Events this past year have highlighted the inequalities women and girls experience in a way rarely seen before. From increased rates of domestic abuse worldwide, to the disproportionate pressure put on women and girls in families to care for children, vulnerable and elderly family members and sick loved ones. Harassment from a young age is another inescapable facet of being a girl, it can be extremely damaging to a healthy sense of self; something that is essential to good mental health.
Content warning: this article discusses sexual harassment, abuse and mentions rape.
In March of this year, an inequality, that though likely not unknown to many was revealed to be rampant. In-school sexual harassment and abuse is an experience most women, girls and gender diverse people must withstand from a very young age.
In 2016, MP Maria Miller oversaw an extensive report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee which sought to dig down to the root of a problem that had been allowed to fester: sexual abuse and harassment in schools.
As of this month, a website titled Everyone’s Invited, a survivor, peer led space to signpost and collect anonymous testimonies by those who have experienced abuse, harassment as a result of rape culture, has over 15,000 anonymous testimonies.
The website was set up by Soma Sara who, whilst at University began sharing her experiences of sexual harassment and abuse as a young girl.
Reading the testimonies on this website is a stark and abhorrent reminder of just how rampant this kind of abuse and harassment is. Testimonies vary from those who experienced harassment and abuse as a late teen, at University, perpetrated by (overwhelmingly cisgendered boys and men) those the same age as them, to young girls of 10, 11, 12, who were groomed and abused by much older boys.
One of the first places boys learn that this kind of behaviour is acceptable, is at school. Quoted in The Guardian, MP Maria Miller said “Nothing has changed in the last five years”, meaning since her report in 2016, “Ofsted needs to now look at the data it’s been collecting to find out why the situation has not improved for children.”
There is real concern that although Miller’s recommendations from the 2016 report had been honoured by government, that schools aren’t upholding them. Miller noted how important it is to make it clear that “peer on peer abuse was not acceptable and could never be justified as part of growing up.”
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This notion that harassment, especially the kind that is deemed as ‘playful’ by teachers, as simply boys being boys, or hormonal teenagers is a poisonous idea that perpetuates the behaviours that escalate to rape.
Quoted in the same Guardian article, Jess Philips, shadow domestic violence and safeguarding minister has said “The government have known the scale of sexual harassment and abuse in schools, colleges and universities for years and have done nowhere near enough to tackle this endemic problem … The government must act urgently to ensure our education system never tolerates or allows for such behaviour or attitudes, and all students are protected.”
Harassment and abuse at an early age destabilises sense of self
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, ‘Impact of Sexual Harassment Victimization by Peers on Subsequent Adolescent Victimization and Adjustment’ found that sexual harassment against girls in grade 9 (ages 13,14) was “associated with elevated risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, maladaptive dieting, early dating, substance use and feeling unsafe at school.”
The conclusion of this study found that greater prevention and intervention efforts are needed to address this increasing endemic present in schools.
An earlier study from 2002, ‘Sexual Harassment and the Developing Sense of Self Among Adolescent Girls’ by, Helene Berman, Janet Izumi and Carrie Traher Arnold in Canada, stated “As a form of sexual violence, sexual harassment is a fundamental vehicle by which gender inequality is entrenched, expressed and reinforced in the lives of women and girls.” This study had an aim to detect the effects of sexual harassment on girl’s wellbeing and “developing sense of self”.
It goes on to say that the rhetoric of “boys will be boys” mentioned previously “is a phenomenon that cripples, girls, boys and their relations with themselves, others, and the world.”
On the affect of this response by the adults in the girls lives that were meant to act as authorities or protectors the study said, “The negation and trivialization of girls’ experiences, and their diminishing sense of selves, appears to be intensified by inappropriate responses on the part of trusted adults in whom the girls confide.”
What this means, is that not only does our culture trivialise the experiences of young girls, the lives of young girls, pressuring them to adhere to norms, ideal standards etc. which all intervenes with the way their sense of self would naturally develop; when girls are experiencing a trauma (which after all is what harassment and abuse is) the “lack of responsiveness” as the study states, by significant adults only works to further “erode” their experience of life and therefore their sense of self.
The study, identified the same patterns that have been revealed since the events around Everyone’s Invited has once again forced us to look at this uncomfortable topic.
The study said, “our data showed that classrooms and schoolyards had the potential to become toxic environments…charged with sexism and racism…girls reported incidents, initiated by male teachers, of unwanted touching…The perception among the girls was that they had little recourse to report these situations.”
Not only do girls’ learn to suppress and neglect their sense of self as a result of sexual harassment and abuse from a young age, they quickly learn that who they are, who they want to be is not ‘theirs’ but is a commodity or object. This results in girls not feeling safe or at home in themselves, one girl in the 2002 study noted that “I don’t wear makeup anymore. I just don’t do anything to give a guy even the slightest thought that I might be flirting”.
Girls, women, and gender diverse people experience a wide range of explicit and implicit, nuanced, subtle instances of harassing behaviours; all of which invade and violate their physical and psychological integrity.
But, this experience doesn’t have to be inevitable. The renewed focus on these experiences from women and girls, especially those where it happened in-school or were perpetrated by peers shows us that the very place that boys are learning that this behaviour is okay, is the same place where they can unlearn and re-learn.
This responsibility isn’t only on the boys themselves, however.
As the 2002 study mentioned above proves, the adults in girls lives who do not validate their experiences are doing just as much damage to their sense of safety, their sense of self and their psychological wellbeing.
The same 2002 study found that “even one adult with whom girls can talk, and from whom they can receive understanding and acceptance, provides a powerful buffer in dealing with challenging issues.” It is because of this fact that another appropriate response to the events in March of this year should be adequately trained wellbeing staff in schools, who understand how to respond to reports such as these.
On the website Everyone’s Invited, there is one account that is particularly upsetting, the anonymous testimonial writes, “I was regularly sexually harassed and groped by boys at school in front of teachers that ‘turned a blind eye’. One of these boys went on to sexually assault me and another raped me. I never reported any of it, I was too ashamed.”
This awful and upsetting story, as so many are on the site, is hard to read. It is a raw, unedited account of the reality of so many girls here in the UK and around the world. To tackle this and more importantly, to safeguard the sense of self and wellbeing of these girls we must look the problem in the eye, and take immediate action to provide spaces within our society where girls are listened to, affirmed and validated.
You can contact support for the issues discussed in this article on The Survivors Trust helpline on: 08088 010818 or contact them here. You can read more info on what constitutes as sexual harassment on Victim Support's page here.