Boys maybe underachieving, but there’s still sexist bullying in schools!

Extract from Kat Banyard’s “The Equality Illusion” – Chapter 2 – Hands up for …………….. A gendered Education

I thought students studying gender and education might like this piece of research – on the consequences of sexist bullying. This is literally copied straight out of the book above (2010), hopefully it should be obvious how it supports the radical feminist line on education…

And I’d just like to mention a quick thankyou to our admin support who typed it up!

 As her mother straps her little brother into the car, Jena stands by the front door, unable to move. She’s starting to feel dizzy. Why won’t her mum listen when she brings up her problems with Alec? It’s not going to stop. This was made clear at the end of last week when she had approached Mrs Evans, the deputy head, about the problem. ‘She listened to me carefully and then said, ‘’Well, you know, you’re all growing up and boys do this sort of thing, because boys will be boys.’’ ‘

Hearing the car engine start, Jena finally picks up her rucksack and walks down the path. In the car, she puts her head back and starts counting her breaths, determined not to have another panic attack like last week. As the houses and streets shoot past the window all she can think about is Geography at 11:40 because Alec will be there. Alec is not in the same tutor group as Jena but on four days out of five she has lessons with him. His typical behaviour towards her include: ‘grabbing my breasts in the school corridors. Sitting opposite me in class and making obscene gestures and threatening comments (‘’I’m going to fuck you’’:  ‘’are you going to sit on my cock?’’)Jumping on me in the playground and rubbing against me, swearing at me loudly in front of other pupils (‘fucking bitch’). He refers to me as ‘’tits’’, ‘’fucking massive tits’’, and ‘’fucking bitch’’.’

Jena is fifteen. She has experienced sexual harassment from boys since she was nine and thinks it’s related to the fact that she is ‘developed’ for her age. But it has never been this bad before and over the past five months school has become unbearable. ‘On one occasion I fainted in class because I was so terrified of going to the next lesson which he shared with me.’ Jena has recently stated refusing to go to school. But with her grades slipping and GCSEs next year, her mum has been getting stricter about it. Jena can understand this but given that she can’t concentrate when she’s at school – and the deputy head has now refused to do anything – what’s the point? All too quickly her mum pulls up behind a row of parked cars opposite the school. Saying nothing Jena gets out of the car and walks towards the main entrance. By the time she reaches her locker the registration bell is ringing. She has a sickly feeling in her stomach. Only two hours and forty minutes to go.

 Jena got in touch with me after I sent out an email through several feminist sexual harassment e-networks asking to interview girls who were experiencing sexual harassment at school. Hers was one of many responses received and she is just one of many millions of girls throughout the world who are sexually harassed at school every year. According to the World Health Organisation, school is the most common setting for sexual harassment and coercion. Researchers have found that girls experience more harassment by adult school personnel and peers than boys do and their experiences are also more severe. A US study in 2008 found that of the 14% of middle and high school students who had been sexually harassed during that school year, girls suffered significantly more trauma symptoms and experienced a greater toll on their self-esteem and their mental and physical health. Lesbian and disabled girls are found to be particularly at risk of harassment.

A couple of months after the harassment began Jena started to binge eat in the evenings as it made her feel better for a short period. But afterwards she would invariably feel so disgusted with herself that she would make herself sick. Recently however the bingeing has stopped and she is now obsessively regulating her calories intake and becomes distressed if she consumes more than 500 calories a day. ‘I initially state to diet in the hope that doing so would reduce the size of my breasts, ‘Jena explained, telling me quite frankly that the sexual harassment is making her hate her body and that she wants to reverse her physical development. She described her dieting as ‘a way to regain control in my life.’ Unsurprisingly she is also experiencing a slump in her academic performance.

 Sticks & stones

While girls are discouraged from using their bodies on the sports field, they often find their bodies at the centre of another unwelcome kind of activity. Chloe was one of the many women and girls I heard from during the course of my research into violence at school. ‘I had boys groping my en masse. It wasn’t just at break times – in class as well. Sometimes they used to hold me down and take it turns, it was universally accepted. Teachers pretended they didn’t notice. I would regularly hang out in the toilets at break time. I felt pretty violated; it made me hate my body.’ Having now left school, Chloe can pinpoint exactly when the sexual harassment began. ‘When my breasts grew. I went from an A to an E cup when I was fourteen.’ It became a regular feature of her school day, mostly happening when the boys were in groups. ‘People would randomly scream ‘’slut’’. One boy told me that he has a fantasy that he wanted to tie me up and viciously rape me. He was a bit of an outcast. But when he said that all the boys were high-fiving him. He got serious street-cred for saying it.’’ Classrooms are training grounds for boys aspiring to be ‘real men’ and girls like Jena and Chloe are paying the price. Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls.

Megan described how boys used to taunt her in the corridors at secondary school. ‘Older students would say things like, ‘’ Look at her knockers!’’ in hushed voices. Or they would exchange looks and make breast outlines on their chests. That was particularly hurtful.’ For other girls the harassment is physical as well. Ava was just seven years old when it began. She was so far ahead academically for her age that her teacher started running out of new tasks to give her. So instead she would regularly ask Ava to go to the classroom next door and tutor some of the other pupils and that’s where she met Adam. ‘At first he just sat too close……(later) he would start by making excuses to bend down to look up my skirt, such dropping his pencil. At one point I was helping him when he suddenly declared that he loved me. While I stood there in shock he put his hand up my skirt. ‘Adam informed Ava that his dad showed him pornography. ‘He used to brag about this fact.’ Ava soon asked her teacher to be excused from tutoring other students. ‘I told the teacher that I didn’t want to, that one of the other students was being very mean to me and trying to touch me. She didn’t react to my comments about him trying to touch me and told me that I had to tutor other students because she had nothing else for me to do and I couldn’t just do nothing.’ In response Ava started intentionally falling behind in her work so she wouldn’t be made to tutor Adam any more.   

Hayley also described to me how some of the boys at her secondary school were using new technologies to harass girls. ‘They try and take pictures with their camera phones up you skirt while you’re sitting at your desk. Nobody knows what to say. They wouldn’t want to provoke an argument.’ Boys also access internet pornography on school computers. Hayley said, ‘in year seven and eight it’s quite common. Even the boys you wouldn’t expect you see getting told off by teachers for it.’ Similarly Sarah remembers pornography being commonplace at her school; ‘Every student was asked to bring in newspaper articles. Many boys saw this as a great opportunity to bring in newspapers such as the Sun, Star, Sport etc and make a point of looking at, sharing and showing the countless page-three-style images. Sarah was ‘extremely upset on a number of occasions when boys who sat near me in class would push these pages in front of me and make comments. Most of the time all the forms of harassment went completely unchallenged; I don’t think (the teachers) ever paid any attention to sexual harassment.’

The consequences for girls who are sexually harassed or assaulted at school can be devastating. Unsurprisingly as Jena found it can cause victims to participate less in class, attain lower grades and even drop out of school altogether.  Depression and loss of self-esteem are common. If girls experience repeated sexual harassment they are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. In fact the trauma symptoms reported by adolescent girls subject to sexual harassment have been found to be similar to those descried by rape victims. Yet despite the fact that sexual harassment is shown to have a more damaging impact on victims than other forms of school bullying, teachers are less likely to intervene in incidences of the former. Why? Well as Jena’s teacher said to her, ‘boys will be boys.’ The sexual harassment of girls is viewed as ‘normal’ behaviour for the boys. And it is precisely this naturalising of the act, this insidious complacency it elicits, which has enabled sexist bullying and harassment to flourish in classrooms across the world.

The daily trip to school is uncertain, frightening and dangerous for millions of girls across the world. Those fortunate enough to make it to the school gates regularly spend their day exposed to a hidden curriculum of gender inequality. Although not written into their timetables, the learning takes place every time they enter the classroom, go out to the playground or walk on to the sports field. The gender trenches of masculinity and femininity produce segregation and violence. Yet the equality illusion persists under the guise that what we are witnessing are natural, biological differences. And so, school continues to be a key site where gender inequality is reflected and reproduced – with boys and girls taught lessons that will have damaging repercussions in their adult lives.

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  1. Stop Bullying Now! Take Action!
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