Fighting sexism in schools and everywhere

Everyone’s Invited

By Soma Sara

Published by Simon and Schuster, 2022, £9.99

Reviewed by Helen Pattison

From the National Science Foundation, which recently commissioned a report into sexual harassment at their Antarctic research station; to the World Health Organisation’s three-year strategy aimed at driving “systematic change to tackle sexual misconduct” by its own personnel and partners; to #MeToo in Hollywood; to the London Fire Brigade. Clearly sexual harassment is everywhere, in all corners of society, affecting people in all walks of life, on a huge scale.

According to research by the NEU teachers union in Britain, over one-third of female students in mixed-sex schools have experienced sexual harassment, including nearly 25% subjected to unwanted touching. Students who experience sexual assault are more likely to have poor attendance at school and can suffer from mental health problems following assaults. In the US, a recent survey on young people and their mental health by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a big increase in levels of depression among girls – 57% suffering compared to 29% of boys. Up to 18% had experienced sexual harassment, and 14% of respondents reported being raped. This is the real and long-term impact of sexual harassment and rape of young women.

In June 2020, Soma Sara launched the website Everyone’s Invited in Britain, which helped expose sexual harassment in schools. Now she has published a book with the same name. Mainly school students posted hundreds and then thousands of reports of sexual harassment on the website. Students as young as 12 were reporting on the harassing behaviour they had experienced. When the list of the names of schools was totted up it spanned over one hundred pages of text. The website got a lot of media attention and caused shockwaves. Not just because of the extent of sexual harassment it exposed, but also because of the high proportion of private and grammar schools mentioned by the students. They also reported the ways in which school management had dealt poorly with accusations of harassment. The website exposed that sexism and harassment are experienced by people of all class backgrounds, and challenged the assumption that they are just a problem in state schools. Soma Sara herself went to an independent all-girls school which cost over £10,000 per term.

Of course, sexism and sexual harassment are not new problems, and women today are not the first to organise against, or to discuss the impact of sexism on themselves, their peers or throughout society. But today’s young women are experiencing sexism in a world of social media and a 24-hour news cycle. With access to social media, sexist bullying and harassment can follow students 24/7. Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, said it was shocking that pre-teens had so much access to smartphones and the internet. But it’s not enough to be shocked – it’s a reality. It brings new challenges, because of the extent and the younger age that people access unrealistic representations of sex. But Ofsted doesn’t exist to challenge sexism and other oppressions in schools, and it doesn’t have the answers to how this could be done.

Currently one-third of students say they have learnt more from porn than from their formal education about sex and relationships. Access to phones and the internet also means that actions like revenge porn, exploitation and harassment can spread extremely quickly. The scale of revenge porn and harassment isn’t recorded by the government. However, under pressure, a revenge porn helpline was launched. Reports soared from 400 in 2018, before the helpline, to over 4,000 in 2021. But, in reality, the issue just isn’t taken seriously enough.

The education system as a whole is not organised in a way to challenge sexism, harassment and abuse: on the contrary. Both the syllabus and the rules that students and teachers are expected to follow are set by the government, and reflect the class interests they represent. In 2020, schools were banned from using material by any anti-capitalist group. Under the Prevent scheme, teachers are expected to report children who oppose ‘British values’ to the police.  Guidance given to teachers stated that criticising the media could be a sign of radicalisation and concern.

In 2021, at Pimlico academy – part of a chain of schools run by Tory-supporting Lord and Lady Nash – the head teacher brought in a racist dress code. Students protested and the head retaliated by flying the Union Jack over the entrance to the school, which has students from a huge diversity of backgrounds. How can a school system controlled in this way challenge divisive ideas like sexism and racism?  

In fact, the Tories are doing the opposite. Criticising ‘inappropriate’ material they are using the small improvements which have been made to sex and relationship education to stoke up divisions, and attempt to divert the huge level of anger at government policies and the cost-of-living crisis.

The most effective way to develop student-appropriate materials and education is though democratic discussion involving students, teachers and parents. Democratic control of schools would be a vital step towards tackling sexism, harassment and abuse. That would mean ending the academisation and marketisation of our system. Students, organised in democratic student bodies, should have a say in how discussions around sex, consent, gender, and relationships are presented. This would need to be properly funded. Very few teachers have received any training on how to deal with sexual harassment, and just one in five said they would be confident to deliver lessons on sex and relationships.

It was clear from the first media reports of Everyone’s Invited that many schools don’t have procedures in place which meet the interests of students if allegations of sexual harassment or rape are made. They tend to put the school’s image first and the victim last. There would need to be democratic control over the complaints procedure by students, staff, and the trade union movement to ensure that victims get the support they need, and that procedures are properly enforced.

But the education system is just part of the problem. Sexism and gender violence have their historic roots in the development of private property, class divisions, and male authority and control over the reproduction, sexuality and behaviour of women. The way that the capitalism system is structured and organised reinforces and perpetuates ideas about gender that have hung around from thousands of years ago. One side of this is the continuing economic inequality women face in the workplace and the ‘motherhood’ penalty they pay throughout their working lives. The other side is the enormous profits that can be made from exploiting existing inequalities and gender stereotypes in the media, beauty, leisure industries etc.

Apps such as those with videos of the extremely misogynistic Andrew Tate, which are going viral among boys and young men, make shareholders and ‘influencers’ big profits. According to Sara’s book, social media is a driving force for the $500 billion global beauty industry. She quotes a social media charity 5Rights Foundation, which states that: “In pursuit of profit these companies are stealing children’s time, self-esteem and mental health, and sometimes tragically their lives… This is an entirely human-made world, largely privately owned, designed to optimise for commercial purposes – it does not have to be like this”. This hits the nail on the head. The pressure of profit is put before everything else. Soma Sara hopes to rebalance this order – placing rights before profit – but that can’t be done without ending capitalist control of social media and all the industries that exploit in the pursuit of profit.

Sara is right when she highlights that people are socialised into different gender roles as soon as they are born, and that this socialisation continues throughout our lives. We can see this in advertising and in children’s toys. Social expectations on gender even impact how people speak to babies. They are reflected  in the judiciary and the low levels of reporting and conviction of sexual crimes. But it will not be enough for women to embrace the ‘male’ trait of confidence or men to adopt the ‘female’ trait of empathy, as Sara proposes. We are all continually impacted by the attitudes and ideas in society as a whole. Therefore to really challenge sexism and all other forms of oppression means fighting and offering an alternative to the capitalism system from which those ideas continue to flow: a socialist alternative in which the major industries are publicly owned, democratically controlled, and the profit motive and inequalities of power and wealth are replaced by planning, cooperation and social equality.