Sexual harassment towards girls and young women has recently become shockingly apparent and hit the mainstream media as the growing number of testimonials on the Everyone’s Invited website shows. From the outset on the site, the experiences girls and young women share are explicit, distressing, and so beyond what most of us would describe as what our teenage years should be. Instead of being a time of exploration, discovery and change, girls are being abused, traumatised and robbed of their childhoods.
Including names of thousands of schools, colleges and universities, the stories are endless. With over 15,000 additions in the weeks following its initial coverage, no educational establishment can be complacent.
As women and girls find their voice and highlight the scale of the problem, we are left with the big question. How do we keep girls and young women safe?
We believe there are two options:
- Support and build the resilience of girls to deal with incidents.
- Address the attitudes and behaviour of boys and men who perpetrate and witness these incidents.
Think about their behaviour and the impact it has on girls and young women.
Respond when they witness sexual harassment by boys and men towards girls and young women
Educate their male peers and other men in their lives about the impact of sexual harassment
Men-only networks, clubs and friendship groups are more likely to condone sexual harassment and sexually aggressive behaviour or spread rape myths. These groups often pressure members to embody exaggerated ideals of manliness, legitimising sexual aggression. Despite only a minority of boys and men committing sexual assaults, what enables them to continue is that their peers rarely intervene.
The irony is that while sexual harassment is common in male students, it may not be as widely accepted as we think. Privately, boys and men often find sexually aggressive behaviour offensive but (wrongly) believe others endorse it. Fearing being judged or laughed at, they allow it to happen. This skewed perception can have serious consequences. Boys and men who believe others approve of sexist behaviour are more likely to engage in it. As they see silence as tacit support, they become more comfortable expressing sexist views and behaviours. Their willingness to do this has a knock-on effect where other boys and men believe these attitudes to be more common than they are!
Believing that other boys and men accept sexual harassment stops other boys and men from intervening. Boys’ and men’s perception of their peers’ attitudes is a strong predictor of whether they decide to intervene.
The most significant change we can make is to correct the misperception about what is acceptable behaviour towards women and girls. Boys and men often think that others are more comfortable with sexist attitudes and aggressive behaviour than themselves, which prevents them from speaking up.
We believe that we as a society can tackle sexism and aggressive behaviour against women and girls. So what we need is:
- More accurate information about what the actual norms around sexual harassment currently are. So that boys and men can feel more confident speaking out and intervening. It will also make the perpetrators aware what they do is not as acceptable as they thought.
- Skills to intervene and defuse situations that can lead to sexual assault. Boys and men need to exercise their empathy and practice interventions so they can effectively intervene in real-life scenarios.
- Easy to implement strategies for early interventions. Doing something small earlier is better than dealing with it when it is too late. Equipping boys and men with strategies to intervene in minor incidents builds confidence and can prevent serious sexual assaults later.
These steps make a difference as most people want to help but don’t know what to do. Over one-third of sexual assaults are witnessed by at least one person, who potentially could intervene but in most instances chooses not to do so. Being an ally, showing solidarity, or intervening as a bystander can positively impact girls’ and women’s experiences. It also sends a powerful message and sets a better example for other men so girls and women can live their lives without fear.