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According to a recent report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCFS) more than 3,500 pupils are suspended each year due to sexual bullying. Equating to 19 suspensions each school day, the situation is becoming uncontrollable. This week Panorama broadcast a programme called Kids Behaving Badly (which can be viewed on BBC iPlayer) highlighting the prevalence and severity of sexual misconduct in schools across the UK. The title, however, was somewhat misleading.

While it suggests boys and girls are equally accountable for this behaviour, what this documentary exposed was the extent to which girls are victims of sexual harassment and physical assault from an increasingly younger age – beginning at nursery school level. Whereas for boys bullying predominantly takes the form of name-calling, with aspersions cast on their sexuality and sexual premise, girls not only have to contend with this, but also with lewd comments and threatening physical molestation. “Gay,” “lesbian,” “frigid,” and “slut” are used as part of an offence verbal currency (considered representative of sexual “abnormality”) that boys and girls spend frivolously. The documentary also found that schoolboys are vulnerable to sexual attack not by schoolgirls, but by their male classmates. This is a growing problem. Panorama, in conjunction with the charity Young Voice, conducted a survey of 273 children and youths and found that one in ten 11-19 year olds had been sexually bullied, a form of intimidation ranging from rumour-spreading about sexual activity to rape. Schoolchildren, specifically boys, are using sex as a form of power and control, but why? Why are they so sexually aware?

The programme was disturbing. One reason given for the growth in incidents was prevailing “gang culture” in parts of the country. Very often boys are encouraged to carry out sex acts for gang membership, and girls are given protection in return for their “favours.” While some girls consent to this, probably believing it’s easier to concede without fuss, others are forced against their will. Speaking anonymously, a number of parents relayed their daughter’s experiences. One 15-year-old girl from London was lured into a classroom by a group of boys and physically forced to perform a sex act. The girl was seriously affected afterwards and was too scared to go to school. When her parents sought a tutor from the local education authority they were informed that this service was only made available to pupils who had been excluded – more specifically, the girl’s abusers could have the privilege of a tutor but she could not (the provision was “not for victims”). As a result she transferred schools and feels insecure and scared in busy places (especially in the presence of groups of boys).

A 13-year-old girl from the south-east spoke of how crass comments made by one of her male peers quickly turned sinister. He sat next to her in assembly and lessons, stroking her chest and legs. She tried to ignore it until one day, while queuing for a class, he slid his fingers up her skirt and under her knickers. Her mother contacted the school and was told that the boy would be spoken to and his parents informed. It wasn’t considered a serious incident. Furthermore, having reported the episode, the girl was harassed by female classmates. One “friend” told her that everyone would now hate her, since the boy in question “does it to everyone” – apparently it was NOT a big deal.

In the west country, the mother of a five-year-old girl considered herself a failure after her daughter was molested by a male classmate. The police couldn’t get involved because of the boy’s age (and one does have to wonder why a five-year-old would act this way – what’s happening at home?). The little girl was scared and so conceded to his request to go to an empty room with him because she didn’t know what to do. He said he wanted to touch her and so she let him. A five-year-old little boy who has yet to go through puberty surely didn’t have these sexual inclinations? While I have previously read articles claiming that infants and children do masturbate, presumably this is owing to an innate sexual need and curiosity rather than an act with an overt sexual subtext resulting from sexual attraction to another person? That this boy saw his classmate as a sexual object was, then, the result of nurture, not nature. However, it is she who has had to move schools. It is she who was mentally scarred and has terrible nightmares.

Children now consider themselves sexual beings from a young age (well before they are physically mature), and as such want to explore their sexualities in a way they feel they are supposed to. Boys are growing up seeing women as nothing more than toys promising sexual gratification, and the prevailing attitude that this is “just boys being boys,” even though it is to the detriment of girls, is investing generations of young women with the belief that this is how they are supposed to be treated and something that has to be accepted. It is normalising the mistreatment of women. That schools tend to ignore this behaviour is unacceptable.

While the guilty boys are free to enjoy school with little or no disruption, their female victims are not only mentally and emotionally distressed but have to change their lives and circumstances to be protected from harassment. They have to bare the onus of responsibility. It is their education that potentially suffers. The implicit suggestion is that it is the girls who are at fault since they are the ones who suffer and are punished by often having to move schools, but for what? For nothing more than their sex. For having the audacity to have been born female. Ridiculous, isn’t it? A girl is groped or grabbed between the legs and is penalised for not keeping quiet. Grown women who are attacked are said to have asked for it – to be deserving – by wearing short skirts. It is the ease with which girls are positioned as the problem that silences women as they mature, which explains why so many of us are reluctant to speak out when we are sexually harassed in the work place and are raped. The current school situation suggests that this is only going to get worse.

Paula Telford, spokesperson for the NSPCC, believes that instead of such instances being dismissed as innocent childhood games, effective handling by schools could help to significantly reduce this trend. While not always the case, she said that this needs to be “nipped in the bud” from an early age since a percentage of boys who are overbearingly sexual do mature into aggressive and dangerous sex offenders. Not all, but enough to suggest that for the greater social good it should not be ignored. But, where did this problem originate? And why is it getting worse? That sex can be used as a tool of dominance and control is nothing new. That popular culture encourages young girls to aspire to sexual maturity and young men to lust after women in order to assert their masculinity has exacerbated the problem in the school yard.

Women are positioned as sexual commodities. Little ladies can now go to beauty parlours and have treatments and make-overs coveted by women more than three times their age. Before baby girls can walk mothers are bombarded with advertisements for tiny high-heels, designed to look cute, suggesting a maturity well beyond their years. Little girls can replicate the sexy styles of twenty-something women, wearing baby mini-skirts and halter-neck tops, knee-high boots and sparkly lip-gloss. Infants and young children are encouraged to look like smaller versions of grown women, shown-off like designer shoes while everyone speculates about their age.

Since popular culture has promoted the idea that little girls are little dolls, it’s not surprising that said little girls believe that’s their worth. It’s not surprising that little boys view said little girls as public property, expecting each one to react in an amenable and accommodating way. Similarly, computer games endorse violence against women. Female avatars are commonly presented as caricatures of the female form – big-breasted, tiny waisted beauties who must be killed as violently as possible. Young, impressionable boys are being conditioned to view women as sexual fodder that must obey their every command. Boys are told they have to be sexually candid and have sex with lots of women to be considered men. That doesn’t make it excusable, but what it does do is explain why these attitudes have filtered through to the playground and, like girls, boys can also be seen as victims of our over-sexed society.

That girls are being denied the right to an education without being sexually harassed does indicate that this has gone too far, but what can be done? Innocence, once lost, can never be returned. While schools can try their best to implement strategies to educate boys and girls about the ways to behave socially, this is a band-aid rather than a long-term solution. Girls can be encouraged to step forward and share their experiences in a non-judgemental environment (this should go without saying, anyway), but that sexual misconduct is flourishing in the playground suggests that maybe it’s too late for a reprieve?