MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 10-Feb-14 13:29:38

'I'd hear three rape jokes a day' - one teenager on the epidemic of sexual harassment in schools

What is it really like to be a girl in school today?

In this guest post, 17-year-old blogger and activist Yas Necati recounts her experiences of sexism in the classroom, and urges us all - teenagers, parents and teachers - to act.

Yas Necati

It's Not That Simple

Posted on: Mon 10-Feb-14 13:29:38

(55 comments )

Lead photo

70% of girls report experiences of sexual harassment at school

When I was in school, boys would buy The Sun for Page 3. They'd crowd around the paper in one corner of the classroom and scoff to themselves. It sounds like something from the 70s, but I only finished my GCSEs a few months ago.

I once asked a boy to stop looking at Page 3 whilst sitting next to me in class. He called me a "jealous dyke" and an "ugly shit". We were 12. But we could've been any age; it was a recurring incident throughout our school years. After a while, us girls simply gave up saying anything for fear of being told that we just wanted “better tits”... and truth is, most of us did. Who could really blame us?

Sexism is alive and well in schools. 70% of girls report experiences of sexual harassment at school or college, and school is the most common setting for sexual harassment and coercion. 16% of 15-17-year-olds have avoided going to school because they felt bad about their appearance – hardly surprising when you consider that a quarter of girls are bullied because of the way that they look. 40% of girls feel self-conscious about their bodies during PE and 87% of girls think sexism affects most areas of their lives. The statistics are staggering, and behind each of these numbers are real people with real stories. Looking at my own experience of sexism, it's frustrating to see how commonplace it is. I've spoken to my sister, my friends and reached out to other young women via Facebook to share theirs. We – teenagers, parents, teachers - need to start listening to these stories.

One evening over dinner my younger sister recited her day to me, recalling the still life she'd painted and a joke she'd heard. She paused for a second, grimacing before describing how boys had been watching pornography on their phones in the back of her English class. The teacher did nothing and the girls were too intimidated to react. For my 14-year-old sister, and many girls her age, this is just another day at school.

A rumour went round that a girl in our year had lost her virginity to a boy in Year 9. Everybody called her a slut for the remainder of her time at school. There was no shame placed on him, despite him being two years older and having had sex a lot more times than her. "What's the boy word for slut?" my younger friend once asked. "Respected," I said.


My sister's revelation of her everyday experience prompted me to think further about sexism I'd experienced at school – and the way in which gender biases and expectations start so young, for boys and girls.

When I was 11, a girl in my class punched a boy of the same age in the face. His cheek had swollen and with a quiet voice he told the teacher that she'd hit him. Mrs. Cedar chuckled and chimed, "Aww, Liam, did you get hit by a girl?" Immediately others began to laugh. Liam's inflamed cheek turned an even deeper shade of cherry-red. Needless to say he probably never made the same "mistake" again. Can you imagine how the teacher would've reacted if the genders were reversed? We're contradicting ourselves - encouraging children to ask for help, but basing our reactions on gender biases and expectations. This instance may have been subtle, but it's the small actions, and everyday socialisation, that shapes people's minds for the future. This boy's masculinity was checked before he could even ponder it. The culture that we're taught we later put into practice.

In secondary school, Year 7, I remember a rumour going around that a girl in our year had lost her virginity to a boy in Year 9. Everybody called her a slut for the remainder of her time at school. There was no shame placed on him, despite him being two years older and having had sex a lot more times than her. "What's the boy word for slut?" my younger friend once asked me after she'd been the victim of sexual bullying for wearing "suggestive eye-liner." "Respected," I said, although I couldn't possibly explain to her why…

Fast-forward a few years to the biggest decision of our lives to that date: GCSE options. I remember my friend telling me he fancied becoming a paediatrician so naturally was thinking of taking Child Development. But there was a problem - Child Development is a "girl’s subject," right? He decided to opt out and a few months later switched career path. Only one boy, Jim, took Child Development, though managed to "hide" it from the other students during enrolment. When the term started and the boys found out, he was subject to severe harassment and bullying. A few weeks into the course, Jim dropped out. He continued to be teased for the remainder of his time at school.

In my final GCSE year, a boy kept calling me "hairy gorilla" for choosing not to remove my leg or underarm hair. When holidaying in Cuba that year, despite the heat, and the fact that I love swimming, I completely avoided the pool (the exposure!). After a whole week of hiding, I decided I'd finally 'take the plunge' on our final day away. For the rest of the academic year, a boy followed me around pointing at his underarms every time he saw me.

In my final year of school I became a little despondent. Years of experiencing sexism and watching others experience sexism was starting to profoundly affect my happiness and well-being. I began counting rape jokes. I realised that I'd be lucky, walking through the corridors, not to hear three a day. I became a feminist, not because I felt it was important, but because I felt it was essential. When I told my teacher she said I should "just give up" as I was "wasting my time."

Starting college a few months back I decided I should act. I set up a feminist society with a girl in the year above, and welcomed everyone along. The response, though mainly positive, didn't compensate for the years of sexism and discrimination we'd all suffered. We felt comforted that others had similar stories to our own. Yet these are stories of assault, bullying and shame; why should we have to experience this?

We're currently working on a local project - similar to Everyday Sexism - collecting experiences of sexual bullying and harassment within the college. After only a few months we found most young women had a story to share. One girl was the constant target of rape jokes and sexual threats because of her sexual orientation; another was told by a boy that he would "make her straight." I know so many young women who've been forced into doing things against their consent. I know young women who've been raped.

Sexism is alive in schools. The teenage years are an uncertain and difficult time for many as they grapple with their identities and try to sculpt themselves into the adults they will become. The culture in schools has a huge impact on this development. Although changes are happening, we've got a long way to go before achieving equality in the classroom. We need a massive shift in the way we educate our daughters and sons, both on the curriculum and off it. Sexism in schools has a negative effect for everybody, and it's time we made a change.

By Yas Necati

Twitter: @YasNecati

littlemrssleepy Tue 11-Feb-14 13:45:44

Heydey biscuit

Oh I see. Its the women to blame.

Asagrandmother Tue 11-Feb-14 14:06:37

One of the things available to you, but by no means the only things to be done. Is to sign the petitions and or become involved with No More Page 3 and Child Eyes. They are working to change the current wider culture and both have petitions and Actions you can chose to be involved with. They are very much worth a look.

VegetariansTasteLikeChicken Tue 11-Feb-14 15:45:11

If school is such a bad place and girls have to run a gauntlet of abuse and threats all the time , how come girls achieve better exam results than boys these days ?

Um, because they are clever? And being surround by wankers doesn't make you less so?

This is a briliant article and I love seeing a younger generation "getting it". I struggled so much in school because I didn't have the strength and I love that there are teenagers who do despite all the shit they put up with it.

VegetariansTasteLikeChicken Tue 11-Feb-14 15:46:41

Heyday, I don't think the majority of girls who experience sexism then go on to do page3 confused

I do think writing to schools, signing petitions etc is a positive step to take. But most of us on here are parents of children, boys and girls, who have the potential to be involved in similar situations to those described by Yas - are we confident our boys would behave any differently to the boys Yas describes? Are we confident the behaviour of our girls towards other girls will be blameless?

I would like to see resources (and maybe there are some - please tell me) to support parents in educating their children and teaching them respect, and appropriate behaviour so they can work with schools to change the culture and environment.

I want to believe my son would never watch porn on a phone aged 15, or call a girl a slut or frigid, and thay my daughter would always stand up for herself, and her friends in these situations - but I don't know that! So I guess its time to start working on those values and behaviours now (my DS is 5 and my DS 7!).

ommmward Tue 11-Feb-14 18:39:35

... and then when I tell people that my children are home educated, they say "but aren't you worried they won't get opportunities for socialisation?"

If enough families simply refuse to be part of the rape/porn culture endemic in schools by opting out of school, things will change pretty fast (because every child taken out of school costs that school several thousand pounds a year in lost funding).

(and yes, I know we are privileged that we can afford to be a single income family).

cutsnake Tue 11-Feb-14 20:34:18

This was my experience of high school. It makes me so sad to read that it's as bad as ever, if not worse. It's the reason that my two girls go to an all-girls school.

neiljames77 Tue 11-Feb-14 22:03:57

It's one of the reasons my eldest daughter has left her nurse cadet course at college. Lads are constantly making sexual jibes at the girls. When my daughter and her friend reported them, the head tutor asked if there was any witnesses. A male tutor was in clear earshot of everything said, yet denied hearing anything. Coward.

nameequality Tue 11-Feb-14 22:41:51

There is a radical community bookshop with a list of books for children and young people that might be of interest to some.

See here.

neiljames77 what a shame for your DD. Do you think she would write to her college's governing body? Maybe send them the pledge I linked to above?

nameequality Tue 11-Feb-14 22:53:34

Googling "teaching consent to kids" brings up some useful looking blogs from people.

<warning some may be triggering>

There are some suggestions at goodmenproject.com/families/the-healthy-sex-talk-teaching-kids-consent-ages-1-21/

mathanxiety Wed 12-Feb-14 05:59:15

You know, the more I see of all of this the more depressed I feel.

I don't think we start with consent.

I think we need to suggest the radical proposition that women and girls are human beings, and see how that flies. I predict it won't.

I recently joined a new group being set up at my church (RC) to provide support and outreach and referral for victims of intimate violence to domestic violence agencies that have begun partnering with churches in my area. Domestic violence is a problem close to my heart.

To kick off the group, a priest who has been recently authorised by my diocese to evangelise on the issue of DV after years of running a successful support programme in his own parish preached the sermon on Sunday. I am 49 years old and have never once heard the terms 'domestic violence' or 'pornography' mentioned in any church I have been in. It was a great sermon. The priest got an ovation.

There are 28 of us now in the group, coming at the problem from a variety of angles. Hopefully we will make a dent. Yes, I am well aware of the irony of a church that denies one of the sacraments to women coming forth so late in the game to do right by women and to name the problem that afflicts the church itself. One of my hopes in participating in this is that some day someone in the hierarchy will see the fundamental issue is male entitlement and inability to see women as fully human and fully deserving of respect.

Heyday, it ends in women being terrorised in their own homes by men who do not acknowledge that they are equally human. It is not women who do this to themselves.

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing

In this case it HAS to be men, specifically men, who condemn it, loud and clear and forcefully, and with no equivocation.

Otherwise, it is just another boring, insignificant 'wimmin's problem' (yawn) that they probably bring upon themselves.

Men have to sit themselves down and ask themselves the fundamental question -- are women and men fully equal?

mathanxiety Wed 12-Feb-14 06:13:54

This programme was developed by a local domestic violence agency and introduced in my DCs' high school in the US.

DS did the Step Back component at age 14 as a freshma. It involved involving examining attitudes to girls and women, to the word 'gay', to sex, violence and aggression, and exploring what it means to be 'a man'. The DDs did the girls' counterpart which involved raising consciousness of what constitutes abuse, abusive attitudes, speech, and empowerment exercises. Overall, with the school committed to this programme, the hope is to cultivate an atmosphere where mutual respect rules.

This is an American public high school of about 3500 students. There is nothing like this in the local RC high schools angry sad.

MmeLindor Wed 12-Feb-14 10:34:40

A MNetter once posted that she taught her kids about consent from a very young age with the words 'If everyone is not having fun, everyone stops'.

i.e. teach kids that they have to respect the wishes of others, and that it is not ok to badger, annoy, irritate, bully or shove another child. As the kids get older, you can expand this concept, introducing the idea of consent in a sexual relationship.

I do think that it needs to be taught from an early age, and that we have to stop making excuses for little boys who annoy little girls 'oh, boys will be boys! He's pulling your hair because he likes you'. It teaches girls to put up with bad behaviour and teaches boys that they can do what they want.

ThingsThatGoBumpInTheNight Wed 12-Feb-14 12:06:03

I was so lucky when I was at school

One, no one liked me in any case, I wasn't popular, I got bullied.
But I did see girls get treated the way I read in the op.
I also regularly dragged boys off girls who were trying to push them away, a few I beat the living day lights out of, one of these was on top of a girl with his pants round his ankles, trying to pull her knickers down.

It was so commonplace, I never even thought to report it, how sad is that?
I just vowed to bring up my own children differently.
My son, if he came across a girl, drunk/drugged/naked, the first thing he would do is make her safe, a blanket, recovery position, then call emergency services. It would never cross his mind to harm her.

He is 16. I'm incredibly proud of how he is, but really, he should be 'the norm' not 'the unusual' blush

I've known women who have gone on to be sexually assaulted in the workplace/club/pub ect and I would safely guess that it's a rare woman that has not had some kind of inappropriate touching happen to her.

It's happened to me but I am very tall and I guess it puts most off trying, the ones that have get a painful reminder of their experience rather than a pleasurable one.

We are responsible for bringing up these boys. Society has it's pressures ect but that's no excuse.
We must be clear on what is acceptable and what is not. If we're afraid to talk birds and bees, or we do that first, then inappropriate touching later, it may be too hard or not done at all.

We need to be honest with our children, or end up visiting our dd in hospital after a sexual assault, or our son in prison after committing one.
And we can not assume that it will not be our child unless we have done everything in our power to make sure it isn't.

WilsonFrickett Wed 12-Feb-14 12:07:40

As the mother of a boy this article has been extremely thought provoking and I will redouble my feminist teaching!

Just to come back on the all-girls' school comments - having read this I completely understand why you would want to send a DD to a girls' school, but worry terribly about the impact that would have on boys. I know it's not girls' jobs to be a civilising influence on boys - that is our job as parents primarily although I'd like to think society could give a hand in this I see no evidence of it actually wanting to, quite the contrary in fact - but the thought of an all-boys' ghetto where this kind of behaviour would undoubtedly be more commonplace fills me with horror.

HumphreyCobbler Wed 12-Feb-14 12:30:50

this echoes my own experience of schooling. I had hoped things had improved sad. I particularly remember the way in which you were either a 'slag' or 'frigid' - there seemed to be no acceptable middle ground when you were defined by these terms.

Dreamgirls234 Wed 12-Feb-14 18:53:53

My daughter gets a lot of sexual harassment on a daily basis it's not on and schools should do more to prevent it.

jewelsandbinoculars Wed 12-Feb-14 20:44:34

An eloquent and mature voice. One I am glad my daughter may one day grow up to hear. Thanks Yas.

What strikes me about this is that it is all-encompassing, and not just anti-female. I think the whole business of anti-feminism discriminates against men too. I am shocked that it is so overt in schools and that nothing has been done to stop it! Great post.

neiljames77 Fri 14-Feb-14 14:07:08

Nothing will be done in schools and colleges because they are cowards, afraid of any backlash. At one point, my daughter took to walking around the outside of the college to go to her next lesson(which was only a few doors down the corridor) just to avoid lewd comments.

legoplayingmumsunite Sat 15-Feb-14 19:59:50

I find it incredibly depressing that schools allow behaviour that would be completely unacceptable in the workplace. Why are the teachers not doing something about this?

I have to admit to being horrified by this description of school. I went to a small rural secondary school in the North of Scotland 30 years ago and although there were some sexist comments there was nothing as aggressive as Yas describes.

I do think there is a strong argument to ban mobile phones from schools altogether (at the very least smart phones so the internet couldn't be accessed). I find it very scary to think in a few short years my innocent children will have their first exposure to sex through someone's mobile phone at school rather than from their own consensual exploration.

neiljames77 Sun 16-Feb-14 14:19:20

I'm afraid they can take as many pledges, have think-tank meetings and pass around as much literature as they like. The bottom line is, it will just be lip service and an empty gesture. The reason the gang of lads at my daughters college get away with making disgusting remarks is down to political correctness. Apparently, female students being spoken to and treated like crap is the lesser of two evils.

KatieN1 Sun 16-Feb-14 15:01:39

An excellently written balanced piece which shows the sexism suffered by both girls and boys. I do believe that the experiences of teenagers vary enormously depending on the ethos of the school. Those with a strong positive ethos and good management teach their pupils to show respect to others and to embrace differences. I think teenage boys will always be prone to looking at images of scantily clad women (in my day it was National Geographic magazine or the lingerie section of clothing catalogues) but a school with well enforced rules should certainly not be allowing such behaviour during lessons or indeed in a manner likely to cause offence.
Respect for others is perhaps one of the hardest lessons we have to teach our children and needs to begin early on. Perhaps we need to worry less about the toys children play with and more about how they treat others. As a mother of only boys I know it is possible to raise boys not to resort to violence; it is less easy to teach them to fully respect girls once they reach their teenage years. There does seem to be a common belief that it is a sign of manhood for boys to sleep around but a sign of sluttyness for girls to do the same, a belief that often seems to be held as much by girls as by boys. Schools need to spend more time on the emotional aspects of sexual maturity and should be judged on the quality of their emotional education just as much as on their academic achievements.

neiljames77 Sun 16-Feb-14 15:22:35

Why not just suspend the perpetrators, threaten to expel them if there's a repeat of it and call an assembly to explain why they've taken such action?
Calling their parents/guardians into the school/college would be an idea also. Not just so they can reiterate to their son that he's throwing his future away for the sake of some dickhead remarks to make himself look clever in front of his peers but also to gauge where he might be getting the attitude from.

mathanxiety Sun 16-Feb-14 22:07:30

It's not done because it's not understood to be a problem. This is because it affects girls and to some extent students who have been identified as gay. This issue is about heterosexual male ownership of shared space.

Once the problem is recognised much can be done. But too many school administrations do not understand what it is or do not care.

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