There’s no doubt the sexual harassment of teenage girls continues in schools despite all the public discourse and political rhetoric in Australia over the past few months. We are talking about behaviours that are so entrenched in our schools and society at large that I believe it will take at least a generation or two to clear out (if we are lucky).
At a dinner party with friends recently, I had the pleasure of chatting to a couple of girls in their final year of high school. It wasn’t long before Jamie* was telling me about the discomfort she and friends feel due to the frequent commentary from male peers about their “body count”.
What is a body count?
A body count is the number of girls these boys have had sex with. Apparently, it is common for some boys to boast about this count, ask girls to add to it and so on. This all happens while these teenagers are trying to complete their most important year of schooling.
Rage rose within me as I heard this story and I had to pause to take a deep breath or two. Aside from the appalling language used by the boys – body counts generally describe dead bodies – the fact these girls could not complete their education without sexual harassment is unconscionable.
When I asked Jamie about the reporting mechanisms she could use to have the behaviour stopped, her answers were disappointingly and sadly familiar.
She said nothing would be done about one of the ringleaders because he is a [insert one of the following: rising sports star/father is rich/parent is a barrister] and therefore untouchable. She said the boys had been spoken to previously and nothing changed. Finally, Jamie said there was no point going to Mrs X because, “ She thinks there is nothing you can do about it and will just tell us to ignore it.”
Every woman and teenage girl at the table was familiar with these types of answers because we have all used them. Our reasoning for these responses is sound and based on our real-life experiences. But it is also one of the reasons nothing has changed since I was in high school.
It is a lot to ask a teenage girl to report these behaviours. It requires strength and courage to stand up and call these out in schools. Teenagers can be just as unforgiving as adults when someone attempts to disrupt the status quo.
What are the reporting mechanisms in schools?
Fortunately, after further discussion, Jamie was able to identify an individual teacher who might be sympathetic and more likely to take action. But I was disappointed her school had not yet established or clearly communicated reporting processes to empower their students.Frankly, the school should have had established pathways so Jamie knew who she could talk to. Ideally, every teacher should also be trained in receiving and following through on these complaints so students feel safe.
If you have a school-aged child or teenager, I would recommend asking the school what their reporting and processes are for sexual harassment and abuse complaints by students and how these processes are monitored and assessed. I would also ask how their teaching and administration staff are trained and supported to manage these processes. I know many women in particular are seeking ways to help create the changes we know are needed and this might be a way you can be involved in your community.
Girls should be able to attend school and be safe from harassment. But they’re not. Many of you may feel surprise this is still an issue. You may wonder how it is not solved yet. After all, haven’t we talked about it enough? I am also aware some parents are still indulging in hopeful naivete when it comes to the behaviours of their teenage children. Comments like, “My son wouldn’t even know about that stuff/would never say something like that” are still common.
I understand these reactions and wish it was that simple. But the truth is, this problem is not going away in the near future and it is widespread. Teenage boys are certainly hearing this type of commentary at school even if they are not participating in these behaviours. This is an uncomfortable truth we all need to face directly if we are to change things. We need to have frequent, open and honest conversations with young people about these issues. The time for believing we are protecting them by not discussing things is over – that approach only puts them at higher risk.
On a personal note, I found it interesting that when discussing the issue with Jamie, I did not look towards any man at the table for support in helping her to work out the next steps. It was her mother and the other women and girls I looked to. This was not intentional exclusion on my part and certainly her male relatives were concerned about Jamie’s experience. I suspect my approach was a default response because I have given up waiting for men to step forward to address these issues and indeed, I have no expectations they will. It is still a rarity when I do see a man or boy speak up or more importantly, be willing to act in these situations. I hope this changes in my lifetime but, for now, I know it is women and girls who must continue to be strong, courageous and take the lead in this battle.