How Our Schools are Perpetuating Ignorance, Intolerance and Sexual Violence

Over the last few weeks, I have stumbled across three articles that, whilst all addressing different aspects of sex, sexuality and/or sexualised behaviours, struck a chord with me in that they all emphasise ways in which schools and education can play a critical role in changing attitudes and behaviours in young people. It is then hoped, of course, that the attitudes instilled in these young people will persist through their adult lives and be transferred to subsequent generations. I have drawn upon these three articles and my own experiences as a teacher in Queensland secondary schools to examine where we are going wrong with regard to the messages being delivered to students in relation to sex, sexuality and sexualised behaviours.

The first article What is Rape Culture by Ryan Broderick, Jessica Testa and Heben Nigatu (Buzzfeed.com, 5 February 2014) suggests that today “sexual violence is considered the norm”. The article explores the lack of understanding, amongst young men in particular, about what constitutes rape or sexual assault. Furthermore, the article also discusses how there is too much focus on women being made to feel responsible for what has happened to them, whether it be because of how they dress or where they go and when they go there, as if to say that women and girls who aren’t locked up safely in their homes somehow ‘deserve’ what comes their way. The way in which rape and sexual assault cases are reported in the media is also interesting, with too many stories emphasising what the male perpetrators have lost when convicted, rather than what the suffering and harm inflicted upon their victims. One of the most interesting points raised in the article, I believe, is our acceptance of “street harassment or cat-calling” and how this allows men to “feel comfortable giving unsolicited sexual advances to women they don’t know”. It is these types of behaviours that are perhaps most prevalent within school environments and they only serve to perpetuate the notion that sexualised behaviours of this type are somehow acceptable.

What might start as the seemingly innocent flicking of a bra strap quite often evolves into more extreme types of harassment and unwanted attention. It is certainly common place for boys to feel that it is perfectly okay to grab the breast or grope between the legs of a female student. Of course, the reasons for such behaviour are many and varied. It could simply be to impress his mates; it could be because he sees such behaviour as a (misguided) way to show a girl that he likes her; it could be a ‘payback’ of some kind (a way of dealing with being upstaged in the classroom, for example) or it could just be because he has little respect for women. The problem is, in my experience at least, that such incidents are too often dismissed as ‘boys being boys’ and there is very rarely anything more said about it, the result of which is that girls simply won’t report such incidents to school staff. It seems to me that there is a direct correlation between this and the fact that a large number of women who are raped also fail to report the crime for fear of not being believed, fear of reprisals or a fear of no action being taken.

Sexual Assault

Similarly, teenage boys will think it perfectly okay to ask/challenge their female classmates about their virginity and/or sexual experiences. Furthermore, the boys will use any response (or even a refusal to respond) to allocate labels to the girls, such as ‘frigid’, ‘tease’ or ‘slut’. Such name-calling is often very public and, again, is often regarded by teachers and school administrators as simply part of the teenage experience. The problem is, of course, that when such behaviours go unchecked, they become normalised (in the eyes of the perpetrators at least) and set a precedent with regard to the acceptable treatment of women which ultimately manifests itself in other, more harmful, ways as these young men move into adulthood. A blogger responding to the Buzzfeed article identified a significant failing of educators when they asked, “That’s perhaps where the ‘culture of rape’ is rooted, girls are being taught over and over again ways to protect ourselves but where is the education for boys?” This education for boys must start with how we allow girls to be treated at school and make sure that any harassment and unwanted sexual overtures of any kind are dealt with in a way that makes it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable. This certainly isn’t happening at the moment and it is not surprising that we seem to be seeing more and more instances of young men engaging in sexual assaults on young women.

The article Why This Transgender Teen’s Big Victory Matters by Melissa Jeltsen (Huffington Post, 3 February 2014) identifies the inability or unwillingness, perhaps, of schools to effectively cater to the needs of transgender students. Moreover, it highlights the fear and confusion amongst teachers, administrators and other students with regard to transgender people. In this particular case, 16-year-old Nicole was born a biological male but had been identifying as female since the age of two and was using the girls bathroom facilities at school. Until, that is, a male student started following her into the girls’ bathroom, claiming that if Nicole had a right to be there, so did he. It is no surprise that the school’s reaction was to simply ban Nicole from girls’ bathroom, requiring her to use the faculty facilities, isolating her from other students and shining a spotlight on her that only led to her being made “an outcast, separated from her peers…bullied and harassed simply because she is transgender.” I’m not sure which is worse, the way the school handled the situation in the first place by excluding Nicole from the female bathrooms or the fact that they allowed (caused) her to be subjected to bullying and harassment. The fact that the issue was only resolved through court action – in favour of Nicole’s right to use the girls’ bathroom – is a reflection of just how out of touch education administrators are with the world around them and the students for whom they are responsible for a good portion of each day.

Whilst this particular case played out in America, Australia is not immune as a very similar situation occurred in Queensland last year when ‘Jane’, a primary school student born a boy but identifying as a girl, was instructed to use the disabled toilets at her school. How humiliating that must be for a young person already grappling with the challenges of gender dysphoria, not to mention the message it sends to the school and broader community. Ultimately, the school relented and Jane secured approval to use the girls’ toilets at the school, but not before the series of events had played out in the media. Now, of course, regardless of whatever course of action the schools took in these cases, the students themselves should never be subjected to abuse, harassment or ridicule because of their gender identity or any other aspect of their identity for that matter. Such behaviours are derived from ignorance and fear, which themselves are very often the result of a lack of information and education across the broad spectrum of gender identities, coupled with a tolerance by school administrators to allow such attitudes to manifest themselves as verbal and/or physical assaults on any student who identifies in a way that falls outside the very narrow scope of what is deemed ‘normal’.

In her article Shoot Straight on Sex Ed – It’s Time to Include LGBTI Experiences (SBS.com.au, 5 February 2014), Rebecca Shaw quite rightly points out that sex education in schools remains firmly focused on hetero-normative versions of sex and sexuality. It is no wonder then that students whose sexual identity falls outside of these simplistic and narrow definitions find themselves subjected to ridicule and abuse at the hands of other students. I mean, after all, if teachers and educators are telling students that only one type of sexual identification and associated practices are normal, is it any wonder there is such confusion and distrust towards those who do not fit within these so-called norms. If schools are about inclusiveness, then surely it goes without saying that sex education should acknowledge and embrace LGBTI experiences and developing a curriculum that is as equally relevant to LGBTI students as it is to all other students. Of course, the overriding problem is that very few schools deliver truly effective or comprehensive sex education programs at all. Whether it is due to pressure from parents, lack of funding/resourcing or simply embarrassment from students and/or staff about the content, a great number of schools seem reluctant to implement a comprehensive program that embraces the full spectrum of sexual identities and experiences. That is not to say that LGBTI perspectives and experiences could not also be addressed across a variety of other subjects without having to make any changes to existing curriculum.

That's Gay

The impact of the lack of education regarding LGBTI experiences within schools is evident every day in the interactions among young people, both within the school and the broader community. The most obvious – and no doubt quite trivial in the minds of many – is the use of the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative adjective. If only I had a dollar for every time a student declared ‘you’re gay’ or ‘that’s gay’ in reference to somebody or something they don’t like. Any attempts I have made to prevent the use of the term in such a manner have always been rebuffed by school administrators, usually with statements such as ‘it’s how kids talk these days, there is nothing we can do about it’, a response that I find utterly infuriating. What message does it send to LGBTI students when an accusation of homosexuality is an acceptable form of insult? Through their inaction, schools are endorsing the notion that there is nothing worse than being homosexual and that using the term ‘gay’ (or alternatives such as faggot) in such a way is perfectly acceptable. It baffles me why schools allow this type of vilification against LGBTI students and lifestyles to run rampant. After all, as Corey Lee Wren points out in her article You Just Can’t Take a Joke: The Privilege Behind “That’s So Gay” (Feminspire, 14 August 2013), “Derogatory language has the power to uphold inequality.” Needless to say, attacks on gay culture and lifestyle extend far beyond this to the point where so many homosexual school students are forced to keep their sexual orientation a secret. Of course, many students choose not to ‘come out’ for a variety of reasons, but they should never be forced to hide their sexuality or gender orientation simply because they are fearful of how they will be treated at school, the one place where they should feel safe.

It certainly doesn’t help matters when Dr Kevin Donnolly, one of two men appointed by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to review the national curriculum, has been critical of any efforts by schools to “enhance understanding and acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.” Furthermore, Donnolly has also declared that “many parents would consider the sexual practices of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals decidedly unnatural and that such groups have a greater risk in terms of transmitting STDs and AIDS.” Donnolly’s statement demonstrates his ignorance of LGBTI people and it certainly suggests that he has no interest in serving their interests in his role. Furthermore, I’m not really sure that the views/opinions of parents are really that important anyway. After all, for many young people, schools are often the only place where they can secure access to balanced and informed perspectives on a wide range of issues, whether it is history, politics, science, the media or sex and sexuality. It is the only opportunity for many young people to access alternative views to the often dangerous and ill-informed information espoused by parents or others in the community.

Teachers and educators have a moral obligation to ensure that all students are treated fairly and equally every day. This includes ensuring that students have access to information that will enable them to make informed choices in their own lives and better understand the lives and circumstances of others. It also includes making sure that students are not engaging in behaviours that denigrate other students, student lifestyles or sex/gender orientations in any way. Telling transgender students they have to use staff toilets or disabled facilities is unacceptable. Allowing boys to sexually harass girls (or any other student for that matter), simply because that is ‘how boys behave’ is unacceptable. The failure to include course content across the curriculum that enhances understanding of LGBTI people is also unacceptable. If the way that schools treat people, or allow others to treat particular individuals or groups within the school community is not driven first and foremost by notions of equality and respect, then that school is failing in its responsibilities to all students. Furthermore, any school that is not presenting students with informed, balanced perspectives in all areas – from academic disciplines to social development to pastoral care – is also failing in their fundamental duty to students. It is never too late to get this right, but we need to start now to ensure that the young people of today are the mature, intelligent, objective, compassionate adults of tomorrow.

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