It wouldn’t happen here…would it?
Trigger Warning: This blog contains PSHE and RSE solutions to school-based sexual harassment.
In light of the recent uncovering of alleged sexual harassment, abuse and rapes at a number of independent schools across the UK, the website Everyone’s Invited has been collecting testimonies from people who have experienced sexual harassment or who have been raped at schools. By Saturday morning 10thApril, there were 14,400 testimonies anonymously shared. Obviously peppered with triggers for anyone who has experiences abuse and harassment, the website can be seen as the tip of the iceberg of reprehensible behaviour which starts with sexualised comments, flicked bra-straps and requests for nude photos on social media.
Where and how does the trajectory start that ends in rape?
It starts with ‘banter’, with boys and young men sharing explicit images and then expecting to be able to get those kinds of images from the girls they know, it starts with boys realising that as their school polices the lengths of girls’ skirts, make up and jewellery that their actions are often largely seen as a reaction rather than a choice. This general attitude of blaming women started in Victorian or even earlier times when women (the ’weaker’ sex) were shamed into floor length skirts in case any man’s passion be inflamed by the glimpse of her ankle. So it’s men who can’t control or accept responsibility for their desires but women are the weak ones? *eye roll* This attitude has hardly shifted at all – now that a woman has claimed some semblance of parity in certain areas of life, she is now blamed for ‘being too drunk’ or ‘wearing provocative clothes’ or ‘walking home in the dark’ or ‘getting in the wrong taxi’ or…any number of spurious reasons by the media and even some judges. Policing girls’ uniforms is sadly just another example of this.
Key to understanding any culture of violence or harassment is the underlying belief that as a perpetrator, the burden of proof lies with those that are wronged. The victim, once harassed, abused, belittled and humiliated by the choice of a perpetrator, then has to prove that the alleged incident happened. This is the case throughout society from the child who’s trainers are stolen from their PE bag to the girl who has had a hand slid up her thigh (or worse) on the bus.
Imagine (and 1 in 4 women and girls don’t need to imagine it) you’ve been molested in an empty corridor in a quiet part of school or on the way to school on a bus.
You then go to your form tutor and tell them. What’s the first question they are likely to face?
“Are you sure it was [insert name]?”
“Were you with anyone else who saw it happen?”
When a woman or girl reports an incident of sexual harassment or abuse, we should believe her…and act according to your school or organisation’s Safeguarding policy. If the safeguarding policy doesn’t have any mention of sexual harassment or abuse in it (or it’s hidden or obscured with vague text) then it needs re-writing to include a clear and unequivocal statement of policy and action if accusations of sexual misconduct are reported. Unless there are genuine and immediate consequences to inappropriate behaviour then it is likely that offences will continue.
In wider society the rape conviction rate is at an appalling low 3.5% of recorded cases, as Dame Vera Baird the Victim’s Commissioner says that with the level of prosecution so low that effectively “what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape”. Society is suffering from an epidemic of largely male violence and male sexual violence and whilst it should not just be schools that are responsible for educating young people about this cultural issue, schools and PSHE / RSE can play a crucial part in developing the understanding of acceptable behaviours AND red-flags so young people can better understand others’ behaviour against themselves and their friends AND the ability for young people to monitor and moderate unacceptable behaviour from theirfriends and peers.
What about we work towards developing cultures where sexual harassment and abuse are far less likely? Well, as Steve Lane discusses in his book ‘Beyond Wiping Noses’ (as tweeted recently by Sophie McPhee a passionate PSHE teacher from the Midlands) “We ought to endeavour to unhide the pastoral curriculum, making explicit key messages we wish our students to learn, rather than leaving it to chance that they might pick up good habits, moral values and the personal characteristics that we desire them to possess.”
I couldn’t agree more. We cannot leave entire swathes of the pastoral curriculum to chance and hope that young people ‘just understand’ the complexities of relationships as they morph into adulthood., As ever, teenagers are bombarded with myriad images in ever-more extreme p0rn, behaviours, postures and role models who may or may not be what could be defined as ‘healthy’ so, just as we analyse fake news, mortgage applications and first aid, we need to talk about the best ways to go about this thing called life and some of the moire unsavoury aspects of it..
Safeguarding policies are one thing, their application is quite another but there is a more powerful tool in our box and one which it is the role of a school to undertake – education and culture.
Understanding what is, and what is not appropriate and acceptable ways to treat each other are essential parts of all schools – without a definition of acceptable culture, the culture we get is the one which is accepted, and which develops organically. And just as neglected bits of the garden or vegetable patch grows wild with undesirable weeds, so our cultures include parts which gradually undermine the whole and which grow slowly but which can soon affect every area of school life.
The Sexual Violence and Harassment in Schoolsreport from 2016 suggested three main recommendations, one of which is that “every child at primary and secondary school must have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals. This can only be achieved by making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject; investing in teacher training; and investing in local third sector specialist support”.
With reference to the above recommendation, we have been delivering the story of my sister, Sarah Gosling’s story of fatal domestic abuse as a keynote and workshop ibn secondary schools across the UK. In light of the above report and as a reaction to Sarah Everard’s tragic death – a case where police suggested women should stay at home like they did in the 1970s with Peter Sutcliffe when he was named as the Yorkshire Ripper – we have adapted the Sarah’s Legacy workshop. Here’s the link to the workshop: https://innovativeenterprise.co.uk/portfolio/domestic-violence-sarahs-legacy
Working in conjunction with a Boys’ Grammar School with a co-educational Sixth-Form we have recently enhanced the one-hour workshop that not only describes and discusses domestic and relationship abuse, but also opens up debate about the continuum of sexual harassment, coercive control and victim blaming.
The workshop is available face to face and virtually and could be seen as a starting point for some very challenging discussions in RSE / PSHE / PD which you can continue with the resources we will provide.
It’s always important to have difficult conversations with young people, it just seems like right now has provided us with a term in which the topic has become unavoidable if we want to help young people to understand their actions and the actions of others and the longer-term impacts of that behaviour.
The title of this piece ‘it wouldn’t happen here’ sadly often morphs into ‘it couldn’t happen here’ and if we have learned anything from the various sexual harassment and abuse cases which come to light on a fairly regular basis, is that it could happen anywhere.
How about we help your school and its students to understand the behaviours which are unacceptable and support them to challenge, overcome and report them?
For information about availability, costs and options, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org(Each booking provides a donation to the Refuge Charity).
In the year to the end of March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales. These led to just 2,102 prosecutions, compared with 3,043 in the previous 12 months
The Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment in Schools report from 2016, made three main recommendations which are outlined below.
- The Government must use the new Education Bill to ensure every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. Schools will need support from Government to achieve this, including clear national guidance.
- Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate must assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
- Every child at primary and secondary school must have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals. This can only be achieved by making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject; investing in teacher training; and investing in local third sector specialist support.