Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sexual Bullying on the Playground

According to a recent report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCFS) in the UK, 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 program 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?
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.
Read the whole story here.

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