Girls as young as 12 are bombarded on a daily basis with requests to send boys photos of their breasts or to perform blow jobs on them on camera. And many girls consider being groped and dry-humped by boys an inevitable part of the school day.
Academics from the University of London carried out qualitative interviews with Year 8 and Year 10 pupils in two London schools. Their research, published this week, reveals the proliferation among teenagers of "sexting", the sending of sexualised text messages, and "daggering", boys forcibly thrusting their penises at girls from behind.
The researchers have called on teachers to address such harassment directly, recognising that both perpetrator and victim could be sitting in the same classroom.
Cherelle, a 13-year-old girl, talked about how she could not expect to walk past boys in the school corridor without being groped by them: "You walk past, and a boy will pass and they will squeeze your bum or something, and just touch your tits."
Frequently, this goes further, with girls pushed down in the corridor by a group of boys and "daggered". Thirteen-year-old Jodie said: "Most of them will be all on you at the same time, and ... you will be, like, 'get off me', and they won't get off you, and that is when it becomes serious."
The boys confirmed these reports, but insisted that it was not serious. "It is not like rape or anything," one boy said.
Jessica Ringrose of the Institute of Education, University of London, who led the research, said that there was a "deeply rooted notion that girls' and young women's bodies are somehow the property of boys and young men".
This could be seen, too, in the daily requests girls received to send naked photos to boys. Boys regularly solicited images of a girl's naked body, with the boy's name written on it in black marker pen. One girl sent a photograph of her naked breasts, with the words "Jason owns me" written on them.
Year 8 pupil Claire said: "If they want a blow job, they will ask every single day until you say yes." Many boys use such images - showing a girl's head and a boy's penis - as their BlackBerry Messenger profile pictures.
"Technology allows people's inhibitions and barriers to break down," said John Lloyd of the PSHE Association. "Young people seem to think that because it's on a phone it distances them from any outcomes and repercussions."
Both boys and girls tend to blame the girls for such outcomes. Year 10 pupil Alexandra said: "Why would you send your naked pictures to a boy that you have just been going out with for a week or two?"
But boys collect the images: one Year 10 boy claimed to have 30 on his phone. Some boys upload them to Facebook groups dedicated to photographs of girls' naked body parts. Others circulate "munch screens": screen grabs of BlackBerry message exchanges. One boy said: "If a girl said something like, 'oh, do you want me to suck your dick?' ... then he will munch that and then he will put it as his profile picture, and people will see what the girl said."
Boys also threaten to circulate rumours about a girl unless she agrees to pose for a photo.
Such images provide boys with a way to boost their popularity. "Given that other ways to get ratings, such as fighting, crime and expensive consumer items, can be difficult for boys to navigate ... collecting and circulating images of girls carries less risk," the researchers said.
- Find a way to acknowledge that sexual harassment may not come from a stranger or paedophile, but from another child in the class.
- Remember that both perpetrator and victim may be in the same lesson.
- Remember that, for some girls, the pressure to participate in a sexualised exchange is experienced as bullying.
- But be aware that - unlike bullying - not all sexting is a problem. Young people are interested in their developing sexuality and many will explore sexual ideas or relationships.
- Issues of respect, consent and reciprocity in sexual relationships should be discussed.
- Sexting should be addressed in small, single-sex groups.
- Be aware that pupils will have different levels of sexual experience.
- Pupils prefer such issues to be addressed using up-to-date, realistically filmed scenarios that can then be discussed.
- To be credible with pupils, teachers need to be as up to date as possible with the technology they are using.