted sex from happening in the first place, instead of ensuring students knew how to not contract STDs if they did have sex (willingly or not). The boy I interviewed made a pretty bleak point, stating that he learned no more about sex from watching porn than he did from his sex education lessons. The porn industry is the epitome of objectification as it thrives off bluntly portraying a penis fucking a vagina. Scenes usually involve a woman stripped bare and fucked in various positions. Note, fucked. She is usually the object that is twisted and turned by the man for different angles and shots. It is hardly something a parent would hope their child would use to learn about sex or use to prepare themselves for the time when they have sex with a stranger or partner.

According to PornHub’s 2019 Review, the gender-split of porn viewers tends to be 70% men, 30% women. This reinforces the stereotype that guys are more likely to watch porn than girls, but I can only see this in light of something one of the girls I interviewed said:

For someone else to know my body before me was horrifying’

This was while discussing something that happened when she was thirteen. ‘Education’ through porn potentially leads to guys seeing any teenage girl as a site for sex before she even knows about or understands her sexuality and consent herself.

Consent was also taught in a similarly vague and awkward fashion. “Consent is like a cup of tea” is the widely used analogy as far as I could see when talking with people my age. It’s a pretty good analogy, but it avoids the blunt reality of rape. There is no law saying you should be jailed if you give someone tea without them saying they want it. If you are given tea when you didn’t ‘consent’ to it, it is hardly the same as the sheer trauma many victims of sexual violence go through.

Everyone at secondary school should be taught that consent is essential before sex. They should not be taught that it is merely like “a cup of tea”. They should be taught that having sex without consent is a crime, in the same way taking drugs is a crime, or spouting racial abuse is a crime. If students are being taught about how to properly act in society for other pressing issues, they should also be taught about the severe consequences of sex without consent. Secondary school children should be aware of the legal and social consequences of rape and sexual harassment, instead of hiding anything to do with sex away from them until it is too late.

Are schools currently a safe educational space?

What schools should be striving towards is a safe educational environment. For co-ed schools, the working environment should never foster a culture of sexual harassment and silent complicity. Girls should feel safe and confident in school instead of having to face any form of sexual harassment, no matter how ‘trivial’ a passing joke is. For all-boys schools, a safe working environment should extend to any female teachers not being constantly objectified, and any visiting girls for extra-curricular activities feeling safe. I can recall countless occasions where I heard fellow students make objectifying and sexual comments about female teachers, and I can also recall the back of a toilet door in a school toilet covered in lewd graffiti about female teachers. Teachers became sex objects for the boys to look at, simply because they were women. Equally, when girls from other schools come to an all-boys school for anything, it goes without saying that they should be treated with respect instead of catcalled, ogled, or harassed in any way.

The best way to achieve this is to clamp down on those who make these sexual comments about students or teachers. No ‘joke’ that reduces a girl to a piece of sexualised flesh should be tolerated, and teachers and students alike should call people out when they transgress. One girl I interviewed said she once was told she had a “nice pair of personalititties”, and she was frustrated in retrospect for not calling out the guy who made that ‘joke’ which reduced her to a sexualised part of her body. It is all very well having banter with friends or teachers, but a line must be drawn when these ‘jokes’ become utterly sexist and objectifying.

Where should the line be drawn?

So that brings me conveniently to this imaginary line:

 ‘I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it

[…]

But you’re a good girl

The way you grab me

Must wanna get nasty’

When talking to others about sexual harassment, the imaginary ‘fine line’ or ‘blurred line’ always comes up. Does this really count as sexual harassment, or is it someone just being friendly? Am I even allowed to hug a girl anymore without being accused of sexual harassment?

If those questions play on your mind, I urge you to please watch this short five-minute skit from Rachel Parris on ‘How NOT to sexually harass someone’. I think, in all honesty, the line is much thicker than many men want to realise. As Rachel Parris says in her skit: if it feels uncomfortable to do, it probably isn’t right. Complimenting a woman saying “you look well” is not sexual harassment but catcalling her from your car is. Making a comment about their new clothes is OK, but not if it’s in reference to how good it makes their bum or breasts look. In a brilliant article I read recently, one of the ending pieces of advice was to “talk to more women […] without the caveat of expecting rewards of affection in return”. Platonic friendships exist between girls and guys, and however dumb it sounds, guys need to stop seeing girls as objects instead of friends.

What can you personally do to help?

To conclude this jumbled article, I’d like to end on what can be done on an individual basis. Speaking with one interviewee, she ended with an eloquent quote that sums up what should be done:

You can say things in the past and choose not to say them again in the future”

Everyone has probably said things they wish they had not or has done things they now regret. But you can choose to not repeat those same mistakes going forwards. Start questioning whether the jokes you make or hear are acceptable. If they aren’t and reduce girls to objects or hint at sexual harassment, call them out. Tell whoever made the joke that saying these sorts of things is simply not OK.

And for the guys reading this, if you happen to have sexual thoughts about female friends, or instantly associate any bare skin on a girl with sex, question why that has happened in your head. Treat it as an intrusive thought that you can think about, rationalise, and ultimately ignore. Change should start from within, and in response to the #NotAllMen movement, don’t think of yourself as the next potential rapist, think of yourself as the next person to call out sexual harassment.

The more the sexual harassment side of ‘lad culture’ and secondary school life is called out and questioned by others, the more it will rightfully shrivel away. Schools need to start implementing ways of calling out students who exhibit any form of sexual harassment and implement some system to support those who have fallen victim to any form of sexual harassment.

A simple PR statement from a school saying something about how they are “shocked and appalled” by recent testimonials is simply not enough. I can only hope that these schools prove how appalled they are by the actions of their students, current and former alike, by implementing some form of serious change.

Henry Hood

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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