I remember being sat at the back of a history lesson in the mid-90s having some banter with a boy who called me ‘butch’. Rightly or wrongly I was extremely offended. I challenged the boy and probed him to explain, trying to hide my blushing face so I wasn’t subjugated further.
‘Well, I can’t explain it’, he said dismissively. ‘You’re not like all the other girls are you? You’re like one of the lads’. I was reluctant to respond, still hurt and trying to appease my own feelings of shame. Although I’d regained some dignity by being viewed as ‘one of the lads’ I was still winded by being seen as different from the other girls. I certainly wasn’t brave enough to own being an outcast and the controversial moniker ‘ladette’ was yet to rise and fall.
I look back now and cringe at the boy’s blatant gender stereotyping. His comment was by no means reinforced by my appearance. I had long blonde hair, a petite frame with full, yet round, gawky features. I wore a black mini skirt that was way too short, used too much insette hairspray on my sky high quiff, wore geisha like foundation with a deathly Rimmel heather shimmer. I was in every stereotypical sense prescribing to a feminine ideal but my behaviours, actions and beliefs did not comply with the mould. I was the girl sent out for talking, made one of the lads laugh so hard he peed, pranked teachers, spoke up, expressed opinions, and back chatted. I was loud, heard and noticed. The boy believed these characteristics were only reserved for boys and a girl inhabiting these behaviours compromised her femininity.
This memory was triggered when I read a recent ground-breaking study on sexism in schools. What I experienced in a 1995 classroom was a Wonderwall of sexism, we just didn’t have the language for it then. But the shocking results generated by the study ‘It’s just everywhere’ by UK Feminista and NEU evidences that ‘schools, education bodies and government must take urgent action to tackle sexism in schools’.
In summary the report found that sexual harassment is highly prevalent in schools and is also gendered, overwhelmingly involving boys targeting girls.
Over a third (37%) of female students at mixed-sex schools have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the classroom.
Almost a quarter of female girls (24%) have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature.
Almost one in three (32%) teachers witnessed sexual harassment in their school on at least a weekly basis.
I reflect again on an early-90s memory but this time I was in science and if my memory serves me well I was 12. Two boys invented a ‘skirt lifting’ device that they clamped to the bottom of my skirt so they could lift it as I reached over to turn on the Bunsen burner. This happened in full view of the teacher, but yet it was left to me to confront and challenge them, of course I was loud and ‘butch’ I could deal with it. It didn’t take much before I was having to bat away a diatribe of sexist language ‘frigid bitch, slag, whore’ because I’d dared to assert my rights and god forbid express anger towards them for violating my body.
Unfortunately the report highlights that the use of misogynistic language is still commonplace in schools.
The most brutal and psychologically exhausting form of sexism I faced in school however, was the gender based biases from teachers. These beliefs were entrenched and the power imbalance palpable. One teacher would openly refer to the boisterous girls as ‘slags’ and speak to them with a patronising tone ‘because they weren’t going to aspire to anything’. In her mind, vocal girls constituted promiscuity. This same teacher would also physically recoil in sex education classes when girls openly talked about their periods, reinforcing to the boys that it was ‘wrong’ ‘gross’ and ‘minging’. Another male teacher would make sexually inappropriate remarks about the size of girl’s breasts, how he was ‘surprised she could fit round the corner’, another teacher was convicted of the sexual assault of a minor, no sorry, I’m sick and tired of sugar coating what was actually the rape of a young girl.
The report uncovers statistics that would shock some but bring no surprise to others working in the field. Gender stereotyping is acknowledged in the study as a typical feature of school culture, often reinforced through mundane, everyday actions.
I was punched in the face once by a boy, this time in French class. I was 14. I believe he felt he needed to teach me a lesson that I should pipe down and be quiet and not dare answer back. Here lies the link between sexism and violence towards women and girls. The teacher did absolutely nothing. It was my parents that chased it up before the school responded. I can’t remember him being sanctioned or reprimanded and I believe we had to sit in the same room together and ‘talk about’ our behaviour towards each other. I’ve often wondered what happened to this boy and if violence and abuse is a common feature in his intimate relationships. Here was an opportunity for the school leaders to realise that there was an issue and to begin educating us on gender based violence and sexism, but no one was accepting responsibility.
Mary Boustead and Kevin Courtney General secretaries at the National Education Union said ‘We need to understand what creates sexism and expose the attitudes which repeat the patterns of harmful experiences that women and girls face. We need to break the mould – the expectations about men and women, and girls and boys that perpetuate harassment and gender injustice’.
Fast forward to 2019 and the report proves that the sands haven’t shifted. In fact when the Women and Equalities Select Committee launched an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools it emerged that girls were being kissed, groped, slapped and sexually assaulted. They also reported being pressured into sexting, were verbally abused daily and were dismissed with the excuse that ‘boys will be boys’ when they made complaints.
Furthermore, as journalist for The Guardian Lola Okolosie emphasises ‘figures obtained following a Freedom of Information request by BBC Radio 5 Live revealed that these included nearly 4,000 indecent assaults and more than 600 rapes. More than 1,500 victims were under 13 and most were primary and secondary school pupils. At least a fifth of the reports related to abuse carried out by other children. In some cases the victim and the abuser were both as young as five’.
I reflect back on my 1990s education and realise that gender based beliefs and assumptions about the differences between boys and girls behaviour had a harmful impact on our aspirations. It restricted us, whilst liberating prejudice and discrimination. I ruminate on my actions, appearance and behaviours now and feel that I am neither feminine nor masculine but somewhere in between, neutral, dare I say equal. However, I have had to battle to get to this place, where I can own my identity and not feel the need to comply to sociological constructs of how I am supposed to behave and appear. If reading the NEU and Feminista UK report has made me think of anything it’s this; where would I be if my school hadn’t placed such arbitrary restrictions on my aspirations because of my gender?