CW: sexual assault, harassment
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Sexual assault and harassment have been in the news a lot lately. A recent study conducted for UN Women has found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. The murder of Sarah Everard really brought the reality of things home to many women—it is a physical embodiment of the danger and fear that women experience every day. It is a tragedy and an outrage.
The discussions which have since arisen about how sexual assault and harassment can be reduced are plentiful, and I don’t profess to have all the solutions. However, this is my take on why the education system has a vital role to play in prevention.
The education system has been failing children in giving them practical world knowledge since forever. We already know this. Unfortunately, this has dangerous and horrific implications for the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. Schools must be at the forefront in prevention.
Fundamentally, sex education in schools is crucial to this. Every person I know at uni has had a different experience with sex ed in their school, and it is shocking how many people I know who didn’t receive any at all (the fact that it is more than zero is shocking enough).
Sex ed is something that children want and need. A study conducted in 2016 found that 74% of children aged 11-15 ‘said that all children would be safer if they had sex and relationship education suitable for their age’. Another study found that 50% of children did not learn how to get help if they had been abused, 53% did not recognise the signs of grooming for sexual exploitation, more than 4 in 10 had not learnt about healthy or abusive relationships, and 34% had not learnt about sexual consent.
Sex education needs to exist as a basic minimum in schools, and fundamentally, it needs to cover the importance of consent. There is so much focus on the train of thought that ‘teaching children about sex will just encourage them to do it‘, but not doing so creates a dangerous scenario in which young adults do not know about acceptable boundaries.
The arrogance of harassment is astounding, as it works off the principle that women owe their harassers something, be it a smile, gratitude for their lecherous compliments, nudes, or the right to physically use their body as they please. This is fundamentally wrong. Teaching the importance of consent from a young age is crucial to combatting this. If nothing else, teach boys that women are human beings and entitled to some damn respect.
A woman’s body is not public property. It is not something to be gawked at or touched without consent. We are not to be shouted at in the streets. Catcalling is not a compliment: it is terrifying, and it is harassment. Beyond teaching boys about consent, girls also need to learn to recognise harassment when it happens to them, and that it is not acceptable.
In 2017, MPs voted to make sex education compulsory in all primary and secondary schools, to be implemented by September 2020. However, parents still retain the right to pull their children out of sex ed classes and there remains a potential opt-out for faith schools. Faith schools make up 37% of all primary schools and 19% of all secondary schools across the UK. It is therefore clear that an alarmingly high number of children could miss out.
Beyond sex ed, schools contribute to the internalised idea that women should modify their behaviours because men cannot control themselves. By this, I mean dress codes. In February 2021, a 17-year-old girl was sent home by a female teacher for wearing an ‘inappropriate’ outfit which ‘could make a male student or teacher feel awkward’. The outfit in question included a turtleneck and a knee-length black dress, but included a lace trim which reminded the teacher of a ‘lingerie outfit’.
So, here we have many issues. First, a young woman has been told that she needs to modify her behaviour because it could be distracting. If a girl in a dress is distracting boys from their education, it is not the girl who needs speaking to in this scenario. Doing anything else is normalising the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and that it is okay for them to gawp at women because of what they are wearing.
This brings me to another crucial point: it is perpetuating victim blaming. It is saying to children that a woman is a sexual object and that boys are not responsible for their actions because of what she is wearing. It says that she is asking for it. And this is an unacceptable lesson to teach to impressionable young minds.
There is so much emphasis on teaching women how to keep themselves safe when we should be teaching boys to be better. We know it’s not all men. We know that. But when 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment before the age of 24, there need to be serious questions asked about how we allowed this to happen. There is so much more that schools could do in raising awareness.
This comes too late for so many women, including Sarah Everard, but we have to believe that it will get better.