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Dangerous minds

Sexual bullying is becoming a daily torment for many girls, but they are rarely asked what they think. Chloe Combi listens to their stories

Sexual bullying is becoming a daily torment for many girls, but they are rarely asked what they think. Chloe Combi listens to their stories

We sit around a table at a school in South London. The volume sometimes rises to a yell and occasionally falls to a whisper. There are 30 young people, aged 13-17, gathered from different schools and backgrounds. What everyone here has in common is that we are female.

The atmosphere is angry and confessional. The topic is sexual bullying in schools, particularly sexual bullying of girls. It is a broad and complex subject, and it affects boys too, but today I just want to let the girls speak. They talk and talk and talk. There is endless discourse about this subject in the media and from the government, but, I wonder, is anyone actually listening to the people who are affected?

I couldn't put it better than one 15-year-old: "There isn't anyone girls can really talk to about this stuff. If someone hits you, it's easy to tell a teacher; if someone says bad stuff about you, there's someone to tell. But I would be too embarrassed to say anything if someone put his hand up my skirt. I wouldn't know who to tell anyway."

Sexual bullying takes many forms. There is the so-common-it's-barely-worth-mentioning use of female-oriented insults such as slag, slut, bitch, tart and ho. These words are by no means just used by boys - they are also the calling cards of girl-on-girl abuse in schools.

Then there are the physical, sexual insults that often take the form of a bizarre sort of "play": slapped bums, squeezed breasts, grabbed crotches. And there is the technological approach: sexting, inappropriate Facebook posts, the exchange of pornographic material. Occasionally there are far more serious incidents.

`A very thorny subject'

This raises another question: why is sex and sexual bullying within schools being so badly handled? Schools are rigorous in dealing with racial bullying and discrimination against disability, and they are becoming increasingly efficient in tackling homophobia and racism at the outset, although improvement is still required.

To put this into perspective, government figures show that in 2011-12 there were 2,730 fixed-period exclusions and 70 permanent exclusions as a result of sexual misconduct in schools in England. This is more than the combined total for mainstream bullying and racism over the same period. Exclusion is a last resort - the numbers here suggest that schools aren't dealing with the problem.

Discussions with students and teachers suggest that the problem is getting worse, for complex reasons, and that it is largely impacting on girls. So the first question I ask the teenagers is if they think the issue is being taken less seriously because it is viewed as "girls' problem".

This is a difficult query to answer - after all, schools are fiercely committed to gender equality and inclusion. But the stories the girls tell me speak for themselves.

I hear about a group of girls who had to sit behind boys looking at pornography on a phone in geography; a Year 7 girl (aged 11 or 12) who was made to look at porn on a phone by some Year 9 boys; girls who have to endure calls of "bouncy, bouncy, bouncy" from boys in physical education; a Year 10 girl who had sex with two classmates at a party and had to leave the school because the shaming was so bad (nobody really hassled the boys); and a Year 9 girl who was assaulted by three boys in the school toilets.

This problem is not being taken seriously by any government in the Western world. Although the Equal Opportunities Commission produced guidance for UK schools in 2007 that explicitly recognises sexist and sexual verbal abuse, gender stereotyping and the right to work in an environment free of intimidation and harassment, even now it is often ignored.

"Do I think sexual bullying is taken as seriously as other types of bullying?" asks a deputy headteacher from a large comprehensive in the Midlands. "No. The reason being I'm not sure schools are clear on how to deal with it or even want to admit to it. It's a very thorny subject."

The teachers I spoke to concurred with this view, talking of "confusion" and even "disempowerment" over dealing with sexual misconduct. Few said that clear-cut strategies and procedures were in place for dealing with offending students.

"It's really noticeable to me how much less boys consider girls' bodies to be out of bounds," says Jenny Smith, a secondary school teacher. "It is so much more common to see boys grab and grope girls in a really inappropriate manner and then not understand what they have done wrong when you pull them up on it.

"I think a lot of it stems from the kind of content they are watching on a very regular basis. However, the many times I have mentioned it to the headteacher, he just looks incredibly uncomfortable and says there will be a meeting about it. So far, there hasn't been one."

Such stories illuminate an important point. This confused attitude towards sexual bullying is creating a culture among girls, boys and their teachers where the problem isn't recognised. Unhealthy sexual behaviours are becoming normalised on both sides of the gender divide. But why?

While it is easy to point to the internet as the font of all evil, there is no doubt that it is shaping a generation and the way it views the world. Many articles have discussed the possible effects of ubiquitous pornography, but few have asked young people how they feel about it and how it is really affecting them.

Take a quote from my group of teenage girls: "Most boys are obsessed with watching porn films and looking at dirty pictures, and I think it makes them really weird towards girls. Like they think that's how we all behave."

And another: "I think all the dirty stuff on the internet encourages girls to behave like slags. Like get off with boys at parties and put up pictures of themselves in places like Facebook for all the boys to see. Maybe they think it will make people like them."

The second point, unfortunately, is a salient one. When I speak to a police officer who specialises in sex crimes involving minors, she confirms that girls are often complicit in being objectified (or worse) by their peers and, potentially, anyone else. "I recently took a sample from the Facebook pages of 200 completely random, anonymous female Year 9 students to show to parents," she said. "The explicit nature of the pictures and the abusive language being directed at these girls - some of which they seemed to find funny or flattering - was absolutely shocking."

But the objectification of the female form is reinforced daily in seemingly innocuous and child-friendly forms. Just look at soaps such as Hollyoaks, adverts, newspapers (and by no means just the tabloids), magazines and Twitter discussions to see the proof. And, inevitably, this is affecting boys and girls. One only has to go to a school and listen to be concerned. The girls are desperate to be beautiful and sexy - everything else comes second.

"But don't you think," I ask them, feeling a bit desperate, "that there are much more important things - intelligence, wit, attitude, courage - that nice boys will eventually see as more important?" They look at me blankly.

"No," says one, in a matter-of-fact way. "Look at [reality television show] I'm A Celebrity.Get Me Out of Here! All the boys talked about was that model's boobs and bum and what she looked like in a bikini and what she'd be like to shag and how dirty she might be. No boys cared about Rebecca [Adlington, the gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer] or the other two. I can't remember their names."

I ask the girls, bearing in mind that they are all currently working towards GCSEs or A-levels, if they would take beauty or brains, given the choice. Although the decision is difficult - they all, understandably, want both - about three-quarters of them finally fall on the side of beauty. Why? Because beauty and sexiness are seen as golden tickets to a better life. To more love, more adulation and more acceptance from society.

This raises perhaps the most troubling question of all. If sexual bullying is on the rise, is it in part down to the fact that girls are conditioned to want to be viewed as sex objects? All but two of the group I interviewed admitted that they would be deeply upset if boys didn't find them pretty, beautiful and sexy. And is this message - that it is acceptable to view and treat girls in such a way - being absorbed by boys too?

The leader of an extremely successful school in London thinks so: "In terms of gender politics and female empowerment, I feel like we are going backwards. Fifteen years ago, my Year 11 girls and sixth-formers all wanted to go to university, climb the career ladder and do amazing things.

"There were all sorts of appearances: ripped tights, big earrings, DMs [Dr Martens boots], big make-up, short hair, long hair, dreadlocks etc. They all got sent home to change, of course, but now I see a worrying sort of blandness about far too many of the girls. They all look the same - sort of beauty queen-y. More worryingly, [they] act far, far more passively, particularly around the boys."

Sexual bullying, uneven gender politics, unrealistic expectations of beauty: these are not new. The modern developments - online pornography, social media bullying, sexting - are mostly being utilised by this generation simply because they are available. If we - adults - had had access to something similar when we were younger, we would have done the same. But the children and teenagers growing up now are left with harmful ideas of female passivity and male aggression, an increasingly myopic view of what beauty is and dull or unhealthy celebrity role models. Teen spirit has always smelled pretty bad, but this really stinks.

Chloe Combi is a writer and part-time teacher

What can you do?

Sexual bullying can be a difficult topic for staff to address. Speaking in a Teachers TV video, John Bangs, then head of education for the NUT teaching union, explains that many teachers "don't articulate" the problem. "They see it just as bullying, or the sort of thing that normally goes on in schools," he says.

But as Sue Minto, head of ChildLine, explains, avoiding the issue could exacerbate it: "[Children] try something out and they carry on doing it because they can get away with it."

To support staff in identifying damaging sexual interactions between young people, children's charity the NSPCC has produced a briefing defining harmful sexual behaviour and what schools can do.

One way of approaching the subject is by drawing students' attention to sexual bullying before they experience it - either as a victim or a perpetrator. Advice from charity BeatBullying, as well as lesson plans from TES Connect users such as Naomi Sutherland, can help students to identify and tackle unacceptable behaviour.

If you are concerned that a students may be affected by this issue, there are resources available to support them. A video-based lesson from the police's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre shows the difference between a healthy and a harmful relationship, and the choices children can make to keep themselves safe or get out of an abusive situation.

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