Sexual harassment? We need to talk to the boys

Instead of focusing on girls' uniforms and self-defence classes, we need to change boys' attitudes, says Emily Gunton

Emily Gunton

Schoolgirl, leaning against a wall and crying

I am in awe of Soma Sara, the recent graduate from University College London who founded the website Everyone's Invited in June 2020. To be brave enough to share your story, and then set up a website for women to share their experiences is nothing short of inspirational.

Like millions of other women, I have faced sexual harassment. The worst cases of harassment happened when I was working in the music industry – but if you had asked me at the time, I would have said it was just banter. Fifteen years ago, I did not fully understand what sexual harassment was. It took a Twitter storm, #MeToo and life experience for me to work out its true meaning.

As a teacher working in a girls' school, I have wondered over the past couple of weeks whether my students know what sexual harassment is. I think many of them think they know, but do they actually know? I fear that girls are experiencing it without realising that it is unacceptable. 

In light of recent events, the PSHE curriculum needs to be more robust than ever to ensure that sex and relationships education is high-quality and taught by teachers who are trained to deliver the curriculum – not just under-timetabled. 

Schools should build links with support services, and support girls if they have experienced abuse. 

Everyone's Invited allegations: Cultural change to tackle sexual harassment

However, what we need is a cultural change that cannot occur during one period of PSHE a week. We need a consistent and cohesive approach everywhere, from schools to workplaces. This is so important; we need a government campaign similar to the "It's On Us" campaign launched by Obama and Biden in 2014.

The purpose of that campaign was to encourage bystanders to get involved. It provided strategies such as intervening when someone is harassing another person, providing support to victims and refusing to laugh at hurtful comments or jokes, sometimes incorrectly called banter. 

Parents need to be educated in ways to teach positive attitudes and skills for healthy relationships. There are very few programmes that teach parents how to talk about what is undoubtedly a complex subject. 

As I look at our government, unsure if we have anyone capable of leading such a campaign, I wonder whether we will be reliant on tragedy to drive this initiative forward. The stories from Everyone's Invited and the tragic death of Sarah Everard will give this movement momentum in the short term, but keeping it alive five years from now will be the greatest challenge. 

Schools need to look at their messaging, starting with school uniform. Many schools have an old-fashioned approach to uniform. It has always bemused me that school uniform policies often state that skirts should be of an “appropriate length”. 

What on earth does that mean? I have yet to find a uniform policy that states that the length of boys’ trousers needs to be an “appropriate length”. Why would a skirt need to be of an appropriate length, and why are we shaming our female students? 

We also see other rules being included for sixth-forms and mufti days, along the lines of no ripped jeans. Anyone with a teen in the house will know that it is almost impossible to buy jeans these days without a rip in them. Even the women's department in Marks & Spencer sells them. (And yes, I do have a pair.) 

Teaching boys about appropriate behaviour

But what are we trying to say by banning rips and short skirts? If schools are worried their female students would attract too much attention, we really are muddled. 

It is the boys who need to be taught about appropriate behaviour – and both sexes need to understand consent. Leave the girls out of it. Clothing is not a reason for women to be sexually harassed, and our messaging in our uniform policies needs to be carefully worded.

It is interesting to hear some schools saying they will start offering their girls' self-defence classes. Still, these have generally been ineffective because they fail to acknowledge that most assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. 

Harassment is often committed by someone in power. Although self-defence programmes may reduce risks, they could be perceived as being tokenistic. 

Prevention through education is the most powerful tool. Why does it take the #MeToo campaign, Sarah Everard's death and the bravery of Soma Sara for headteachers to start preparing their students for life? 

We need to take a long hard look at how we teach consent in schools and give all students the skills required to engage and understand what consent is. Schooling is not just about examination results, Progress 8 scores or the EBacc. It is about preparing our students for life.

Emily Gunton is director of music, head of co-curricular and outreach, and school consultant teacher at Blackheath High School, in south-east London

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