Skip to content
 

Blog post

Sexual harassment and abuse in schools: re-stating the case for comprehensive sex and relationships education

Vanita Sundaram

In September 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee reported on the high level of sexual violence routinely experienced by young women in schools and the need for urgent action.

The report found 29% of 16 to 18-year-old female pupils had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school; 71% of all 16 to 18-year-old girls had heard words like “slut” or “slag” aimed at girls in school on a regular basis and 59% of girls and young women aged from 13 to 21 had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year. The Government’s response published in November 2016 promised a “holistic” school-based approach, and has been widely criticized for not going far enough and has strengthened and renewed calls for statutory PSHE.

Sexual harassment, sexual abuse and violence among young people is widespread, as evidenced by the recent parliamentary report into sexual harassment in schools. A robust body of evidence has shown that many young people are accepting of some of these practices from a very young age. Research with 13-18 year olds suggests that young people trivialise and justify violence against women and girls (Sundaram, 2013, 2014; McCarry, 2010; Barter et al., 2009); view some forms of sexual harassment as normal and even inevitable (Stanley et al. 2016); and excuse rape (Coy & Garner, 2012).

gender expectations and norms underpin young people’s understandings of what constitutes acceptable behaviour

Recent research shows that gender expectations and norms underpin young people’s understandings of what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and how boys and girls might be expected to behave in relation to each other (Sundaram, 2014a, 2014b; Sundaram & Sauntson, 2016). Young people’s views on ‘appropriate’ gender behaviour form the basis from which they explain, justify and rationalise violence against women and girls. For example, girls who do not conform to gender expectations of women within heterosexual relationships are narrated as ‘deserving’ of violence towards them.

A recent project on school-based sex and relationships education revealed the extent to which sexualised harassment permeates the school world, influencing the practices and beliefs of young women in particular (Sundaram & Sauntson, 2016).Young women’s learning about expected gender behaviour is often premised on ‘pleasing the boys’, which may include conforming to particular physical ideals of femininity or female sexuality and which frequently entail an acceptance of sexual harassment through policing of physical appearance.

‘Sometimes, me and Fiona were talking about this, it’s like they even judge you on what knickers you wear. If you don’t wear a thong then you’re frigid but if you wear a thong then you’re a slut. It’s like do you not want us to wear any knickers at all? Would that make you happy? You can’t get the right balance.’

Young women do point to areas for challenge to gender-based harassment. For example, they are clear that the content of sex and relationships education should challenge existing gender expectations around sexual desire, sexuality and sexual harassment or abuse. The current focus on heterosexual reproduction, the absence of (female) pleasure and agency, and the positioning of sex as ‘risky’ for girls as potential victims who must protect themselves from predatory boys, reinforces the gender relations, expectations and norms that underlie gender-based harassment and abuse. Schools must find ways to actively challenge these gender assumptions and to empower young women whilst recognising the structural and cultural inequalities that actively disempower them.

 

References

Barter, C., McCarry, M., Berridge, D. & Evans, K. (2009). Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Coy, M. & Garner, M. (2012). Definitions, discourses and dilemmas: policy and academic engagement with the sexualisation of popular culture. Gender and Education, 24(3), 285-301.

McCarry, M. (2010). Becoming a ‘proper man’: young people’s attitudes about interpersonal violence and perceptions of gender. Gender and Education, 22(1), 17-30.

Stanley, N., Barter, C., Wood, M. et al. (2016). Pornography, Sexual Coercion and Abuse and Sexting in Young People’s Intimate Relationships: A European Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1-26, DOI: 10.1177/0886260516633204.

Sundaram, V. (2013). Violence as understandable, deserved or unacceptable? Listening for gender in teenagers’ talk about violence. Gender and Education, 25(7), 889-906.

Sundaram, V. (2014a). Preventing youth violence: rethinking the role of gender and schools. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot.

Sundaram, V. (2014b). ‘You can try, but you won’t stop it. It’ll always be there.’ Youth perspectives on violence and prevention in schools. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260514556106

Sundaram, V. & Sauntson H. (2016). Discursive silences: Using critical linguistic and qualitative analysis to explore the continued absence of pleasure in sex and relationships education in England and Wales. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society & Learning, 16(3), 240-254.

More related content