We are told school is a learning environment. You learn algebra, how to ask where the swimming pool is in French, how earthquakes begin. Nobody tells you, however, that your learning isn’t limited to the classrooms, or even to academic realms. If you’re a girl, you learn just how normal it is to be sexually harassed. Crueller still, many of us learn this without having the vocabulary to describe what is happening to us or how we feel about it.
I have a catalogue of incidents from my school days that my older, wiser brain can classify as sexual harassment. I believe I’ve experienced more harassment at school than in the streets, and it’s certainly been more distressing. I can remember older boys making sexual comments to me with their voices dripping with irony, because I was an uncool girl with buck teeth and ugly glasses who they didn’t think anyone would want. I’ve been asked for pictures and sent sexual messages on Facebook. I’ve had things yelled at me. A boy in my year attempted to grope me in front of the rest of my year and I blocked it out of my mind for a fair while. We were thirteen years old.
Schools must raise awareness of what sexual harassment looks like and that it can happen in any setting
I wished I’d been warned about it, but nobody talked about it. Why? I wondered. I don’t understand. It felt like an invisible problem. This is why I didn’t feel the way many people did when the recent Ofsted report detailing the scale of sexual harassment in Britain’s schools was published. It may sound peculiar, but I felt seen. The problem had been pulled out of the shadows. It wasn’t invisible anymore. If there was anything I was angry about, it was that this wasn’t done sooner. I sat my GCSEs four years ago, months before #MeToo, and I’m surprised schools didn’t form such a big part of the fallout from it.
Of course, you cannot solve a problem that you don’t know exists. The optimistic way of viewing this situation would be to say that this is the first step towards momentous change, but optimism is difficult to muster considering the way I know schools manage issues. What must be done, however? The first step is simple: schools must do what they are used to doing – educating. The feminist slogan ‘don’t protect your daughter, educate your son’ is a highly accurate statement. Schools must raise awareness of what sexual harassment looks like and that it can happen in any setting. All genders must be equipped with the vocabulary to identify it, so it can then be reported or called out, and so those who might have gone on to perpetrate it understand the harms their behaviour causes.
Sexual harassment in schools also has to be considered as part of a cog in a bigger machine
It’s not just the pupils who need an education on sexual harassment, however – it is imperative that teachers receive proper training on how to identify, prevent and effectively punish it. The Ofsted report found that teachers “constantly underestimate” the scale of the issue, and consequently, issues with sexual harassment slip past them. It deserves to be taken as seriously as any safeguarding issue – after all, if pupils are made to feel unsafe in school, it is tantamount to teachers failing in their duty of care. This, perhaps, they are already doing – anyone who has been bullied in school will know how utterly hopeless teachers are at dealing with it, which disincentivises anyone from ever coming to a teacher with a problem. Improvements to how pastoral problems are dealt with will have benefits all around, especially where solving the sexual harassment epidemic is concerned. I never gave a moment of thought to reporting anything that happened to me, based on previous negative experiences with reporting bullying.
Finally, sexual harassment in schools also has to be considered as part of a cog in a bigger machine; it’s an issue in itself, but symptomatic of greater misogynistic issues at play. Young people absorb so much. The boys spitting sexual insults and grabbing girls in the corridors have already learnt that girls are lesser, fair game, and without intervention, they may turn into men who shout the same things at women from their cars, or worse – they may grow into the men who leave their wives and girlfriends for dead. Patriarchy is at work in all these scenarios. As governments and societies work at gender issues, the younger generations will feel a trickle-down effect – but naturally, digging out the misogyny buried in culture’s foundations cannot be done overnight.