Not even the teachers were spared the constant assault of unwanted advances, jokes and crude comments
Until I reached 16, I’d spent my entire education in mixed schools. A lot of that time was happy: I made friends, learned new skills and explored subjects that intrigued me. But all of those experiences happened under a shadow of misogyny – one that was fuelled by a culture of unwanted sexual advances, rape jokes and crude comments about the appearance of female teachers and fellow students that was allowed to exist in classrooms, completely unchecked by staff.
I remember one geography class, where a young trainee was observing our lesson. As she walked around the room looking at everyone’s work, a group of boys waited until she was out of earshot to snigger about her behind. “Yeah, she’s got a phat back, you know,” they laughed. Teachers are naturally in a position of authority, leadership and safeguarding. But when boys began to objectify and sexualise teachers – not only elbow-nudging, gesturing and giggling behind their backs but approaching teachers to ask things like “Are you single, miss?” before running off – it felt like the boys had the power rather than the teachers. The very people who were there to protect us were no longer safe themselves. Slowly, it became apparent to me that the things I was witnessing on a daily basis weren’t isolated events but rather belonged to a very sinister culture.
At the beginning of high school, things had been different. Everyone was new to each other, and the “banter” among the boys was mostly restricted to football and Fifa, beyond the occasional “make me a sandwich” or “kitchen slave”. However, as we got older, rape jokes began to creep into conversations and were met with peals of laughter from other boys.
No class was safe. In business studies, we watched clips from The Apprentice, and each time a female contestant came on screen, boys would make phallic gestures or explicit comments. Even something as simple as an advert featuring a woman was viewed through this tainted, hypersexual lens. Eventually, my patience ran out and I asked: “Why are you so sexist?” The angry shouts of “HOW AM I SEXIST, TELL ME, HOW?” that came in response made me immediately regret my decision. I could feel the stares boring into the back of my head. And even though I knew I was in the right, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed.
Other girls who challenged their peers about victim-blaming rape survivors during consent lessons faced the same response. This left me feeling hopeless – the lessons had been introduced after a pair of boys were reported for coercing girls for nude photographs and posting them on social media. We were at the end of our GCSE course and preparing to leave school in a few weeks’ time, and yet this was how these conversations were ending – with fury, disagreement and two boys being sent to isolation for their comments about rape.
As the end of high school approached and the time to apply for colleges and sixth forms came around, I didn’t just apply for the most popular colleges – I also tried my luck at a local all-girls schools, mainly because of its formidable reputation and academic rigour. Soon after my applications, I began to receive offers, yet I remained unsure of where to go. The option of going to an all-girls school felt like the safest one, but not a single one of my friends had applied there, so I would be starting off very much alone.
However, near the end of the academic year, when the fallout of Sarah Everard’s murder and the tsunami of testimonies flooding into the Everyone’s Invited website hit the news, my decision to go to an all-girls school was cemented. Realising that rape culture wasn’t just limited to my school but applied to schools and educational institutions all over the country felt like such a blow, and one that I knew I would struggle to deal with for another two years.
Now, approaching the third term of my A-levels, I feel a sense of security and safety that I haven’t had for a long time. The constant fear of being preyed upon by your classmates has disappeared – school has become a safe haven. But this shouldn’t be a choice girls are forced to make. No one should feel endangered at school in 2022.