MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 14-Jun-16 16:40:10

Guest post: "The backdrop to my school years was slut-shaming and victim-blaming"

Elli Wilson recounts her experiences of sexism at school, and says mandatory sex education is crucial to tackling the problem

Elli Wilson

Blogger

Posted on: Tue 14-Jun-16 16:40:10

(30 comments )

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"Stories of what I now recognise to be sexual assault abounded, but there was little understanding of consent."

When I was 10, some of the boys in my primary school class tried to show me porn on a school computer, before I even knew what porn was. When I joined a new secondary school aged 12, comments about my appearance – particularly my chest – followed me in not-so-soft whispers as I tried to find my way around. When I reached 14 years old I would walk down the corridor and get groped by the same boys on a pretty much daily basis, sometimes accompanied by remarks about the 'firmness' of my bum or comments on some other body part.

For the rest of my time at high school, there was a constant backdrop of slut-shaming and victim-blaming perpetuated by pupils of all genders – and sometimes the teachers too, who would police skirt length, and once told a friend she was a smart girl but 'didn’t dress like one'. Stories of what I now recognise to be sexual assault abounded, but there was little understanding – or even recognition – of consent. I remember sitting at the back of a class when I was nearing the end of my school career and a boy I knew fairly well casually calling me a slut. The insult stung, but I was unsure whether to put the hurt I felt down to embarrassment or fury.

Broken down and written like this, these incidents will most likely strike many as disturbing at best and downright horrifying at worst, but at the time they were very much the norm for me and my peer group. To write my experience off as extreme or unusual would be easy, but this was not a problem that was or is particular to any of the schools I attended, but is absolutely endemic. Last week experts advised a commons select committee that sexism, harassment and sexual bullying are a ‘ticking time bomb’ in British schools. Teachers, parents – indeed, all of us – need to face up to the fact that schools are not immune to gender- and sexuality-based bullying and violence. The uncomfortable truth is that these things are happening to the young people you know and are perpetuated by the young people you know.

The solution must start with a programme of mandatory sex education, and its implementation is a matter of urgency. The girls who are slut-shamed, sexualised and even assaulted daily cannot wait.


The solution to this problem must start in the schools themselves with a programme of mandatory sex education, and its implementation is a matter of urgency. The girls who are slut-shamed, sexualised and even assaulted daily cannot wait. Equally boys desperately need to understand that they do not have to conform to stereotypical notions of 'manliness', if future generations are to stand any chance of breaking away from restrictive gender roles and their implications for sex and relationships. Much as the boys who objectified me wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and view of what it meant to be a woman, I recognise now that they too were extremely young and faced a lot of pressure to play up to aspects of toxic masculinity.

Children and teenagers of all genders need help to navigate sex, consent and pleasure in a world that is constantly lambasting them with sexist messages, many of which are derived from porn. Whilst gender-based violence remains entrenched in society at large, schools can be a bastion of good practice and play a crucial role in cultural change. Consent need not be something that is difficult and fraught – as it is frequently painted by the media, certain judges, and misogynists of all stripes – so long as it is instilled as a value at a young age, alongside a recognition of the personhood and value of women and girls.

I loved school, but it has taken years for me to recognise the sheer extent of the misogyny I experienced during my formative years, not to mention the homophobia and transphobia that were just as present but did not affect me. Feminism has since given me a language to understand and articulate this, and I can honestly say it has saved my life, transforming me from a suicidal, self-loathing teenager to the confident and happy young woman I am today. Positive, pleasure-focused mandatory sex education could give so many young people the same tools to explore their gender and sexuality without having to go through the pain I did to acquire them. Rape culture, heteronormativity and misogyny start early – the response needs to as well.

By Elli Wilson

Twitter: @ElliJARWilson

FATEdestiny Tue 14-Jun-16 18:41:30

but at the time they were very much the norm for me and my peer group

It's awful that you felt this was the norm.

For the record it was not the norm for me as a child.

You must be younger than me though, porn when I was 10 came in the form of the odd dirty magazine found in the mud somewhere while out playing. I'm 39.

LaBelleOtero Tue 14-Jun-16 19:13:26

I'm the same age as you FATEdestiny, and sexism and sexual harassment were the norm for me and my classmates.

My first kiss was when I was walking down a school corridor and a boy I knew vaguely shoved me into the boys toilet and stuck his tongue down my throat. During my first week at a new school a girl was assigned to look after me and I remember a group of boys leering at her and pulling at her clothes while she tried to get us through them to my classroom. Male teachers made sexual jokes (one was obsessed with the word pudenda), and the boys PE teacher would motivate the boys with comments on our bodies as we ran past doing cross-country. No online porn, no, but hardcore porn mags circulated. I also remember some boys excitedly regaling us with the tale of how they discovered a sexual assault victim one evening, and what her exposed boobs looked like. I had a male classmate who would pretend to run towards the wall I was standing against and fling his arms out at the last second to grope my chest. These are just off-the-top-of-my-head incidents.

PausingFlatly Tue 14-Jun-16 20:04:25

Sounds pretty familiar to me, minus the computer, and I'm older than FATE.

"it has taken years for me to recognise the sheer extent of the misogyny I experienced during my formative years, not to mention the homophobia and transphobia that were just as present but did not affect me. Feminism has since given me a language to understand and articulate this"

This. ^

I've recently spent a painful weekend revisiting the behaviours that were completely normal around me, the bread-and-butter of amusing sitcoms and titillating headlines, when I was young. Ironically this was in response to hearing the knee-jerk phrase "British values".

I stopped and contemplated the "British values" I'd grown up around: not having to lock the door, warm beer and cricket weren't on the list; absolute right of any male over puberty to fondle your body (unless you belonged to another male) was pretty high up.

Worse, the people most likely to appear on telly using catchphrases like "British values" back then, seemed the sort of people most likely to help themselves to your body - and to be outraged if you protested.

It was very alienating, and made me feel like an outsider for not wanting to be mauled.

It has been hugely liberating to find a place like MN where it's OK to object to being sexually assaulted. Where ideas like consent are articulated and normalised. I'm still working through the - very positive - consequences of that for me and my relationships.

AndNowItsSeven Tue 14-Jun-16 20:07:44

I hate the term " slut shaming" when it's used as an excuse to dress inappropriately. School girls should not wear skirts that are little more than a belt. It doesn't make them a slut if they dress that way but neither is it ok.

ApocalypseSlough Tue 14-Jun-16 20:18:31

AndNow why shouldn't they?
Why shouldn't the rights of girls to wear exactly what they want without assumptions being made about their sexual availability be championed loudly?
Until then I'm happy my girls go to single sex schools.

BiscuitMillionaire Tue 14-Jun-16 20:57:26

I wholeheartedly support your post, Elli. I'm ancient and went to an all-girls school, so my school experience was different, but I've heard enough about what goes on at schools in this decade to be very worried about my DD's future (and my DS' come to that). I would sign any petition to include education about respect for girls and women in sex ed.

AndNowItsSeven Tue 14-Jun-16 21:12:09

Because it's inappropriate for children to wear skirts that expose their underwear.

ApocalypseSlough Tue 14-Jun-16 22:04:16

I've never seen skirts exposing underwear. It's skirts and tights round here. But the problem is in the eye of the beholder not the girls themselves. It's a small leap from short skirts = available to skirts = available to women should avert their gaze so as not to tempt men.
In principal of course girls learn what men assume about them through their dress and modify it, but it shouldn't be the case.

CherryPicking Tue 14-Jun-16 22:08:11

Most literacy and numeracy programmes are bought in by schools from private companies. Why don't we set up a MN approved sex and relationships programme and either give it away to schools or ask for donations to women's aid etc?

LurcioAgain Tue 14-Jun-16 22:12:32

I am so glad I went to an all girls secondary - it was bliss. But even so, I didn't escape - I remember age 10 two boys getting me alone at the bottom of the school playing field at lunchtime and trying to pull my trousers down - I had to fight like a crazed berserker to get them off me so I could run away (fortunately all still pre-puberty, so I was fairly evenly matched with them in terms of strength).

CherryPicking Tue 14-Jun-16 22:18:10

And here's what was normal for me growing up:

Overhearing the two ten year old boys on my table sneering about 'prozzies' - and then turning on me and calling me a lesbian. I didn't know what a lesbian was. I mean who is creating these little shits and sending them out into the world?! My DD is 10 and I know for a fact she's never speak that way about anyone.

High school being about one thing only: sex. Even writing that down makes me feel queasy. We were kids for heaven's sake! 11 year old kids! Wtf. By the time I made it to the sixth form Id heard just about everything - people getting fingered\jerked off under desks, threesomes in the park, people shagging in the local under-age nightclub. And any girl participating being labeled a slag. Think I'm gonna home school my lot now I think of it!

smellycoat Tue 14-Jun-16 22:57:16

What I remember was feeling contempt and aversion for a pervy male Chemistry teacher who revelled in dropping his pen in front of the desk where the only 4 girls in the class sat, so that he could peer up our mini skirts whilst he picked it up. I remember having to take an urgent phone call from my father in his office, and how he stood in the doorway leering at me, and would not let me out . I was 14 years old and found this behaviour difficult to manage. At least when it was boys, you could retaliate, which was impossible with teacher.
Later, during my first job, I hit my boss hard across the face in front of my peers when he purposefully trod on my toes. He did not hit me back or sack me. He got the message, but it was a risky strategy.
Now, at 57years old, I still do not know what the appropriate reaction is to this "bullying"?
Anyone?

MumOnTheRunCatchingUp Tue 14-Jun-16 22:59:34

Bra strap twanging was the norm

I was in school waaaay before computers too

Not like I can go back and change it all

We also had striking miners run through the school and school grounds, jeering at us. Running at us. Being idiots. Calling names, saying inappropriate things about our dads etc etc

MumOnTheRunCatchingUp Tue 14-Jun-16 23:00:18

Oh, and there was always a story about a Pervy teacher passed down from the year above

smellycoat Tue 14-Jun-16 23:17:17

Yes mum on the run, thankfully the other girls in the class, were always sympathetic and equally disgusted. It is not as though this sort of behaviour was hidden- does this mean he was not a paedophile, just because he did not groom us?

WelshMoth Wed 15-Jun-16 06:13:04

It's a massive problem and it's moved across the generations. It struck a chord up thread when someone asked who are creating these children and these attitudes? ( to paraphrase ).

My first kiss was at the back of a bus going to a gymnastic event, our girls club was sharing with another mixed club and an older girl has lured me to the back for her 12/13 year old friend to kiss someone. He shoved his tongue into my mouth and tried to force his hands into my jeans. I was 10 or 11. I had to fight wildly to get away.

WelshMoth Wed 15-Jun-16 06:15:27

I would wholeheartedly support a programme of sex ed that could be rolled out to Schools in PSE lessons. I come across mysogeni and homophobia and sexual talk on a daily basis and it needs challenging. It's a matter of urgency I would even say.

WhoKnowsWhereTheTimeG0es Wed 15-Jun-16 08:05:13

It wasn't my experience at secondary school in the 80s, I was completely ignored by the opposite sex till I was about 17. However I was aware of it happening to some extent and no matter how many or how few it happens to it is completely unnacceptable. As for "who are creating children with these behaviours?", sadly I think many children are having this type of behaviour modelled at home by the older family members who grew up with it too, this added to the ready availability of porn and sexist material on social media.

SuperLemonCrush Wed 15-Jun-16 11:51:18

...at High School in the 1980s & was never a target, but was well aware of the acceptability of all the behaviors mentioned above from pupils and some teachers.

Really brought it home to me recently when we thought it would be nice to watch some "classic" 80s kids/family films (Ghostbusters/Goonies etc) with our children and was mildly horrified at the level of smutty sexualised, misogynistic plot lines and cinematography that we obviously accepted at the time without question.

I think that the best we can hope for is that there will many sleepless nights had by men who at the time thought that there would be no consequences for them at all.

LurcioAgain Wed 15-Jun-16 11:57:09

Forgot to put a date to my experience (primary school boys trying to pull my trousers and pants down) - this would have been 1975 or thereabouts, so not a new phenomenon driven by the rise of internet porn.

Totally agree with SuperLemonCrush's point - I saw snippets of Ghostbusters on TV recently and was gobsmacked by it!

maggiethemagpie Wed 15-Jun-16 20:00:42

I remember, and this is early 90s, a girl in my year about 15 yo being completely ostracized shamed and socially blacklisted after a party where she got drunk and five boys had sex with her (not sure if full sex but some sort of sexual contact).

It was reported all round the school on the monday. Her best friend dropped her - actually all her friends dropped her. She was a pariah.I'd imagine that was more upsetting in many ways than being shagged by five boys whilst out of it (which I'm sure many on here would see as rape)

The five lads? They got pats on the backs and 'well done son' type comments from their friends I would imagine.

That was my first introduction to 'double standards'

Madlizzy Thu 16-Jun-16 01:42:18

When I was growing up, throughout the 70s and 80s, I was assaulted and put up with comments about my lack of chest, had my arse and tits groped on many occasions, not just in school, but by friends of my parents, work colleagues and strangers. I felt absolutely powerless then. I even had my skirt pulled up and arse smacked by a man I was cleaning for when I was aged 14 under the guise of "it's just messing about". He was also a friend of my parents. I've raised my children very differently, they know that no one has the right to touch them without their expressed permission, and my boys know that consent is a very sound "yes" and that no absolutely means no. My daughter is very vocal in how her body belongs to her and no one else.

MothershipG Thu 16-Jun-16 11:50:06

Maggie If she didn't consent or was too drunk to do so it was rape/sexual assault.

What else would it be?

streetdog Thu 16-Jun-16 11:55:35

Similar experiences in the 90s here with sexual comments and behaviour. Sadly dd who is 13 has been called a slut, had her bra strap twanged, had comments made.
Not to mention the senior management team member who did an entire supposed curriculum evening which weirdly only concentrated on boys attainment and included what would be wrong if women ruled the world, how women would use a high heel or butter knife in their tool box rather than know how to use proper tools and including a skimpynpicture of Xena the princess warrior.

Hence my engineer loving dd will be attending a school which actively encourages women in stem...

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