We need to talk about schools’ dismissal of sexual harassment against young women

Picture this. Opening social media one day, I innocently scrolled through my timeline as usual, skimming over various hot takes of the week. After a normal flurry of news updates, gram pics and witty tweets, I came across a quote tweet of an article that gave me an unexpected blast from the past. The article in question was from The Mirror, who had claimed that schools were informing female students to wear shorts underneath their skirts to avoid ‘up skirting,’ which is a form of sexual harassment where skirts are lifted to look at girls’ underwear. The user who had shared the article left a lovely misogynistic comment, oh-so-generously placing blame and responsibility entirely on girls for their choices in clothing, rather than condemning male students for sexualising their peers.

Upskirting is illegal: Women's Aid back victims of image-based sexual abuse
‘Up skirting is a form of sexual harassment where skirts are lifted to look at girls’ underwear.”

The article was enraging, but not shocking. In recent years, feminist discourse and media outlets have stressed the lack of attention around sexual harassment within schools and towards young girls in general. In June 2021, ITV’s coverage showed that sexual harassment had become normalised to the point where students did not see the point in reporting it. Even more worryingly, 150 victims of upskirting were children. Victims are so used to enduring it, meanwhile teachers often underestimate the situation and therefore fail to report it. Not to our surprise, the default solution amongst schools seems to be to place the blame on the girls’ choice of clothing. These responses have not been well received; Norwich Academy, as just one example, was recently criticised for its misogynistic advice to female students not to wear short skirts or coloured bras to avoid unwanted attention. It is a tale as old as time.

My school faced something similar in 2012. I was 14 or 15 years old and had previously been given the liberty to wear skirts through my primary and secondary education. This luxury was soon taken from us, with skirts becoming banned completely and trousers becoming compulsory for all girls. When I caught up with my friends to get their perspectives on the events, we remembered that the motive behind the ban was to prevent boys hanging under stairs or deliberately walking at a distance to catch a glimpse of our skirts. To our memory, there were never any disciplinary actions given to the boys who had been caught doing this behaviour. No punishment. No justice. No educating. The situation was swiftly dismissed and girls were the ones who were taught that they had to change. Feels familiar, right? The school seemingly wanted to brush away the issue as quickly and easily as possible, and it was never brought up again. Even when I was eventually allowed to wear my skirt again, it felt alien to me, and I was paranoid about provoking male attention.

Amanda Spielman speech to the SCHOOLS NorthEast summit - GOV.UK
Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman

OFSTED inspector Amanda Spielman put it best, “It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to expect sexual harassment as part of growing up.” And unfortunately, when growing up as a girl that’s exactly what you learn to do. The first personal instance I can remember is waiting outside a grocery on the high street whilst my mum was inside shopping, when a group of grown men catcalled me from a car. I was in my school uniform – quite obviously a minor – but that didn’t matter to them. I just had to endure their comments and ignore them until they left me alone. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

From young adolescence, the female body is battered by sexualisation and objectification from every angle. Meanwhile, she is taught to believe that the attention they receive is their responsibility; their fault. Up-skirting has only just been classed as a criminal offence after Gina Martin, a victim herself, tirelessly campaigned for its legal recognition in 2019, and now offenders can face up to two years of prison. Whilst this is progress, we must remember how many men and women before this have grown up normalising this culture of entitlement and objectification.

Upskirting law: Upskirting now a CRIME - What does upskirting mean? | UK |  News | Express.co.uk
Upskirting law: Upskirting is now a crime thanks to campaigning from Gina Martin (Image: BBC)

As I reminisced more about the instance, I wished something more had been done at the time. I also thought about how many other countless women could recall similar experiences to mine. I reached out to my school to discuss it, but unfortunately, we were unable to. Perhaps their silence says it all. Women are tired of bearing the burden of the actions of men. We are tired of having to defend ourselves. We can campaign as much as we want, but it means nothing if boys are continually being raised upon misogynistic values. Schools are essential in shaping a young person’s experience and education of consent. It’s not just about educating boys about male entitlement, but also about helping children (especially young women) to understand what harassment is, who to go to for support, and that it is not shameful to report it. Schools must do more than just react – they must be proactive in fighting the culture of violence and harassment towards young women in their communities.

BEFORE YOU GO...Have you read: Women’s charity founder: “Return of Taliban will leave women vulnerable to traffickers"

The best news, stories and features from the month, in one perfectly formed email. Lifestyle, fashion, politics, entertainment news and exclusive content, straight to your inbox. Sign up to our mailing list below to get your FREE feminist starter pack!

By entering my email address, I am agreeing to being contacted by TNF for news, offers and more. For more information please see our Privacy Policy.