Sexual harassment and violence: What can schools do?

Written by: Natasha Eeles | Published:
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Schools can play a crucial role helping to end the culture of sexual harassment and violence – but how? Natasha Eeles offers some practical reflections and suggestions


In the past few weeks the UK has had its eyes opened to the urgent need to challenge the seemingly harmless attitudes towards women and girls that contribute to a culture within which gender-based violence is normalised and even accepted; a culture from which, unfortunately, schools are far from exempt.

Keeping our young people safe and healthy (both physically and mentally) means ensuring they have the right spaces to learn about and discuss these issues. Terms such as “gender-based” or “sexual” violence can be challenging and daunting, even extreme, particularly when it comes to discussions with and about pupils.

But, as testimonies from the Everyone’s Invited movement have shown, young people are not protected from this violence and it is vital we move towards a preventative as opposed to reactionary approach.

Education about the legal definitions of sexual violence, required within the statutory RSE curriculum, must be supplemented by education on the settings within which sexual violence become learned and normalised. It is crucial that young people learn to recognise how seemingly harmless attitudes, actions and beliefs serve as gateways to sexual harassment and eventually more extreme forms of sexual violence. But where to start with delivering this complex topic?


Understand what we are tackling

Gender-based violence is a continuum, the foundations of which can be found in everyday attitudes and behaviours that are often left unchallenged. It describes violence that targets individuals or groups on the basis of their gender. This includes physical, mental or sexual harm as well as the threat of this harm and coercion.

“Sexual violence”, “violence against women” and “gender-based violence” are used interchangeably. This violence is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women and is both a cause and consequence of these on-going unequal power relations.


Gender-based violence continuum: Gender-based violence is a continuum, the foundations of which can be found in everyday attitudes and behaviours (source: Bold Voices)


Delivering education on gender inequality and gender-based violence is complex and requires addressing the many issues that young people face today, such as non-consensual sharing of intimate photos without consent, deepfake pornography and specific gendered slurs that might not be familiar to us from our own lived experience of being young.

Staying up-to-date on the issues facing young people is key and this includes being open to learning from them about these issues too – they are the experts on how gender-based violence manifests for them.


Create space to have these conversations

Whether it is a 10-minute activity, or a day of workshops, carving out space and time to deliver this learning is crucial and supports pupils to become comfortable discussing difficult topics and to become gender-literate before leaving school.

Regular conversations: As with most learning, this education is most effective when done little and often. This can be as short as the 10 or 20-minute activities provided by Bold Voices that focus on a specific topic. The effect of this over time is to slowly build awareness of these issues, allowing pupils time to apply what they have learnt to real-world experiences. Remember, it is common for young people not to recognise their own experiences as harassment or violence – a study carried out by Brook, found that although 56 per cent of students reported experiencing at least one of the unwanted behaviours listed, only 15 per cent claimed to have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence (Brook, 2019). Young people must be supported to develop knowledge and understanding over time, giving them space to process it and become aware of how it manifests in practice.

Integrate into curriculum: Conversations about gender inequality and sexual violence are often reserved for PSHE lessons, however there are plenty of opportunities to discuss these issues across the curriculum. A gendered lens can be placed across most subjects and if there is a reference to gender norms, stereotypes or language then chances are there is an opportunity to discuss gender-based violence. These moments can be planned in advance by exploring the curriculum and identifying key teachable moments. This type of learning aids pupils in developing a gendered lens of their own as they practise noticing the gendered aspects of an issue and develop a critical gendered lens and empathy for the lives of women and marginalised genders.

Workshops and talks: Although this learning can be done everyday across the curriculum, there is value in dedicating longer blocks of time to exploring these topics in more detail. This is a great opportunity to use external facilitators who can provide interactive, expert sessions. Youth-led organisations, such as Bold Voices, can bring lived experience and an ability to connect quickly with pupils.


Challenge gendered slurs, insults and stereotypes

When a pupil uses a gendered slur, insult or stereotype our instinct can be to admonish or brush past it. However viewing these incidents as a teachable moment can be highly valuable for pupils. A teaching moment usually requires a questioning response, creating an environment where pupils feel they are part of a conversation. Let’s take an example: 71 per cent of all 16 to 18-year-olds (boys and girls) say they hear sexual name-calling with terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a daily basis or a few times a week (YouGov, 2010).

Pause and call out/question: Ask the pupil to explain what they mean by using the slur or stereotype.

  • “What makes you think that?”
  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “Let’s talk about why people think like that.”
  • “The school doesn’t tolerate sexist language like that. Why do you think that is?”
  • “This is a space for open conversation but we don’t tolerate sexist language like that. If you want to reframe that and ask why is slut a sexist word?’ then that’s a conversation we can have.”

Inform: Explain what the term means and why it is problematic.

  • “The word ‘slut’ is a sexist slur used to degrade and belittle women. It is a term used to control and police women’s sexuality and is connected to the attitude that women are objects that exist for the purpose of male sexual pleasure. I’m sure that’s not what you meant and as you can see, the term is unacceptable. Does that make sense?”

Discuss impact: Ask them to think about what the impact of using that language might have – this might be the immediate impact on other pupils but it might also be the impact that language has when used regularly.

  • “How do you think it feels for another pupil to be labelled in that way, given what we’ve just learned about what it means?”
  • “What do you think the impact of that word being used often is?”

Questioning and calling out seemingly insignificant attitudes and slurs can seem over the top and unnecessary. However it is these conversations that deepen young people’s understanding of what the causes of gender-based violence are and how important it is to challenge them when we hear them being used.

By modelling this challenge in the classroom we normalise it and encourage young people to replicate it within their own relationships and peer groups. These types of conversations are the first steps to integrating gendered violence education into the everyday lives of pupils.


Conclusion

This education that is not a “nice-to-have” addition to the curriculum but is instead urgent, critical education required to keep young people safe and to disrupt the patterns of harassment, abuse and violence that exist.

  • Natasha Eeles is the founder of Bold Voices, which delivers education on gender inequality and gender-based violence in schools and universities. Talks, workshops, resources, CPD training and parent courses are all provided to support teachers and parents in ensuring the next generations are equipped to challenge gender inequality and shape a society free from gender-based violence. Visit www.boldvoices.co.uk or find them on Twitter @bold_voices


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