MPs are launching an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools. This article describes the lad culture that is making girls’ right to safe education a sexist joke. A head in Milton Keynes sent 29 girls home from school for wearing short skirts which she believes fail to protect them from boys’ sexual harassment. Of course instead of blaming the victims she should have had major words with the boys about girls being humans, not sex objects, and run a Healthy Sex and Relationships programme by Tender, The RAP Project, Yes Matters, or theCHAT, with the boys on the front rows. Instead, girls lost out on their education again. The week before that it was reports of sexual bullying of girls and silencing tactics in class.
UK Feminista have known about this dire situation for school girls for years. Delivering workshops to pupils to help them challenge stereotypes and abusive behaviour, and delivering training to teachers on gender equality, they have witnessed shocking examples of sexism firsthand. Earlier this year, they commissioned a report, The State of Sexism in Schools. A 2015 BBC Freedom of information investigation found that 5,500 sexual assaults occurred in UK schools in last three years, including 600 rapes. Boys’ sense of entitlement to women’s bodies is clear. The culture they’re consuming is pointing and laughing at and objectifying girls and women as mere body parts and they’re clueless about consent.
Sexualisation, gender stereotypes of both men and women, not seeing girls and women in the media in diverse roles – this all damages boys too. Studies show that even the mildest sexual objectification of women makes men more callous towards them. From violent video games in which men use and kill prostitutes to music videos where one man possesses a group of sexualised women to footballers use of the sex industry, raping women and abusing underage girls while keeping their hero status, boys learn that being violent and feeling power over women is the way to be a man. No wonder 35% of boys aged 11-16 think it is justified to abuse women. The normalisation of the porn and sex industries tells us it’s fun to view girls and women as sexual commodities and boys who don’t like it are at risk of being labelled gay or anti-sex, while the girls are bullied for being virgins. The heavily gendered culture prevents boys from forming healthy friendships with girls and later, working relationships with women. It feeds into homophobia as the mould of masculinity narrows to a cardboard cut-out. It puts pressure on boys to fit into a type that doesn’t allow them to know the full range of their humanity. With such little cultural celebration of men in caring roles, boys learn that being gentle, kind, not overtly physical are not ‘masculine’ behaviours. As Yes Matters who campaign for and provide Healthy Relationships programmes understand, the culture is grooming young people to become victims and perpetrators.
Culture Reframed recognises that porn is the digital health crisis of our age. They are developing programmes to help professionals respond to porn’s impact on sexual violence, negative self-image, depression, addiction, sexual dysfunction and a long list of health problems. The Women’s Equality Party call for compulsory, age-appropriate sex education and a sexual harassment policy in schools, universities and apprenticeships. They recognise the need to be pro-active on challenging gender stereotypes and the value of promoting a range of female role models. As their first policies document states, ‘It is reckless and cruel to continue to ask our children to navigate the complexities of sexting, revenge porn and sexual consent with so little support.’ I have written a Gender Equality policy for pre-schools and primaries because challenging gender stereotypes early on will help build healthy relationships at secondary level.
In her book Living Dolls, Natasha Walter sums up the gendered culture that feeds sexual assault – a murder of the mind for many victims – and high suicide rates in young men. ‘There is a real need to examine the wider culture in which we are bringing up our boys. The assumption that women are there to be objectified rather than seen as fully human, to give others pleasure rather than share in pleasure, is too often embedded in the culture around young people. Too often, boys are encouraged to believe that they must cut themselves off from nurturing, empathetic and intimate behaviour to become fully masculine. As long as we tolerate these assumptions in the name of normal masculinity and femininity, then we will find it tough to challenge the culture of sexual violence.’