Girls 'aren't strong enough to say no'

Girls walking to school
Image caption Sexual harassment of girls is too often accepted as part of school life, say MPs

As an MPs' report released on Tuesday reveals how sexual harassment has become a part of everyday life in English schools, one expert says inappropriate behaviour is often trivialised and classed as "banter".

Kerry Cabbin, the founder of Tough Cookies Education, which delivers workshops on sex and relationships to teenagers, says the digital age has created a culture where sexual bullying is considered a guide to whether boys like them and more targeted education is needed in the classrooms.

Image copyright Kerry Cabbin
Image caption Kerry Cabbin says sexual harassment is often dismissed as banter

Kerry Cabbin - Founder of Tough Cookies Education

Sexual harassment has become a major issue in schools in the UK.

This report by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee does not surprise me as it highlights many of the problems that young people face on a daily basis.

All too often sexual harassment and bullying is dismissed as banter.

The behaviour is considered to be flirtatious or a laugh by pupils. Far too often, young people do not realise that their actions constitute sexual harassment.

There's something about secondary school aged children - they are not being educated that this type of behaviour is not right.

The scale of sexual harassment

The MPs' report revealed 29% of 16-18 year old girls had said they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.

In 2015, a BBC Freedom of Information request found more than 5,500 alleged sex crimes in UK schools were reported to police in the past three years.

In 2010, a YouGov poll found 71% of girls had heard the terms "slut" or "slag" used towards them at school.

Through the workshops we deliver we have found that many young women see sexual harassment as an indication of whether a person likes them or not.

It is used as a guide to figure out if a boy fancies them. In the 1970s a boy would ask them out to the cinema, now girls think a boy likes them if they slap their bottom.

Young women are no longer feeling empowered. When we spoke to the teenage girls in our workshops, not one of them had been educated before on giving sexual consent.

Often, if someone wants to touch them sexually or kiss them they don't feel confident enough to say no. There are not enough girls that feel strong enough to stand up and say this is not acceptable.

Image copyright AndreyPopov
Image caption Mobile phones have impacted on teenagers' verbal interaction, says Ms Cabbin

The digital era has also played a part in this culture. Young people use their mobile phones to communicate so when it comes to verbal interaction it all gets a bit muddled.

We have found that young people have become desensitised to sexual language. In this day and age there is no watershed. Young people are exposed to sexual words and they are willing to use them in everyday settings.

Girls have become less offended so can hear words such as "slag" or "slut" and they don't think it is an issue. Often girls will even use these words themselves.

How to tackle the problem

The Commons Women and Equalities Committee made recommendations to the government which included:

  • The government must use the new Education Bill to ensure every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate must assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Every child at primary and secondary school must have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals.
  • All schools should collect data on reports of sexual harassment and violence. This data should be collated nationally and published annually.
  • The government should use the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying funding model to create a fund to support specialist sector organisations to use their expertise to help schools tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Young people need to realise that sexual harassment shouldn't be accepted but I wouldn't like to see all of this behaviour criminalised.

Pupils are often learning this behaviour from TV. In my day we watched Byker Grove but now children are watching Geordie Shore and Ex on the Beach.

They show this type of sexual harassment so teenagers begin to think that it is acceptable. They think "oh well, if they're showing it on TV then it must be OK".

'Education is the key'

I believe the majority of this inappropriate behaviour is not intended to damage or hurt the person it is targeted towards. It's seen as banter and a bit of fun.

Sexual harassment in schools needs to be treated as seriously as bullying. Many schools have moved forward and brought in specialist anti-bullying policies and sexual harassment needs to come under this umbrella.

Young people need to be educated and given the confidence to say that this behaviour is not acceptable. I believe that young people would listen to this education and would adapt and change the culture.

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