By Aria Chawla & Reese Polk
In light of recent statistics about how a shocking 97% of young women have been sexually harassed in the UK, two girls seek to expose the truth about exactly how common sexual harassment is in our society and what allows it to be so prevalent.
“Once, I was 14 and on the train alone. I noticed a man creeping towards me slowly until he sat directly across from me. I knew right away something was off, so I got off at the next stop. He came out after me, so I started walking faster until I was fully running, and he was running after me. There was a grown man chasing me, a child, through the train station. I was terrified. Because he was so much bigger than me, he caught up and grabbed my shoulder. I was so scared. He had chased me throughout the entire train station to tell me that I was very pretty. I was so uncomfortable.”
This is one of the many responses received in an anonymous survey we created to expose the prevalence of sexual harassment amongst teenage girls. As two girls in our junior year of high school, these results validate what we already knew: the pervasive existence of sexual harassment among ourselves, our peers, and other young girls around the world. Notably, many of these responses mentioned sexual harassment in school environments. When we read through these stories, we grew appalled by the events that occurred in an institution where children are supposed to be protected and “safe.”
Girls are raised to be silent. At a young age, girls are taught to cross their legs and not say inappropriate things. In elementary classrooms, you’d find the boys acting out, making fun of the girls, while girls sat there quietly, simply because we are raised not to cause a fuss. Even worse, society excuses and trivialises the behavior of young males with a simple “boys will be boys”, normalising toxic male culture and dominance. The education system allows this culture to thrive by sexualizing young girls, blaming victims, and allowing assaulters to get off scot-free. Schools foster the next generation of assaulters, taught that they are invincible, and the next generation of victims, taught to be silenced.
The Sexualization of Young Girls
Almost as soon as they are born, girls are sexualized. Newborns’ onesies are emblazoned with phrases like “future heartbreaker” and “lock your sons up, my daddy has guns.” Clothes for baby girls are consistently shorter and tighter compared to clothes for baby boys. High heels are marketed to girls who only learned to walk a couple of years earlier. This sexualization follows them as they grow older, with companies capitalizing on society’s sexualized view of adolescent girls. Porn, for example, is an industry where this is pervasive. Pornhub’s most popular search term for the past six years has remained “teen.” With more than 80 million people watching porn every day, men have full access to content that portrays young girls as ready to be taken advantage of as sexual beings for a man’s satisfaction. Why do men have an affinity for barely legal pornography? Perhaps it’s because men derive pleasure from knowing that they’re in power — that the female, the teenager or child, is subject to his will.
Even in Hollywood, male directors play out their sexual fantasies by exploiting child actors as the love interests of older men. “Pretty Baby,” a 1978 film, catapulted Brooke Shields into stardom as she became the object of lust all across America. She was just 12 when she was filmed nude for the film, playing a child prostitute. What does it say about society when middle-aged men are unable to find women their own age attractive and instead desire girls who can’t even legally give consent? This sexualization of young girls not only perpetuates pedophilia but also perpetuates rape culture and the idea that it’s standard to have sexual fantasies about girls who cannot give consent.
Other external factors also play a role in sexualizing a child. Factors tucked away in file cabinets under lock and key, in a system famed for slow justice and silencing victims: the education system.
The Education System: A Breeding Ground for Rape Culture
Sexism has been ingraining itself into society for centuries, whether it’s through the Cult of Domesticity ideology of the 1800s or today’s current wage gap. Along with sexism comes rape culture and the idea that women and girls are subservient beings, sexual in their nature, who are meant to be at a man’s disposal. Rape culture is ubiquitous, seen in our school system, media, and ingrained in social norms.
The true nature of our schools — thought to be places of youth and innocence — has been shown to be the exact opposite. Girls just entering puberty are slammed with the reality that society sees them as living sex dolls, while boys are being brought up in an environment that doesn’t punish them for their actions. One anonymous response from our survey tells of a girl’s horror at boys in her school making sexual comments about her growing body: “As a 12-year-old who is experiencing changes prematurely and doesn’t fully understand what is happening to her body, it is so degrading and uncomfortable to hear comments made about your body, especially sexual comments. It was so difficult to go through, and I felt like an object. I’ve hated my body ever since.” While young girls are suffering under society’s view of them, boys are manipulating girls into sending them nude photos, colloquially known as “nudes”, and trading said nudes like playing cards amongst each other. Another response from the survey says, “When I was 15, I was begged over and over again for nude photos and to do sexual things, all things I did not want to do. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He threatened, blackmailed, and guilted me into doing what he wanted. I felt sick and disgusting.” Even in renowned private schools in foreign countries, girls are uncomfortable in their places of learning. In one international private school in Singapore, girls yank their uniforms down when going up the stairs for fear that boys will look up their skirts, or in one case, angle their phones up the girl’s skirts, take photos, and send them around. A student from this school says that one of her male friends “had a collection of nudes in his My Eyes Only [Snapchat’s feature that allows users to hide photos away in a folder that requires a password to open]. He told me who each nude belonged to and which boy at the school sent it to him. Some of the girls were freshmen when the photos were taken.” Furthermore, a high school girl added, “When I was a freshman, seniors spread a school-wide rumor that they had my nudes. They did it for no reason.” The fact that nude photos of girls in their freshman year of high school, only 14-years-old, were being held in a boy’s phone — it’s terrifying. It seems like it’s just entertainment for these boys or a quick thrill, when that’s not the case—it has lasting effects on a girl’s life. This problem is pervasive. In one public middle school in Bergen County, New Jersey, girls recalled “ass slap Friday” and even boys grabbing at their breasts inside the school building. Not only did the middle school boys see no problem with this, but no one ever spoke up and said it was wrong. No one. Why did the boys even think they could do this in the first place? It’s because they thought they wouldn’t get in trouble, which no one did. No one. Whether it is in local public schools in the United States or expensive private institutions abroad, schools reinforce the conditions that uphold rape culture.
Society and schools perpetuate rape culture by putting the responsibility on the woman herself — it is a girl’s duty to cover herself up. If she doesn’t, boys can not be held responsible for their actions. Maggie Sunseri tells the Atlantic that her principal “constantly says that the main reason for a dress code is to create a ‘distraction-free learning zone’ for our male counterparts.” Why are our educators telling girls that their bodies are a distraction to boys? Has society receded so far back in our ways that showing a sliver of the shoulder is akin to the scandal and impropriety of a woman showing her ankles in the 18th century? Administration practically reinforces the sexualization of young girls’ bodies, training girls to “cover-up” instead of teaching boys not to objectify female bodies. Schools assigning sexual traits to a young girl’s body parts, her shoulders, collarbones, and midriff are assigning a sexual nature to an entire girl’s being. This, in turn, contributes to the idea that it is the girl’s job to cover herself up, or else she will be harassed. Boys are rarely held accountable for their actions because, after all, “boys will be boys.” Victim-blaming is based on these beliefs. College athletes are given mere months in prison for raping unconscious girls because of sentiments like “he was young” and “he has his whole life ahead of him” and “this will ruin him.” Why are people worried about the abuser’s quality of life instead of the victim’s trauma? Instead of receiving support, victims of sexual assault are being asked, “what were you wearing?” and “did you say no” and “were you drunk?” Whether or not she was wearing clothes that showed off their skin, it is never the victim’s fault. Whether or not she audibly told her assaulter to stop, it is never the victim’s fault. And whether or not she was intoxicated, it is never the victim’s fault. Society has trained its citizens to question the validity of a victim’s experience and feelings instead of training its boys and men not to assault girls.
“They told us, “we are going to rape your pu**ies, you f**king fat wh*res.” When I got home and told my parents, they scolded me for being out so late. I was with my friend, and the sun had barely set.”
A 16-year-old girl tells us of how a car full of teenage boys accosted her and her friend and her parents’ response. Society has grown so accustomed to boys being harassers that they’ve learned to question the victims instead, even when it’s their own daughters.
Regardless of the location, schools are a breeding ground for rape culture, enabling assaulters while shaming victims. Society is teaching girls that if they do not want to be assaulted, the responsibility lies solely with them. This culture is so normalized internationally, no matter the country, no matter the girl, no matter the school. There will always be different degrees of systemic misogyny wherever you go, but society has made the mistake of not realizing the extent to which schools allow boys to act in their misogynistic ways. Instead of educating children about manipulation, nude photos as a form of child pornography, and the importance of consent, schools are raising a new batch of sexual harassers and abusers, teaching them that they will not be held responsible for their actions. Vulnerable girls have to suffer through the toxic politics of high school while being ogled and grabbed, subject to society’s lecherous view of them, all while they are just trying to get an education. Schools turn a blind eye at assaulters and slap tape over the mouths of victims. This is the problem. Educate your sons like you silence your daughters, and recognize that you promote rape culture.
“Sometimes, I guess no is not good enough.”
After detailing four instances of sexual harassment, one responder said the above.
The Big Picture
After the heart-wrenching process of reading the responses from our survey, we’ve realized that so many victims blame themselves. As everyone around them refuses to take action or show support in any way, victims begin to wonder if, perhaps, they overreacted. If they didn’t say “no” loud enough. If they gave off the wrong impression by wearing clothing that showed off their body. This is an absolute atrocity, the fact that these girls have endured so much just to come out on the other side with no support and fingers pointing at them. With an education system that reinforces the idea that, no matter what, it is entirely a girl’s responsibility not to get raped, girls are stuck in an endless cycle of injustice and victim-blaming. While targeting the men that factor into rape culture, we must also target the institutions that enable these men. Recognize that male behavior is trivialized instead of being challenged.
April 28th is “denim day,” where allies wear jeans to show their support for victims. There are thousands of petitions for victims pleading for support in their battle for justice. Talk to your educators about how their school promotes harassment. We must do our part. We can’t alleviate the trauma that girls feel every day because of sexual harassment, but we can let them know that their stories are not going unnoticed. We will continue to defend and fight for the lives of young girls and let them know they are being heard. We will not be silent. We will not be silenced. We will be loud, unapologetic teenage girls who cause a fuss and fight for our sisters who have been suppressed. Join us.
Ways to counteract rape culture:
- If you receive a nude photo from a minor, delete it immediately. It’s child pornography, and it’s illegal, even if the person who possesses the photo is also a minor.
- Call out your friends if they say something that demeans a woman. Saying things like “look at that ass” and “I’m gonna tap that” is unacceptable, and not calling out whoever says those things means you are enabling them.
- Do not victim blame. If a victim trusts you with their story, never ask them what they were wearing or if they were intoxicated. Other than a lack of consent, no other factors matter.
- Fight back against the sexualization of adolescent girls. If you are able to, do not conform to sexist dress codes. Write to your principal and explain how their institution fosters rape culture.
- If a teacher makes you feel uncomfortable, tell someone. Oftentimes, teachers can play a direct role in sexist and inappropriate behavior. You can tell a friend, a trusted adult, and most importantly, make sure to inform the school about what is going on.
- Normalize talking about rape culture. Tell your loved ones what is going on in the world. Inform them about statistics, recent events, and stories regarding rape culture and remove the stigma behind talking about something that is really common. The more people we inform about this toxicity, the more support and awareness we can gain about the topic.
Thank you to all the girls that participated in our survey and shared their story. We are grateful for your courage and your ability to spread awareness about such an important topic.
United States’ Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, feel free to reach out through our Instagrams.
Reese Polk is a 17-year old-girl from New Jersey. Her hobbies include dancing, watercolor painting, reading, and building puzzles. She’s passionate about pop culture, politics, and art history. Her favorite shows include Avatar the Last Airbender, Euphoria, Gossip Girl, and Grey’s Anatomy. In the future she either wants to work in psychology, social work, or fashion. Contact her @reesiepiecie00 on Instagram
Aria Chawla is a 17-year-old from Singapore living in New Jersey. She enjoys writing and reading, especially anything that involves romance. In her spare time, she can be found watching Rick & Morty, curating her Pinterest boards, and listening to music that makes her nostalgic. She is one of the creators of Written by the Youth. Contact her at @ariachawla on Instagram or by email at email@example.com
“Domestic Violence Statistics – The Hotline”. The Hotline, 2021, https://www.thehotline.org/stakeholders/domestic-violence-statistics. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
“ Inquiry Into The Sexualisation Of Children And Young People”. Youth Action, 2021, https://www.youthaction.org.au/inquiry_into_the_sexualisation_of_children_and_young_people. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
Zhou, Li. “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist”. The Atlantic, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/school-dress-codes-are-problematic/410962/. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
Nbc26.Com, 2021, https://www.nbc26.com/news/local-news/new-uk-study-sheds-light-on-sexual-harassment. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
Drug, Fight. “”Teen”: Why Has This One Porn Category Topped The Charts For 6+ Years?”. Fight The New Drug, 2019, https://fightthenewdrug.org/this-years-most-popular-genre-of-porn-is-pretty-messed-up/. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
“Internet Pornography By The Numbers: A”. Webroot.Com, 2021, https://www.webroot.com/us/en/resources/tips-articles/internet-pornography-by-the-numbers. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.