A 'pioneering' project invites pupils to consider how offensive terms that target gender or sexuality fuel abusive attitudes
Being called a "slut" or a "poof" can be just as damaging as racist abuse - yet a blind eye is too often turned to such terms. That is the premise behind a groundbreaking approach to sexual bullying in schools, never previously used in Scotland.
A pilot project at Dumbarton Academy made S3 pupils and teachers face up to the harm caused by bullying which targets a person's gender or sexuality.
There are huge ambitions for the project's legacy: it is hoped that sexual bullying in schools will eventually be as taboo as racism.
The pilot had led to an innovative teaching pack, Sexual Bullying - Name It and Shame It, which is not coy about the issue. One exercise encourages pupils to list words used to describe boys and girls in a negative way; "slut", "whore", "slapper", "poof" and "bender" are typical offerings.
A powerful accompanying DVD produced by pupils in the pilot group, now in S4, features a cacophonous crescendo of such terms, spat out with increasing venom as they are simultaneously seen being scrawled by hand.
Angela Simms, West Dunbartonshire quality improvement officer, told The TESS that there had been discussion about the appropriateness of bringing such language into classrooms, but it was decided that to skirt around offensive terms would undermine the aim of tackling sexual bullying head on.
Terry Lanagan, West Dunbartonshire education director, recalled that racist language was common in schools until a series of initiatives in the 1980s saw it all but eliminated; even those pupils who use it now do so knowing it is wrong.
But sexually abusive language is still "commonplace" and sows the seeds for prejudice and violence in the adult world.
Mr Lanagan, speaking at the launch of the pack, identified a link between tolerance of abusive sexual language and the 48,801 incidents of domestic abuse reported by Scottish police forces in 2006-07.
"Abuse starts with attitudes, and attitudes are reflected in language, so we have to try and affect the way people talk to each other and deal with each other."
He said that if adults "set the right tone and language for our young people to use in relationships, perhaps we can reduce the statistics".
Mr Lanagan also hopes the pack will help consign the use of homophobic language to the past.
"I think for many years Scottish schools have ducked the idea of sexuality," he said. "I've always felt Scottish schools shied away from issues of homophobia, and that pupils still use words like 'gay' as an insult and an offensive word."
The launch was attended by Bill Clark, West Dunbartonshire social work director, whose grown-up son revealed he was gay while at school.
He agreed that even seemingly innocuous use of language could be harmful, whether or not it was a direct insult. "Gay", for example, is commonly used by young people to describe something that is not very impressive.
"The idea is that every human encounter can confirm someone's worth, but it can also damage and hurt people," he told The TESS.
A picture emerged at the launch of well-meaning teachers who did not clamp down on sexual bullying, largely because they were unsure how to, and of pupils forced to come up with their own solutions. One girl said she started wearing shorts under her skirt after boys had made repeated attempts to lift it up.
Mike Gibson, chair of the Scottish Government's prevention and education sub-group, described the pack as "pioneering" and said there was nothing else like it in the country.
The pack is the brainchild of Shona Bruce, co-ordinator of the Reduce Abuse project, which carries out work on violence prevention in West Dunbartonshire schools and youth projects.
- For information, contact Angela Simms. T: 01389 738659; E: firstname.lastname@example.org
WORDS AND ACTIONS THAT CAUSE PAIN
- Using sexual words such as "slut" as a putdown.
- Using words that refer to a person's sexuality as a putdown, such as calling something "gay" to mean it is not impressive.
- Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects such as rape.
- Touching someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Gender-targeted behaviour designed to humiliate, such as pulling up a girl's skirt or pinging her bra strap.
- Destruction of someone's reputation.
Name It and Shame It - The exercises
The early signs of gender-stereotyping are explored as pupils recall the toys they played with when very young.
Pupils identify the "unwritten rules" that govern their behaviour and minimise harassment: girls must not show too keen an interest in football or cut their hair too short; boys must not like dancing or hang around with girls too often.
Pupils list words used to insult others by focusing on sexuality or gender.
Different expectations of male and female behaviour are discussed: a typical observation is that a girl who has had several boyfriends is a "slapper", whereas a boy who has had several girlfriends is a "legend" or "player".
Pupils talk about whether certain types of behaviour are "harassment" or "fun".