Saturday, 15 October 2011

Rape culture and victim blaming starts in the classroom

The BBC reported earlier this week that a school in Kent is thinking of bringing in uniform rules to make girls wear trousers as a 'safeguard'.

In my day (!) the debate used to be about whether girls should be allowed to wear trousers to school at all, but this school in Kent has woken up to the idea that girls are being sexually bullied, harassed and assaulted in schools. And they reckon the way to solve this is not to encourage better sex education about consent and respect; not to deal with the bullies; not to encourage boys to not bully, harass and assault girls. No. The answer according to Head Teacher Claire Owen is to make the girls cover up their legs to stop them 'putting themselves at risk'.

The BBC story can be read here:

Lets take a look at what Dr Owen says in the article. She worries that the girls are 'putting themselves at risk'. That wearing short skirts 'give out the wrong message' and and that short skirts are causing 'serious safeguarding issues'. Dr Owen seems to believe that it is the girls, and their skirts, that are causing the problems about safety in the classroom and the playground. She seems to believe that sexual bullying, assault and harassment are caused by short skirts and that all of these things can be prevented if the girls wear trousers.

The phrase 'putting themselves at risk' is the one that stood out for me. Girls are putting themselves at risk by wearing short skirts. What happens when you look at that sentence from another angle? Owen is saying that girls are taking a risk when they wear a short skirt, and that risk is sexual bullying, harassment or assault. If those things happen, then they happen because the girl took the risk that they might.

Parents have praised the suggestion by Clare Owen that girls are prevented from putting themselves at risk with a ban on skirts. Parents of daughters, parents of sons.

You of course won't be surprised when I say that this move, this suggested move, is completely unacceptable and will do absolutely nothing to protect girls from sexual bullying, harassment and assault, and will do everything to place the blame on the victim in the school's eyes, and the girl's own eyes, rather than the perpetrator.

Research published in 2009 by Bristol University and the NSPCC found that:
  • 1 in 3 girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence, that was found to overwhelmingly impact on girls' wellbeing more
  • Young women are subject to emotional pressure/manipulation to consent to sex and experience high levels of sexual violence
  • The 'continuum of sexual violence' as developed by Kelly in 1987 reflects that women's experience and understanding of coercive sex means that the issue isn't just about rape vs consent, but others such as coercive sex, pressurised sex, fair game (surrender the right to consent).

None of this is caused by short skirts.

Sexual bullying in schools is a big problem. In her book 'The Equality Illusion', Kat Banyard explores how despite girls being subjected to verbal and physical sexual abuse, teachers often don't know how to deal with it. They excuse the behaviour as 'boys will be boys' and refuse to challenge it. Girls shared with Kat their experiences of being groped, taunted, forced to look at pornographc images of women, and sexually assaulted, whilst the teachers turned away. And the impact of sexual bullying on girls is huge. An American 2008 study found that of the 34% of middle school and high school students who had been sexually harassed during the school year, girls suffered significantly more trauma symptoms and a greater toll on their self-esteem and health (J.E Gruber and S Fineran, 'comparing the impact of sexual bullying and harassment victimisation on the mental and physical health of adolsecents). Kat's interviewees report low self-esteem, reduced academic performance and disordered eating as a result of sexual bullying. But when they try to report the behaviour to their teachers, their experiences are written off, with harassment being attributed to boys' 'natural' behaviour.

But there is nothing natural or normal or inherently 'boy-ish' about sexual bullying, harassment and assault (and to claim there is is rather offensive to both girls and boys). It can be stopped, it can be challenged and, more importantly, it MUST be.

Of course, it would be easier to blame a short skirt. It would be easier to ban skirts and ensure girls wear trousers. Blame the girls' behaviour, and it is easily rectified. Ban skirts - there, the school has taken action and if it's the wrong group of people who are being punished, well, at least we've done something about it now. It's so much easier to ban skirts then it is to actually take a long hard look at why boys are growing up learning that it is ok for them to sexually bully, harass and assault their female colleagues. It's so much easier to ban skirts than challenge the idea that it isn't normal or natural for boys to sexually threaten their fellow pupils. It's so much easier to ban skirts than it is to ask why sexual bullying is not being challenged by teachers, why it is accepted, and why you are blaming the girls for the violence committed against them.

Just ban the skirts. And then, if a girl is sexually bullied, harassed or assaulted and happens to be wearing a skirt, well the school took pre-emptive action to warn her about the risk she was taking. And if a girl is sexually bullied, harassed or assaulted, the school can point to their no short skirts policy and say they have put measures in place to prevent it.

I would like to meet Dr Owen and have a long chat with her. I would like to explain to her that short skirts do not cause sexual assault. I would like to explain to her that no-one has ever been sexually bullied, harassed or assualted because they were wearing a short skirt. I would like to explain to her that a woman or girl is never 'taking a risk' of being raped by what she wears, drinks, who she's in a relationship with, who she's friends with, who she works with etc etc, because rape is not something that women can take precautions to avoid. A cliff edge, you can take precautions to avoid. Sexual bullying, harassment and assault is not a natural hazard. They are deliberate and cruel and violent acts that a person chooses to do to another. It isn't natural, it isn't inevitable and it isn't caused by anything except the perpetrator's decision.

But there are things that her school can do to prevent sexual bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault without blaming the girl and upholding rape culture that blames the victim.

They can encourage education around consent and respect. They can teach about rape culture, and send the message that women are never to blame for the violence committed against them. They could challenge and condemn sexual bullying. They can challenge the behaviour and the privilege and the culture that allows sexual assualt, that excuses sexual violence. They can hold the perpetrators to account and they can listen to and support the girls.

Because this is a crisis. In a rape culture, boys are growing up with a sense of entitlement to women's bodies that allows sexual bullying, assault and harassment to happen, unchecked and unpunished. A survey last year ( found that nearly half of boys think if the woman is too drunk to know what's going on, it isn't rape, and 23% believed that even if a woman says no, it isn't rape. 16-19 year old girls are now the most at-risk group of experiencing intimate partner violence (Home Office stats). This isn't caused because girls are putting themselves at risk wearing short skirts to school. This is because rape culture excuses, allows and promotes sexual violence.

This planned ban will have serious repurcussions and none of them involve protecting the girls from sexual violence. Banning short skirts will uphold rape culture that excuses the perpetrators and blames the victims. It shames the girls who wear short skirts. It excuses and writes off the violent behaviour of the perpetrators. And it prevents girls reporting, and getting justice for, the violence that is committed against them because they fear they will be blamed. And under this rule, the girls are being blamed. Because it's so much easier to blame the women, than it is to challenge the perpetrator, and the culture that allows him his violence.

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