Rape culture in UK secondary schools

closeup of a girl's eyes
Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

I recently watched the BBC documentary, presented by Love Island’s Zara McDermott, entitled Uncovering Rape Culture. The documentary focuses on sexism and rape culture within UK schools. McDermott herself describes an incident where a teenage boy in his school uniform pinned her (then aged 20) up against a fence and sexually assaulted her.

McDermott also speaks to teenage girls and boys about their experiences and views on rape culture within schools. The website Everyone’s Invited was featured as well. Everyone’s Invited enables people to anonymously post their testimonials of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, alongside the school, college or university where it happened. Although visitors to the site can’t see which incidents relate to which school, the site does publish a separate list of every school, college and university which is mentioned. Unsurprisingly, my secondary school and university both feature on those lists.

The documentary and reading testimonials on Everyone’s Invited got me thinking about my own experience as a girl going through the education system in the UK. These are the incidents I can remember.

The first time a boy made me feel uncomfortable was when I was nine. A few boys in my class would go up to girls and ask if they had a ‘fish shop’. They meant it as a euphemism for vagina. Both “yes” and “no” answers were equally funny to them.

When I was 11 and starting secondary school, boys started openly talking about porn in the classroom. Although this may sound shocking, it seems to line up with when children first become exposed to online pornography. According to research commissioned by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), over half of 11-13 year-olds had seen porn at some point, despite 75% of parents believing their child had not viewed pornography. Education around this topic in sex and relationship education lessons is rare.

When I was 12, two boys in my geography class repeatedly asked the young, inexperienced student teacher if she was going to the local underage club night so they could “get with” her. This was probably the first time I noticed boys targeting someone they deemed to be vulnerable. They never treated older, more experienced and permanent female teachers the way they treated the 21-year-old student teacher.

When I was 14, a boy in my top set GCSE science class grabbed his genitals (thankfully still within his trousers), thumped them on the lab bench in front of me and my friends. He laughed at us when we instinctively glanced down. That particular incident really felt like he was trying to make us feel uncomfortable, purely for the sake of making us feel uncomfortable.

By the time I was 14, boys had gone beyond openly talking about porn in the classroom, to trying to engage girls in that conversation – usually in order to try and embarrass them and make them feel uncomfortable, in a similar way to what the boy in my science class did.

From the North East

It began to escalate after that, beyond conversations that would make girls feel uncomfortable in school. When I was around 14, a group of boys would squeeze the bums of girls in the year group. It was often in crowded corridors between lessons, so girls often didn’t know exactly who it was.

I remember the first time it happened to me, it was when I was walking up a very packed staircase to RE. They seemed to target the quiet introverted girls who were more easily embarrassed by it and therefore less likely to say anything. The last time it was when we were walking back to school, as a year group with teachers present, from the school’s other campus on the other side of the town. I turned around and there was just one boy behind me, so that time I knew exactly who it was. I shouted at him, asked him if he realised it was sexual assault. I remember the look on his face was like no one had ever told him that groping girls wasn’t okay.

The one thing I regret is not telling a member of staff. To my knowledge, the closest anyone ever came to telling a teacher was my friend, who was targeted far more than I was. I persuaded her to tell her tutor, but she decided not to at the last minute. She was too embarrassed to say anything, especially to her male tutor.

I left secondary school nearly a decade ago and these are just the snippets I can remember in detail, these are far from the only incidents. I also don’t think that my experience was unusual. The very sad thing is, I actually think I got ‘let off’ pretty lightly compared with other girls.

What these sorts of incidents do is create an environment where girls don’t want to be, or at least are made to feel uncomfortable in.

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