Out of public view, far from the high-profile convictions, sexual harassment is still scarily common.
This article has won the Guardian Foundation’s 2021 Young Hugo award, which champions political opinion writing among 16- to 18-year-olds
Women’s rights have been the focus of many protests in Britain this year. After the rape and murder of Sarah Everard and the killing of the teacher Sabina Nessa, women demonstrated over the lack of safety on the country’s streets.
Beyond British shores, when news broke that the Taliban had once again begun restricting Afghan women’s lives and the debate about the legitimacy of abortion restarted in the US, it became clear that the threat to women’s rights was increasing around the world.
Among all this discourse over women and their bodies, the fourth anniversary of the #MeToo movement took place this October. This all raises the question: what impact has #MeToo had on the world, if any?
The movement has certainly made a difference in Hollywood, leading to the arrest and conviction of powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein. However, sexism and sexual harassment are not only found in Hollywood but also closer to home, in our schools, our workplaces and our everyday lives.
A YouGov poll carried out in March 2021 for UN Women UK found that seven out of 10 women surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment in public; for younger women the proportion was nearly nine out of 10. A report by a group of British MPs and peers set up to support UN Women UK’s work concludes that “sexual harassment in public places continues to be highly prevalent and concerning”.
Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project in the UK, has said: “Many people would like to think that workplace sexual harassment is a thing of the past. In reality, it is alive and well, and having a huge impact on tens of thousands of women’s lives.”
Even more concerning is the number of sexual assault cases in schools. A BBC investigation revealed that at least 13,000 sex offences involving under-18s were reported to police in England and Wales every year between 2018 and 2020, and the education inspectorate Ofsted says sexual harassment has become “normalised” among school-age children.
This level of cases creates a dangerous environment and culture among students and a mindset that regards sexual abuse or harassment of any kind as a normal and acceptable part of society; a mindset that can then be carried into adulthood and the workplace.
I can attest from personal experience that sexual harassment in schools is scarily common, to the extent that it is considered ordinary classroom banter among boys. What is even more rife within the school environment is the presentation and exchange of nude images. Many of my female friends, and even occasionally I, receive unwanted explicit images that we try to ignore or delete.
Making the situation worse is the lack of reports made by students to teachers about the behaviour because, as Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said in an interview: “Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.”
It has been suggested that this could be the result of a lack of education about what is considered assault, or from a history of schools failing to take cases brought to them seriously. From my experience, I would say that both are sadly true.
However, an anonymous system, whereby pupils can submit their cases to a trusted teacher or member of staff without having to go to them in person, has been shown to be effective at allowing students who might otherwise feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences the opportunity to report their cases. However, this has not yet been widely implemented in British schools.
I hadn’t even realised how detrimental the culture we have created is until I began researching for this article: I can now see more clearly that the behaviour I would have previously dismissed is dangerous. It shows how far we still must go even after the upheaval the #MeToo movement created.
To me, it seems that sexual harassment is still happening, the only difference is that now we’re much more aware of it. But awareness is perhaps the first step in eradicating the threat of sexual assault that many of us feel daily, and in slowly dismantling the dangerous culture created by decades of silence.
The article was originally published in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/02/metoo-women-girls-convictions-sexual-harassment-schools-workplaces