‘We’re In This Together’ – Sexual harassment in schools: a boys’ voice

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By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre

The problem

Sexual harassment between young people appears to be on the rise.

A recent Ofsted report found that sexual misconduct in schools between peers is incredibly common. This is further contextualised by rising reports of peer-on-peer harmful sexual behaviours of those under the age of 18. Reports of sexual assaults between peers rose over 70% between 2013 and 2016. Additionally, in 2017, across the jurisdictions of 38 police forces, there were 30,000 reports of children and young people assaulting each other, with 2,625 of these being carried out in schools.

Confirming this trend, since March 2021 over 50,000 testimonials of young people’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault have been shared on the Everyone’s Invited website.

This issue has only recently come to the forefront, with the term ‘rape culture’ now being talked about within the school setting. ‘Rape culture’ refers to numerous sexually motivated acts that normalise toxic sexual behaviours. This is an umbrella term that relates to a plethora of acts such as sexually derogatory jokes, coercion, misogyny, touching without consent, online abuse and actions involving photographs (e.g. up-skirting and the sharing of sexual images). The normalisation of such behaviours between young people runs the risk of them becoming the gateway to more violent sexual acts such as sexual assault and rape. However, the term ‘rape culture’ itself appears problematic, as it risks minimising a range of sexual harassment behaviours due to the enormity of the implications that the word rape carries.

However, it is useful to note at this point that these numbers may be inaccurate and they are difficult to ascertain. There is research that suggests instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment are under reported. This indicates that the real numbers may be far higher. Whether they are rising as rapidly as it appears raises another question, is this because reporting is getting easier due to social media access and the increasing awareness in this area, or is the rise due to the number of assaults itself rising? 

A key aspect of this issue is that the majority of these reports have been reports from girls about boys.

The blame game

One of the voices that has been lost in this debate is that of boys.

There is a real and tangible gap in knowledge relating to the blame culture that has erupted from the growing numbers of reports that focus upon boys. However, blaming a whole gender collectively is dangerous as it can shut down any form of valuable communication and healthy debate that is so crucial to combatting sexual harassment and assault and the issues that surround it.

One of the most important things that we need to do is to listen to young people and use what they say to inform work in this area. Crucially, this should include boys.

It needs to be recognised within wider society that all genders have a voice, and that blame culture can be detrimental and damaging to equality for all. Nobody wins when two sides are seemingly juxtaposed in such a way. This also throws up another issue: creating a boy vs girl dichotomy such as this runs the risk of compartmentalising gender as binary, dismissing a spectrum of other, valid, gender identities.

Blame also shuts down dialogue, which is inherently counterproductive when attempting to tackle this issue. Many men and boys feel that they cannot speak up as they have been shamed and marginalised. They feel that they have been shut out of the conversation due to the backlash of blame that has emerged. The best way forward when tackling this very real and serious issue, and the first stage in beginning any kind of culture shift, is to create safe and open conversations where everyone can work together to fully understand the issue and to foster an environment where exploration of what is required to prevent sexual harassment between peers can take place.

Whilst there should be consequences for actions, restorative and proactive approaches as an alternative to purely reactive approaches may be the best way forward when it comes to tackling the issues that surround sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Not only does it need to stop, we need to know why it is happening in the first place, and the only way to do that is to listen… to everyone.

The position of the boy

Young men are placed under increasing pressure and societal expectations to become dominant, aggressive and powerful. This ‘toxic masculinity’ reinforces the stereotypes of what a man and boy should be like to gain respect and validation within wider society. This can also inhibit boys coming forward when they have been a victim of sexual harassment and aggression.

This toxic masculinity is firmly linked to the institutionalised patriarchal system in which wider society is embedded.

The societal expectation of male dominance and power over women further complicates the context into which this behaviour is entrenched. This is not only problematic for girls and other genders, but also for boys. Many young men living within these contexts feel that there is an expectation to act in certain ways. This brings with it issues for boys, specifically the intersectionality with mental health issues related to increasing pressure to perform and to fit gender stereotypes.

The wider context

For many young people, the only place where they can have these conversations and access concise and robust education relating to sexual assault is school. Covid-19 lockdowns and resulting school closures impacted negatively upon relationships and sex education (RSE).

For many, there was then nowhere to turn to have these valuable discussions and explore these issues in a safe environment; only time will tell the true impact that Covid-19 has had upon RSE and young people. Nevertheless, the problem of sexual harassment and assault is very real and something needs to be done quickly to tackle this. A national approach to this issue is needed, and with this adequate resources should to be provided. Everyone needs to be working on this together within society to create any kind of palpable shift, national policy needs to change and a joined up approach is needed.

And as part of this, as a society, we need to listen to everyone.

The next steps

Dr Sophie King-Hill (Health Services Management Centre) and Dr Daniel Vyleta (Department of Film and Creative writing) have received seed funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account to begin planning a response to this issue. The project, named ‘We’re in this together’ sexual harassment in schools – a boys voice’, will initially be working with up to three small groups of boys aged 14/15 to help identify ways in which the voices of young men articulating their views of masculinity, gender and sexual harassment can be captured and represented in an effective manner that at the same time protects their safety/anonymity.

The ultimate aim for this project is to produce a plan for a podcast, film or written piece that engages the reader/viewer/listener both intellectually and emotionally and thus opens up new perceptions and new avenues for discussion.

Specifically, the aim is to find out what the questions are that we need to be asking, how they should be asked, what process and media would be effective for producing honest and realistic perspectives, and how this material is best collated, edited and shaped in order to produce an effective impact on this issue.

The advice of boys themselves is needed to begin to understand the issue and their input is going to be crucial.

This project will listen to the voice of boys from the outset, after all, we’re all in this together. And at the moment nobody is winning…

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