A RECENT survey found a third of young women in mixed secondary schools have experienced sexual harassment. A majority complained about the use of misogynistic language and 24 per cent reported unwanted sexual contact.
Whilst these results can hardly be surprising given the rife sexism in our society, they should serve as a wake-up call to action. The #MeToo movement has challenged attitudes to sexual harassment and violence, making it more difficult to dismiss men and boys’ behaviour as “banter” or “a bit of fun”. However, greater awareness and sensitivity to the issue has failed to eradicate it, and the experience of these pupils proves it.
Many raised the point at the height of the #MeToo campaign that working class women live a more precarious existence where complaining about sexual harassment could mean losing your job or home. It’s harder to stick your neck out when your voice is more likely to be ignored or ridiculed, and your employer or landlord has no incentive to deal with the issue.
For school-age women, the problems are similar – our schools are so focused on exam results that the social development of the next generation into critical, thinking and well-rounded adults is an afterthought, or a privilege of the few who can afford an elite private education. There are clearly serious failings to socialise boys to understand consent and respect and a lack of concern about the experience of girls if it took a survey to bring the problem to light.
A school in Hereford has come under fire from pupils and parents who claim the Headteacher linked sexual harassment to skirt lengths. Schools in the US have been widely criticised for the these same conservative attitudes that blame the victim and make it far harder to report harassment and assault.
Given that the focus on tackling bullying in schools has had little effect, those same approaches are unlikely to deal with sexism either. We do need to change the attitude of school administration towards sexism and take steps that raise awareness like teaching consent as part of sex education. But most importantly we need to empower girls and young women to recognise and challenge their own oppression. As a starting point, all schools should create spaces for female pupils to collectively discuss harassment, report it and propose solutions. This form of self-organisation can be a step on the road to independent Student Unions, which can work with teaching and support staff unions to assert greater control over the purpose and practice of education in the 21st century.