'˜They might not feel like the victim. They might feel it's all their fault'

Sexual harassment in schools made headlines after a high-profile inquiry was carried out by the government's women and equalities committee.

Rev Chrissie Millwood
Rev Chrissie Millwood

Among the many worrying pieces of evidence to be heard by MPs was one from Sophie Bennett of gender equality campaign UK Feminista.

She told the committee: “To give you an idea of the sorts of things that young people are telling us, girls tell us that you do not leave school as a girl without being called a slut; that to wear shorts under your skirt to prevent boys revealing your underwear in the playground is normal behaviour.”

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Ms Bennett said there was a “normalised culture of sexual harassment” within schools and that girls did not feel able to report it.

Three teenagers from Holy Trinity School, Crawley, shared their thoughts about the issue, the need for better role models for boys and girls, and the concerns they would have about reporting harassment inside or outside of school.

Moyo Olashore, Bethany Biggs and Joshua Otor, all 15, felt that, for them, the problem was bigger outside school hours, with Moyo describing Holy Trinity as “a safe environment”.

While that was good to hear, Moyo and Bethany’s thoughts about reporting sexual harassment were more concerning, as they were no doubt echoed by girls up and down the country.

Moyo said: “I feel like some people who have been in that situation might feel like they’ve done something wrong themselves.

“They might not feel like they’re the victim. They might feel like it’s all their fault and they might feel like they’d get told off for being the subject of harassment.” Bethany felt peer pressure could prevent girls from taking their concerns to a teacher or parent – muttered asides that they brought it on themselves – and added:

“If we spoke about it more openly then we’d be more open to speak to teachers about it, because you’d know it was OK to go and talk to them.”

Their thoughts were no doubt of interest to headteacher the Rev Chrissie Millwood and her team, who already deliver top-notch pastoral care to the students as well as plenty of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons.

They include issues such as relationships, consent, body image and the influence of the media on people’s attitudes.

It’s little wonder schools need to cover such subjects with a YouGov poll finding 29 per cent of 16-18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and a further 71 per cent said they heard sexual name-calling.

Listening to Bethany, Moyo and Joshua speak makes you wonder how many incidents of sexism and sexual harassment our girls endure outside school hours.

The average person in the street might believe cat-calls and lewd comments to be largely a thing of the past, safely banished to the 1970s with other such pathetic behaviour. Not so.

Bethany said: “It really annoys me because I think ‘you know nothing of me, you don’t know me, you’re just looking at a girl and then you feel it’s OK to treat us differently and treat us as objects’.

“I just get very annoyed by it. It’s frustrating because you want to do something about it but when they’re in a car and just go away, you’re like ‘what can I do about that?’”

Moyo added: “It’s quite offensive and hurtful and it’s really unnecessary as well; there isn’t a reason for it to happen.”

Joshua said: “I was taught by my parents to respect everybody, especially those of the opposite sex. If I’m with people and I see another guy cat-calling them I kind of feel annoyed for the girl because, unless they look for that attention, then they didn’t ask for it.”

When asked where they felt changes could be made to help stamp out sexist comments and sexual harassment, all three students thought both genders needed to take a look at how they conducted themselves.

Moyo said: “I feel like girls who wear their skirts right up to their bottoms and girls who wear push-up bras are not really helping themselves because they’re sort of doing that on purpose to gain attention. Because you wouldn’t do that unless you wanted some one to look at you in a certain way.

“But I also think that some girls might be dressed modestly and boys might still look at them in certain ways. It goes both ways. Girls can do things to stop it from happening but I think boys should also learn to be more respectful as well.”

While agreeing some girls could help themselves by looking at the way they dressed, Joshua felt the boys had to look at their own behaviour, or face the repercussions as they got older.

He said: “If boys learned the consequences of sexual harassment - like how it can get serious - I think there will be some who still do it, because there’s always a few, but most of them would back off and stop doing it if they knew how it could lead to bad stuff in their future life.”

The trio all agreed education could play a big part in teaching both boys and girls how to respect themselves and each other.

Bethany said: “We’ve got assemblies about body image and treating each other respectfully but I think the actual subject of sexual harassment could be brought up for older students; so it’s not something you’re taught just a bit about but something we focus on.

“I know at one time the boys had an assembly about respecting girls and that actually did make quite a big difference, then it kind of drifted away. You could tell they tried really hard and they understood, so I think that really teaches them how to respect people and not treat girls like objects or anything like that.

“Also for girls as well, learning about treating boys respectfully and not just making remarks about them.”

Rather than yearning after unattainable celebrities, the subject of role models was very close to home for all three. Bethany and Moyo said they looked up to their parents and sisters, while Joshua spoke enthusiastically about the lessons in respect he had learned from his father.

He said: “I was lucky because all my life I’ve had two parents and I’ve never had serious problems. So I’ve watched how my dad has treated my mum so I’ve modelled how I treat women on him, and that’s how I treat them.”

Recognising how lucky he was to have such a strong male role model, Joshua acknowledged not all boys were in the same position and might look for guidance from elsewhere.

He said: “If there was a guy role model who treated women with respect all the time - if the media focussed on him - and he got really popular and boys emulated him, I reckon sexual harassment would stop more. I’m not saying it’s completely the media’s fault but they don’t really paint adults in a good light and subconsciously it’s affecting us.”

That’s quite an ask for the men of our music and television industries given the saturation bombing of 24-hour news and social media that thrusts everything they say and do - bad as well as good - into the spotlight.

It also highlights the importance of ensuring our sons and daughters have strong guidance while growing up.

Theirs will be the first generation whose lives are documented online for all to see. Everything they say, do and think and choose to share on the likes of Facebook and Twitter - from the laudable to the embarassing - will be scrutinised by future employers and they will be judged on the mistakes they made as children.

This is extremely hard to understand for those of us who grew up before the digital age and whose youthful misdemeanors have long since been banished to the realm of excruciating memories.

Rev Millwood and her team have included internet safety in their PSHE curriculum, covering the dangers faced by children as they explore the online world.

She said: “Their mistakes are made on such a public arena and in a way they’re so difficult to get rid of. Being young is about being able to make mistakes - that’s how you learn. If we didn’t fall over we’d never learn to walk.

“We have to practice being a grown-up within a safe secure environment where you can explore.”

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