Sexual harassment in schools. It starts younger than you think.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is said to be at “shocking” levels, with teenage girls being subjected to high levels of abuse. But this toxic behaviour from boys starts far earlier than their teens. 

The report, by the Women and Equalities Committee, has detailed the levels of sexual harassment in schools, which they say is not being tackled effectively in English schools.

The report found that:

  • almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
  • nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year

As the parent of a primary school age daughter, something that jumped out at me about these stats was the age range, which begins at 13. Because sexual harassment of girls at school begins far earlier than that.

When I collect my 4-year-old daughter from school, she tells me three things about her day. It’s a tradition which began at nursery, as it was the only way I could get her to tell me anything about her day.

It’s almost always positive, so I’ll often ask if anything she didn’t like happened. Generally, nothing does – but not this time.

4yo: “I didn’t like it when 2 boys tried to pull down my skirt and knickers.”

I tried to react in a calm, measured, and constructive manner. But didn’t entirely succeed. First I asked her to expand on what actually happened in more detail, such as who the boys were. I then asked what she said to the boys in response (“I said ‘Hey!'”), how they reacted (They carried on), whether she then went to the teacher (she didn’t).

I explained what she could have said to the boys (“Don’t do that. I don’t like it.”), and that she MUST tell the teacher.

But I realised I was being too critical about her reaction, and that was overshadowing the fact that she was unhappy and she was not the one who had done anything wrong. I was in essence – despite being a proudly feminist father – victim blaming her.

As soon as I realised, I stopped this approach. Instead comforted her and reassured her that what the boys did was wrong, and would it be ok if I talked to her teacher about it (it was). I felt she needed to be assured that her teachers agree this kind of behaviour was wrong. Telling them would be much like older girls and women reporting sexual assault to the authorities, so this was an important precedent to set.

Her teacher seemed to take my concerns seriously. They were going to talk to the class about bullying in general. But there was one thing I wanted to happen I was unsure was going to, and I didn’t follow it up: Were the boys in question going to be spoken to directly about their behaviour, and why it was wrong.

The Women and Equalities Committee report summary says “…if the Government is to tackle ‘lad culture’ successfully at university, its work should start much earlier, in schools.” I would add, that it needs to start in schools at the earliest opportunity.

The full report does clearly state:

By the time they reach secondary school children often have entrenched views about gender norms. It is therefore important that children are educated about gender equality, consent, relationships and sex in an age-appropriate way starting in primary school.

Absolutely. The kind of behaviour my daughter experienced at primary school needs to be addressed as soon as it occurs.  I bear no grudge against the two boys. They’re very young and were testing boundaries. But they need to know that they crossed a line here.

Left unchecked, a boy in reception who thinks that it’s ok to pull down a girl’s knickers may grow into a young man thinking he’s entitled to escalate this type of behaviour to women,


(Photo courtesy of Nick Page via Flickr)