Published in The Guardian on 4 November 2008
View the published article here
Sexual bullying in schools is so rife it is hardly noticed. Why, asks Rachel Bell, is it not taken seriously?
Racist, homophobic and physical bullying are not considered harmless fun or accepted in schools. We recognise these forms of bullying and rightly view them as abhorrent. But sexual or sexist bullying is equally ubiquitous – so why is calling a girl or woman a slag or a ho not afforded the same gravity?
One problem is that, as with all things sexual, the boundaries are blurred. A mass of hormonal adolescents getting to grips with their sexual identities is bound to bring up misunderstandings about appropriate behaviour and wanted or unwanted attention. Sexual bullying is different from other forms of bullying because it is seen as “ordinary, expected and public”, as Nan Stein, a leading US expert, points out in her book Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools.
Name-calling is so common it’s hardly noticed. Girls can be slags, slappers, sluts, bitches, whores and hos for what they wear, for flirting, cheating or experimenting with their sexuality. The age-old double standard remains. “Girls get called slag and tart because they flirt with guys and they wear revealing clothes,” says Jess, 15. “This is to hurt their feelings, or maybe because they are jealous. But they really are a slag if they sleep around.”
I ask a teacher I know about incidents of sexual bullying at her secondary school. She lists a boy aggressively telling a girl he wants to finger her, a boy pulling down a girl’s skirt in front of other students, boys flicking girls’ skirts up, making fun of their weight and clothes, and calling them slags and whores. Damian Carnell, of Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum (NDVF), says: “One incident in a school we work in involved a boy who grabbed hold of a girl in the school corridor and gave her a love bite. Female youth workers talk about situations in which boys play chatline messages to them from their mobile phones, point porn images at them from their phones or draw porn images on paper that they’ve just been looking at on the computer, even in the school library. So this is sexual bullying or harassment of staff as well as pupils.”
Finn Mackay is an anti-bullying coordinator in north London, where she manages the Home Safe: Domestic Violence Prevention Project for Schools. “Like most forms of bullying, sexual bullying is based on unequal power relations,” she says. “In the borough I work in, we have zero tolerance of sexual bullying, precisely because if it goes unchallenged, it sends a message that sexual violence is to be expected in life and society.”
This continuum from sexual bullying to violence against women is keenly recognised by Tender, an educational charity that works with 13- to 18-year-olds in 85 secondary schools and pupil referral units in greater London. Its project, Trust, uses creative arts to challenge tolerance of violence. “Although young people initially agreed male violence towards women is wrong,” says artistic director Tamsin Larby, “scratching under the surface revealed both sexes felt that physical or sexual violence is acceptable in certain situations.” Tender conducted a survey with 288 young Londoners about their attitudes towards domestic and sexual violence. Twenty-nine per cent of male and female students felt it was sometimes OK for a man to hit a woman if she’d slept with someone else; 80% thought that girls and women sometimes encourage violence and abuse by the way they dress, and 76% thought a woman encourages violence by not treating men with respect.
On questionnaires asking students why they think a girl might be responsible for violence, one boy wrote: “If a woman is unfaithful, but not a proper beating, just a slap.” Girls, worryingly, often blame themselves. This comment – “Sometimes they can provoke the person or give them false hope. Because some girls dress like sluts and they act all flirty, so then obviously boys will rape them or whatever” – was from a girl.
While the furore over the behaviour of broadcasters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross continues, another BBC DJ, Radio 1’s Chris Moyles, continues to be rewarded for sharing his worldview of women with the nation’s youth. Moyles has called a female news presenter a “slut”, Victoria Beckham “a whore” and some female listeners “dirty whores”. In newspaper interviews he has commented: “Which woman is going to argue that Jodie Marsh isn’t a fucking slapper?” and “I do hate it when a bitch lets herself slide.” Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts accused Moyles of bullying her after he constantly criticised her on air (he said, among other comments, she had “a face like a slapped arse”).
Carnell says: “It’s not surprising that sexual bullying exists and may be getting worse. Music videos present individual men possessing a group of sexualised young women; gadgets and entertainment for boys and young men demand that the player objectify, sexually attack and kill women. So-called heroes that many boys and young men look up to, especially in sport, sexually abuse young women, get away with it and keep their celebrity status. Sexual humiliation is seen as hilarious in pro-wrestling and by DJs.”
Set against this cultural backdrop are the hard facts on adolescent male sexual violence. In the UK, girls under 16 made up 31% of reported rape victims in 2004-05; in London, almost half of all reported rapes come from under-18s. An ICM survey commissioned by the End Violence Against Women campaign found that 42% of young people know girls whose boyfriends have hit them, and 40% know girls whose boyfriends have coerced or pressurised them to have sex. And that’s just the statistics we hear about. The NSPCC and police say that 95% of crimes committed against children are not reported.
Unchallenged, sexual bullying, whether bum pinching or coercion in teen relationships, sets up patterns of behaviour in which control is accepted. Clearly, there is a need for open discussion about attraction, objectification and abuse. “When running healthy relationships workshops for boys from the age of 12 and young men, they often make jokes about and humourise rape and other sexual violence against women and girls, think it’s OK to do so, and back up their behaviour,” says Carnell. “These workshops are very much the first time their attitudes, ignorance and behaviour get challenged.”
The charity Womankind Worldwide works with schools and local authorities, giving them resources to develop a “stop sexual bullying campaign”. Its programme, Challenging Violence, Changing Lives, has been piloted in secondary schools as part of personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship classes.
“It helps pupils understand how gender stereotypes limit their lives and relationships, how socialisation processes reinforced by media and popular culture raise us to believe that violence and aggression are acceptable,” explains the organisation’s UK education programme manager, Hannah White. “Time and again in schools, we hear that it is so normalised it is ignored.”
With the help of young people, Womankind has drafted a code of practice to define sexual bullying. “We’d like to see schools adopting this code and an anti-sexual bullying policy agreed by students and staff, addressing sexual bullying through work in lessons and assemblies, including looking at the way men, women and sexuality are presented in the school, in the press, on television and in computer games,” says White.
While anti-bullying work is being carried out across the country, not all definitions of bullying used by schools include sexual bullying. “Gender” was only recently included in the part of the PSHE curriculum at key stage 3 and 4 that deals with diversity and prejudice. While the government has announced plans to make PSHE classes – which include sex and relationships education – compulsory, campaigners argue that positive relationships education should also include gender violence prevention and combat harmful gender stereotypes.
“PSHE should be a compulsory part of the curriculum, because it is within this subject that great work is being done to challenge stereotypes and to encourage equality, respect and safe relationships for all,” says Mackay. “A lot of good work is being done to challenge gender stereotypes, in part of normal PSHE and citizenship. And there is work on consent issues and safe relationships being done in some sex and relationships education.”
More work is clearly needed. “Did you hear about the case of three 14-year-old boys who gang raped an 11-year-old girl, filmed the rapes on a mobile phone and sent it round the whole school?” asks White. “This is terrifying. The normalisation of girls being called a slut or being subjected to abuse and not taking it seriously has to be challenged.”