When my daughter started in reception at her state primary school, five years ago, the boys in her class swiftly became obsessed with Panini football stickers. They’d bring their albums into the playground: swap cards, scuffle over who had the higher-rated players, try to outdo each other by collecting the most. Now that my son is in reception, it’s Pokemon cards. They, too, compete to build up the most valuable set. But what if those cards weren’t footballers, or tiny, yellow pocket monsters? What if they were naked photos of the girls in their class?
It sounds ridiculous to the point of being shocking to draw a comparison between the two – but that’s what we have to do, because it’s happening. This week, an Ofsted report found that boys at schools and colleges in the UK are sharing explicit images of girls at school on platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat like a “collection game”: something to brag about, something to compete over, something to “win” or to “get”.
It also found that sexual harassment – including misogynistic name calling and sending or receiving unsolicited explicit footage or images – of students in schools and colleges in the UK has become “normalised”; so commonplace that many young girls don’t even bother reporting it.
When I was at school, we didn’t have cyber-bullying or harassment – we didn’t even have mobile phones. But we did have grabbing and unwanted touching and “hilarious” nicknames such as “tits” and “pancake”; we did have older, male teachers who would tell us we were “sexy” and should “be models when we grew up”, and we knew – as well as we knew our times tables – not to get left behind in class or after P.E with those teachers, because they were known “pervs”. One liked to watch the boys take a shower after a rugby game, another used to press himself against us girls – unnecessarily tightly, stiflingly close – to show us how to hold a hockey stick.
We also knew the boys to avoid at parties: there was one whose nickname was “the groper”, another who would only talk to your chest, one who delighted in making sexual comments so explicit we would literally blush. Once, some boys tried to pay me £5 to kiss someone. Another time, a boy joked that he would take my virginity in return for a vodka and coke.
Then, there were the most serious incidents of assault and harassment: the physical violations at parties – even rapes. We didn’t understand, then, what was happening; how wrong it was; that it didn’t matter if you “fancied them”, or had drunk too much. We didn’t know we could say “no”, because we didn’t know that much about consent – it wasn’t really talked about in the 1990s. And so, we buried those experiences in shame and stigma, and told ourselves it was just part of growing up.
We know now, but – crucially – nothing appears to have changed. It’s been 22 years since I left school, but what this recent Ofsted report shows is that we haven’t moved on substantially enough; if we’ve moved on at all. We might be having conversations more widely about consent and bodily autonomy, but it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference to the outcome. Boys become men, and a great number of men aren’t listening. In ways, it’s even worse for girls now than it was when I was a teenager – at least we didn’t have easy access to the internet. I dread to think what it would’ve been like if we’d been online.
To say I find myself “worrying” about this would be an understatement. I find myself near-on panicking about this, because I have a nine-year-old daughter who’s on the cusp of becoming a young woman, and a son who will – one day – likely face these very same kinds of pressures. I fear for both of them.
Perhaps we’ve only got ourselves to blame: after all, what can we expect from our children when we live in a society that so often likes to explain away bad behaviour as, “boys will be boys”; and where rape convictions are at a record low? What does that teach our children? Isn’t it entirely possible that the reason young girls “don’t bother” reporting assault, sexual harassment and revenge porn is because so often nothing is done about it – leading to a general feeling of powerlessness; a wider sense of ennui and defeatism; a hefty sigh and a sense of, “oh, what’s the point”?
This isn’t good enough for our kids. It’s not safe for our girls, and it does our boys a disservice, too. We need to expect more, praise more, push for more from our justice system – and ourselves. As parents, we need to stop being embarrassed and talk to our children about sex: try to avoid cloaking it in shame; teach boys and girls that porn isn’t representative of real life; and remind them that sharing explicit footage without someone’s consent could get you sent to prison.
In some ways, mums and dads also need to get real: our children will have mobile phones, mobile phones have cameras, kids are curious. They’ll likely take suggestive pictures at some stage. Perhaps, then, we should encourage them to keep their faces out of them – at the very least. Implore them that if they are going to show someone (despite our best encouragement not to), then show them on their handset: never, ever send them out, because once they’re out, they fly.
We also need to alter what we mean when we say that dreadful phrase, “boys will be boys”. My son is four and I hear it all the time from the parents, carers and grandparents around me. Let’s change the narrative: let it become a mantra about not getting away with bad behaviour, but calling out bad behaviour when we see it. That’s “brave”, that’s “macho” – if you want to think about it in those terms. That’s what “being a man” should really be about: growing a pair and respecting women.