Sexual harassment: silence and power
Below is my blog on the research I have recently completed on sexual harassment affecting secondary school students. Under that I have included the executive summary of the report. If you wish to read the full report, it can be found here.
For the past couple of months I have been researching and reporting on claims of sexual harassment by students at Christchurch Girls’ High School. In an anonymous and confidential survey, they were asked about their experiences of sexual harassment.
During the course of the study there was some media coverage from the UK. First was Keira Knightley’s story that she was sexually harassed every day of her life. Was this some celeb hyperbole (love that word, even if I can’t pronounce it) or something real? Then, in response to reports of high levels of sexual harassment towards schoolgirls, a national report from England by OFSTED, the review agency, that 90% of girls reported having been sexually harassed.
We already had our own study underway, of course. Ours did not show a 90% harassment rate, but certainly a 60% rate.
What it did show was that the 430 girls who had experienced sexual harassment had experienced it in total nearly 2700 times between February and May 2021. That made us think. 2700? How did that happen?
The harassment happened on the streets both near the school and in town, on the buses, at parties and really wherever the girls were. Most of the harassers were young males (48%) or older males (43%) with a smattering of workmates, family members, teachers and girls/women.
The most common harassments were verbal, including cat-calling, yelling, shaming. This may not sound so bad, but imagine if your daughter, aged 15, walked along a street and past a group of boys, who shouted out “B****” or “C***” or “I want to f*** you, or even, a phrase I haven’t heard since the 1970s but is apparently a meme on the internet, “get back to the kitchen”. Really? And the worst of the worst, delivered by a relatively young boy to a senior student walking past: “I want to f*** you ‘til your back breaks”.
Older males often appear in cars or on bikes, overtaking the young woman and harassing her. A group of them in a car might turn around two or three times to come back for more. It is terrifying. On bikes, cyclists might zip by yelling, or sometimes stalk a young woman down a street. One cyclist shouted “I want to rape you” to a girl, and she took shelter in a restaurant until he went, heart pounding. Younger males are, of course, everywhere the girls are. They seem to hunt in packs.
One of the questions unable to be answered by this study is whether there is a small number of repeat offenders out there, or lots of one-timers. Do groups of blokes get in their car every afternoon to abuse girls on their way home? Are they sort of career harassers? Does every young man have to perform a harassment or two as a rite of passage? Or are there, indeed, just a few performing their abusive rituals over and over?
Apart from the sheer number of events, there were more than 20 direct reports of rapes, with many more hinted at. We know that some young women chose not to complete the survey due to the overwhelming effect of their experience on them, which they wanted never to discuss. I expect some of these young women will read this blog and I don’t want to go into too much detail. Let’s just say that the worst of these was three separate incidents, all at parties, where drunk girls were led, on a false premise, into situations where a group of boys was waiting to have their way with her.
Was it three different groups, or is there a rape gang operating in Christchurch? Who knows? Because none of these events was ever reported, and in a couple of cases we were the first to have been told. None of the rapes – not one – was reported to the police.
Which leads me to the next bit. The silence. Girls reported feeling uncomfortable, upset, nervous, degraded, embarrassed and afraid as a result of their experiences. A good number of them fear it was their own fault.
But they change their behaviour. They love party skirts, but will never wear them again. They wear baggy clothing, loose jackets, shorts under school skirts, trousers where they can. They disguise their bodies. They take different routes home and avoid public transport in general and specific buses in particular.
They walk only during the day or in well-lit places. They avoid lonely roads. They walk with fear. They want to forget and find it hard. What many don’t realise, but was evident from the stories they told, is that they carry with them trauma and possibly PTSD. We also know, of course, that this does not just go away, and for some the scars will remain for life. The testimony of the victims of sexual abuse in state care shows that these things can shadow a whole life.
What has happened? Well, we have not yet done work on the why, but perhaps the influence of violent and deeply sexist rap songs, the ubiquitous internet delivering up porn, alongside old insults in new terms…. I don’t know. It does make me wonder, though, how relationships are going to go in the next generation, if the only terms by which boys can address girls are abusive ones.
The silence of the girls is what remains with me (I am one traumatised researcher, believe me, after working through all that material). I want them to start fighting back, taking photos, noting number plates, saying what happened to them, comparing notes. Not as vigilantes, but as witnesses to the harm.
As we congratulate our society for finally getting to the bottom of historical claims of sexual abuse by church and state, a tsunami of sexual harassment and abuse is coming to your school-aged children, right now, on your local streets.
sexual harassment survey in schools
This is a report of a whole of school survey carried out in May 2021 for Christchurch Girls’ High School. The research received formal ethical approval and operated an ‘opt in’ system for those under 15 (with parental consent) and an opt-out system for older students. The survey was sent to 1042 consented students and 725 participated, a response rate of 71.2%.
The survey included a definition of sexual harassment and 430 participants noted they had been harassed. Most stated it had occurred 2-5 times, but a quarter had been harassed more than ten times.
Harassment included verbal, space, written and physical or sexual contact. On average, those who had been harassed experienced 2.5 types of harassment.
exual harassment was most likely to take place outside school and around town, out socialising or on public transport. Online incidents were also common.
Men constitute 91% of the identified sexual harassers, including young men the same age as the students and older men. Most common events were cat-calling, body shaming and being rated on looks. Other forms were also frequent.
In 2021 to date, 381 participants report a very high 2677 incidents of sexual harassment, or seven per student who had experienced harassment. Most incidents were carried out by lone males, with one quarter by groups.
Students were asked to describe their ‘worst’ incident of sexual harassment. Over 20 students described being raped by individuals or groups. Many other incidents involved young males at social events, on the streets or on public transport. Egged on by friends, many comments were extreme and terrifying. Participants described many incidents of physical and sexual abuse. Almost the same number of events were caused by older males on the streets, either alone or in groups, often in cars. Older males also harassed students on public transport and in taxis and Ubers.
The worst incidents stirred up many feelings. Students were uncomfortable, nervous, degraded, upset, embarrassed and afraid, among other feelings. Only a tiny number, less than 10%, received any help or support. Most did not mention asking for help.
More than 60% of those who had experienced sexual harassment have changed aspects of their lives to try to ensure it does not happen again. The most common change is clothing, with students donning baggy clothing, jackets, shorts under skirts, trousers and other additional clothing to try to deflect attention.
Many have changed their routes home or become hyper-alert about who is on the streets. They avoid quiet streets and darkness. Many take multiple precautions.
A significant number have been harassed on school and town buses and work hard to change their routes, times, and bus habits. Many have stopped using buses at all.
Another strategy is to avoid boys, especially in groups. They might change direction, keep their heads down, pretend to talk on the phone and not go to particular places.
Other changes include no longer drinking alcohol, not going to parties, learning self-defence, never being alone and keeping their phone handy. Participants outlined a range of strategies to keep themselves safe. In most cases these work, but it does mean doing things differently but still living with the risk of harassment. Sometimes they lose friends as a result.
As a strategy, disclosure to others appears to be used very little, and fear prevents this increasing. While instituting personal changes can reduce exposure to sexual harassment, the overall threat does not reduce.
Those who have experienced sexual abuse seek safe spaces. They want to be able to talk openly about their experiences. Many think that harassment has been normalised as an expected part of the society.
Their main demand is to educate young men about the effects their abuse has on young women, how to stop being abusive and turn around their culture. In their own school, they want to receive active support, to know that wherever they seek help it will be available.
There is a need for education and discussion over what sexual harassment is. For example, is a little cat-calling just ‘good fun’, or the beginning of a pipeline of abuse? In particular, there is a need to break the code of silence that surrounds such discussions. They plead for more openness.
A key concern of this study is the very low level of reporting, including, apparently no reporting of individual or group assaults revealed in the study. The main barrier to reporting is the tendency for the victims of sexual harassment to be ashamed or embarrassed, and often to blame themselves, or fear that others will blame them. These barriers lead to unprecedented hiding of potentially serious crimes, and the potential also for perpetrators to realise they have got away with it and do it again.
The participants feel very powerless when being sexually harassed, no matter what the context or the actual harassment. A strong goal of schools needs to be helping to empower all their students against this kind of attack. This means bolstering their self-esteem, their ability to respond and to stop and prevent attacks.
Students are making many demands for change within the school setting and provided many examples of what could be done.
Of the participants, 78% knew of other people who had been sexually harassed over the past three years, but only 42% of those were students at the school, in line with the earlier discussion about non-disclosure. The rest were friends outside school, family members and others. On average, each participant knew of 1.5 people who had been sexually harassed over three years.
The age ranges of participants were from 12 to 18, with the modal age being 16. 93% identified as female and around 74% as straight. Nearly three quarters of students were Pākehā New Zealand with the others being Māori, Chinese and from a wide range of other cultures. Sexuality and ethnicity were both mentioned several times as aggravating factors in sexual harassment.
The study concluded with a discussion of areas that needed attending to and questions that should be answered.