Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Dangerous Minds

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Dangerous Minds

Article excerpt

Sexual bullying is becoming a daily torment for many girls, but they are rarely asked what they think. Chloe Combi listens to their stories

We sit around a table at a school in South London. The volume sometimes rises to a yell and occasionally falls to a whisper. There are 30 young people, aged 13-17, gathered from different schools and backgrounds. What everyone here has in common is that we are female.

The atmosphere is angry and confessional. The topic is sexual bullying in schools, particularly sexual bullying of girls. It is a broad and complex subject, and it affects boys too, but today I just want to let the girls speak. They talk and talk and talk. There is endless discourse about this subject in the media and from the government, but, I wonder, is anyone actually listening to the people who are affected?

I couldn't put it better than one 15-year-old: "There isn't anyone girls can really talk to about this stuff. If someone hits you, it's easy to tell a teacher; if someone says bad stuff about you, there's someone to tell. But I would be too embarrassed to say anything if someone put his hand up my skirt. I wouldn't know who to tell anyway."

Sexual bullying takes many forms. There is the so-common-it's-barely-worth-mentioning use of female-oriented insults such as slag, slut, bitch, tart and ho. These words are by no means just used by boys - they are also the calling cards of girl-on-girl abuse in schools.

Then there are the physical, sexual insults that often take the form of a bizarre sort of "play": slapped bums, squeezed breasts, grabbed crotches. And there is the technological approach: sexting, inappropriate Facebook posts, the exchange of pornographic material. Occasionally there are far more serious incidents.

'A very thorny subject'

This raises another question: why is sex and sexual bullying within schools being so badly handled? Schools are rigorous in dealing with racial bullying and discrimination against disability, and they are becoming increasingly efficient in tackling homophobia and racism at the outset, although improvement is still required.

To put this into perspective, government figures show that in 2011-12 there were 2,730 fixed-period exclusions and 70 permanent exclusions as a result of sexual misconduct in schools in England. This is more than the combined total for mainstream bullying and racism over the same period. Exclusion is a last resort - the numbers here suggest that schools aren't dealing with the problem.

Discussions with students and teachers suggest that the problem is getting worse, for complex reasons, and that it is largely impacting on girls. So the first question I ask the teenagers is if they think the issue is being taken less seriously because it is viewed as "girls' problem".

This is a difficult query to answer - after all, schools are fiercely committed to gender equality and inclusion. But the stories the girls tell me speak for themselves.

I hear about a group of girls who had to sit behind boys looking at pornography on a phone in geography; a Year 7 girl (aged 11 or 12) who was made to look at porn on a phone by some Year 9 boys; girls who have to endure calls of "bouncy, bouncy, bouncy" from boys in physical education; a Year 10 girl who had sex with two classmates at a party and had to leave the school because the shaming was so bad (nobody really hassled the boys); and a Year 9 girl who was assaulted by three boys in the school toilets.

This problem is not being taken seriously by any government in the Western world. Although the Equal Opportunities Commission produced guidance for UK schools in 2007 that explicitly recognises sexist and sexual verbal abuse, gender stereotyping and the right to work in an environment free of intimidation and harassment, even now it is often ignored.

"Do I think sexual bullying is taken as seriously as other types of bullying? …

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