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.

Lead photo
Yas Necati

It's Not That Simple

Posted on

Mon 10-Feb-14 13:29:38

(55 comments)

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

neiljames77 Mon 17-Feb-14 14:08:26

It's not seen as a problem in general society. It can't be can it? Ron Atkinson made a racist remark and was castigated by everyone. Quite rightly. Nobody in the media would touch him. Richard Keys and Andy Gray make sexist and derogatory remarks and they just get moved sideways to a different media outlet.
A few famous footballers have taken things further and attacked women physically. It doesn't seem to have done any long term damage to their careers at all.
The message seems to be clear; Make a remark about a woman's colour, ethnicity or religion and you're for the high jump.
Make sexist, lewd comments, deny her opportunities solely down to her gender or physically attack her and it doesn't raise the same outrage.
I understand and accept that by having two daughters, I might not be looking at this objectively. It's still wrong though and it needs addressing. Firm action is needed from a very early age.

tryingreallytrying Mon 17-Feb-14 21:04:40

Great blog, Yas.

This is why I sent my dds to single-sex schools, and also why I wouldn't send my ds to a single-sex school - though the boys you know may be dreadful, Yas, at least they are learning, through mixing with you, that girls are people. (And yes, realise I'm lucky every parent doesm't think tjhis too or the mixed schools would have no girls in.)

I teach teenagers and ALWAYS pick students up on sexist attitudes/comments. Am quite shocked there are teachers who let students get away with rape jokes/porn in class - male teachers, maybe? As clearly this is offensive to female teachers as well as female students.

So glad the new generation of girls is fighting back - the whole 90s lads movement made me so depressed...

mathanxiety Tue 18-Feb-14 05:26:58

How do we get to the point where boys have to learn that girls are people?

neiljames77 Tue 18-Feb-14 17:04:53

mathanxiety - by doing exactly what my youngest daughter is doing. She's going for a career in a very male dominated industry. She's doing her A levels at the moment. When she was asked in the class what she wanted to be, the boys who wanted something similar were sneering and so was the dyed in the wool, crusty old fart of a teacher.
Doesn't make any difference though. She's wiping the floor with them in her tests and is comfortably ahead of all the boys. She's on target to get grade A or A* in all of her science A levels.

mathanxiety Tue 18-Feb-14 17:26:28

Well that's one way to move on, and I agree that's a direction girls women need to have the chutzpah to take, but how did we get to the point where we find ourselves utterly disrespected and held in such contempt right now?

What is the foundation of the attitudes that girls and women battle against?

And also, how do we get boys and men to change? I linked upthread to a programme in an American high school I am familiar with that was designed to tackle the issues by inviting boys to examine images of manhood they are dealing with. Boys and men need to examine the image they have of themselves. I think that is key.

Yas thank you for sharing. I am horrified and gob smacked.

Are there petitions out there?

Are there people we can write to?

My DD is 9 and I don't want her experiencing what you and your friends have experienced in school.

I've been a feminist over 30 years and it was never this bad when I was younger.

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