Recently, many strong girls from my old school have stepped forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault within the school community. The important conversations that stemmed from the brave survivors sharing their stories opened my eyes to the toxicity and rape-culture that is embedded in many school communities. Rape culture is defined by Vox as ‘a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.’ This regards more than the sexual assaults themselves- it is about the institutions and cultural norms that protect rapists, shame survivors and allow harassment to occur every day.
Girls at schools are hypersexualised and objectified. Dress codes are quite literally made around boys. The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ is thrown around as an excuse to police our bodies. In my five years at that school, I never saw a boy get dress-coded. Girls, however, would get dress-coded all the time, often for wearing something that would be acceptable on boys (like a tank top). Sometimes we would be told, ‘I can see your bra strap.’ What do you want us to do? What is so ‘provocative’ about a bra strap? Do we need to hide a strap of clothing from you? Girls can’t show their shoulders, because it will ‘distract’ boys. What is so distracting about our skin? At the all-girls school I currently attend, girls with ‘short’ skirts are told they are making the male members of staff ‘uncomfortable’. Why are adults looking at our bodies that way? Men should be able to control themselves and stop looking at us as purely sexual beings. This makes boys feel entitled to our bodies, and girls feel like our bodies are not our own. Stop telling girls what they can and cannot wear. Our bodies are not for you.
Growing up, if a boy is mean to a girl, he must ‘have a crush on her’. I remember in primary school these two boys would always follow my friend and me around and pull our hair. When we complained to our teachers, we were told they just had a crush on my friend and didn’t know how to express their feelings appropriately. Stop teaching girls that boys are mean to them because they like them. By saying things like ‘girls mature faster’, you are dismissing and allowing any bad behaviour from boys. Start teaching boys if they wish to communicate their affection for someone they should do so in a respectful, consensual and peaceful manner.
Students at many schools allocate a girl to be the ‘school slut’. Many girls who came forward with their stories explained how after they had been harassed, many friends turned on them, labelling them as a slut. This can be devastating to the mental health of survivors. Generally, girls who are more experienced are slut-shamed. This is hugely problematic. We should not be policing girls’ sexuality and shaming them for something that is meant to be enjoyable.
Additionally, when many survivors come forward with their stories, they are immediately asked: ‘Were you drunk?’ ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Why didn’t you come forward sooner?’ These sorts of questions feed into rape culture. Survivors are not to blame; no matter what they were wearing, if they were under the influence, or what time of day it was. Every single girl who came forward described how many people remained friends with their assaulters. Tonnes of people knew the guy they were friends with was a sexual assaulter but decided to look past it. The assaulter's life continued as usual after they completely changed the life of the survivors’. This makes me sick. When male survivors come forward, they are often told they should have ‘enjoyed it’ and don’t receive the support and justice they deserve. Many male survivors also may not come forward, as, from a very young age, boys are told to suppress their emotions. We need to change this.
So what can we do to ensure we are not contributing to rape culture? Stop victim-blaming. The only person responsible for rape is the rapist. Be there for survivors and believe them. False accusations are disgusting, but over the past 20 years, only 2–10% of reported rape allegations are false. Stop believing that all accusations fall into this category! Push schools to change dress codes. Stop policing girls’ bodies and sexuality. Hold assaulters accountable. Organisations like Hollaback are sharing information on what rape culture is. By recognising what rape culture is, we can start to tear it down.