LET’S HAVE A BRAVE CONVERSATION. There’s a furore online at the moment about some comments made by a Headmaster in his school Newsletter about the young man who murdered Lilie James. Alas, it’s not the first time that teachers and school leaders have made headlines with ill advised statements that could be read as excusing domestic violence, blaming victims, or as dismissing the seriousness of incidents of sexual harassment or sexual violence.
My take may not necessarily be a popular one at the moment when tempers are running hot, but in general I suspect most educators have good intentions.
Yet some simply don’t understand the nuances or complexities of discussing gender based violence. It is a highly nuanced, loaded area and delivering it requires great care; each and every word must be carefully considered for risk of doing harm. I’ve been working closely in the domestic violence sector as both a teen educator, course creator for corporates, feature writer for media, and in my former role as a board director for a shelter for around 10 years. I still learn and tweak my teaching ALL THE TIME.
I’m not making excuses for leaders who get this wrong. They have a responsibility to learn and to work closely with experts. Assuming your intuition on such matters is spot on is a dangerous arrogance. The truth is too, as a brilliant female principal recently pointed out, many school leaders are also male and they may have limited personal experience with how gender based violence impacts on girls and women (all the more reason why they need to learn and listen).
I also want to note that many educators do an outstanding job managing reports of relationship abuse and sexual violence on a daily basis (this excellent work doesn’t make headlines). They partner with frontline services ( Women’s Community Shelters has over twenty schools walking alongside our shelter network), they respond compassionately and with conviction to try to eliminate sexism and gender based violence in their schools.
But I do worry about leaving the teaching of respectful relationships and consent up to to teachers who may feel ill equipped to handle this content (particularly if they have lived experience and find the content triggering. Schools are also communities – teachers bring their own diversity of views to any subject matter and therefore it’s highly likely there will be not only victims but perpetrators teaching in schools). And it does make me want to encourage schools to closely critique the expertise and experience of any external providers they use (we’d all agree noone wants the Andrew Tates of the world teaching this, but great damage can be done by possibly-well-meaning-but – ill – informed types too).
There’s a real role here for enhancing partnerships, support and training for schools so they know how to speak about this wicked problem – and act on it.
Because the one thing I think we can all agree on is that we need to do better.
Here are just a few conversation starters which may guide your work as it moves towards good, better, best practice.
LET’S RETHINK HOW WE SHARE HELPLINES WITH YOUNG PEOPLE.
Good practice is that when presenting sensitive content you should also share the helpline details for key services that can assist anyone in distress. When presenting respectful relationship and consent education, for example, I’d share (amongst other resources) 000, 1800 Respect, Kids HelpLine, Q Life, Lifeline.
But I don’t think the standard practice of simply highlighting these services exists is enough. We also need to explicitly explain to teens when it might be appropriate to call. For example, the vast majority of teens tell me they’d be reluctant to call 000 even if they were in a situation where they felt really scared of their partner as “What if it’s not serious enough?”. I ask them to guess how many calls a day their local police station receives in relation to domestic violence. They usually guess around six per day. I then explain it’s ONE CALL EVERY EIGHT MINUTES. Sadly, responding to DFV is the bread and butter work of policing; emergency services won’t be shocked or annoyed by their call and should respond.
We need to also explain many of these helpline services are under the pump and their call may not actually be answered (one in every two calls to Kids Helpline, and one in five calls to Life Line, for example, goes unanswered). This is important to know up front when you’re in a safe, supportive environment as not getting through to help in an emergency might heighten distress and you may take this lack of response more personally. If you can’t get through, what do you do next ( e.g: explain they may need to try multiple supports, including reaching out to trusted adults who can hold them and advocate for them to get help).
It can be helpful to discuss what a call might be like. Questions they may get asked include:
Are you in a safe place to talk?
How can I help you today?
Tell me a little about what happened that led you to call?
Is there anyone else that you feel you can talk to about this situation?
We also need to explain what to do if they do get through and don’t feel comfortable with the person they speak to ( it’s ok for them to ask if they can speak to someone else, or to simply hang up and try again. They don’t owe anyone their story).
There’s basic care (handing out helpline numbers alone), and then there’s better care (speaking honestly and pragmatically about how to access help). BEST care would be actually increasing resources to services so that those in crisis aren’t left hanging, or given rushed advice that may be inadequate.
LET’S RETHINK MODESTY CULTURE – and how schools can deal with uniform regulations in a respectful way.
What is modesty culture? It’s the belief that females should dress in a demure fashion to prevent males being distracted by them, or being so aroused by their skin they may sexually assault them. It’s comments directed to victims of sexual harassment or assault like, “What were you wearing when he approached you?”. It’s claims like, “You’re putting the boys in a very awkward position when you dress like that.” It’s other women saying things like, “She should have more self respect!” when they see a photo of a woman in a short skirt, or low cut top (hello internalised misogyny!).
What is wrong with cries for modesty? Well, let’s be clear. Women get sexually harassed and assaulted when wearing tracksuits. Flannelette pyjamas. Saris. The exhibition “What Were You Wearing?” depicts this in an incredibly powerful way – https://lnkd.in/erAcz4vr
*Sexual violence is about entitlement, disrespect and power – not skirt length.*
Modesty culture is also deeply insulting towards men. Do we really think so little of males that we believe a glimpse of breast and thigh is going to turn them into predators? To say that a male teacher might be distracted by his female students is disrespectful to him as a professional who probably views his female students wth great care – not as objects for his lust.
Girls brought up within modesty culture may developed feelings of shame over their own bodies, or with a sense of hyper-vigilance.
I’ll add too that I always find it so very hypocritical that in our culture which objectifies and sexualises girls and women constantly, we are so threatened when a young woman chooses to explore her own sexuality by dressing in a way she finds hot. Don’t read too much into this! She’s probably playing with the fashion presented to her and both literally and figuratively working out what outfit best fits her emerging adult identity.
And if she is wanting to attract males? So what! Why do we EXPECT lust from males, and baulk at female expressions of desire?
So, how should parents and schools talk to students about their dress?
Firstly, make sure there are uniform options ( including trousers which don’t come with the same loaded conversations around morality).
If your school uniform code states the dress should be a particular length, approach the conversation like this: “Skirts need to be the standard length, I know it might seem pointless but it’s called a uniform because we all need to dress the same – in a uniform fashion. It’s how we visibly show we are connected.” NEVER pull her up in front of her friends, or in front of the class as this might feel humiliating.
Keep the tone light, and make it clear you aren’t judging her, merely following rules.
LET’S THINK MORE CAREFULLY ABOUT WHOSE JOB IT IS TO TEACH RESPECTFUL RELATIONSHIPS TO BOYS
I have noticed lately there has been some pushback in co-ed schools about running separate sessions on respectful relationships and consent for the girls and boys. Students (and staff!) might think it means the session will be sexist, with the girls perhaps being told how to dress appropriately for example. I love that there’s critical thinking because let’s be honest, there’s been lots of sexist nonsense dished up to teens over the years!
In my work, particularly around respectful relationships and consent, we teach exactly the same content to the boys and the girls. However, this is delivered in separate spaces so that young people can discuss how these issues impact on them in a way that is trauma informed. My first priority is always ensuring that no one in the room will be made to feel threatened, or perhaps be judged (all things girls say they DO experience with boys).
I had a teacher recently bail me up before a presentation and say, “Don’t you think it’s important that the boys are actually sitting in the room hearing the girls describe how uncomfortable sexism makes them feel?” No. I don’t think it is the girls job to do that emotional labour. I don’t think they should have to show their wounds in order for the boys to understand the importance of respectful relationships.
Rather, I think it’s really valuable for the girls to discuss this in a safe place together and develop a sense of connection and sisterhood so that they have strategies they can use next time they feel uncomfortable and have each other’s backs. Similarly, I think it’s really important for the boys to collectively be told about how these kind of behaviour don’t just impact on girls and women, but also on THEM and they can explore this and ask questions with their peers.
The “gays and theys” always get to choose which space they would feel safest in – and we use gender neutral pronouns throughout, include reference to LGBTQI support services, and discuss how relationship abuse may impact on the queer community in particular ways (such as through identity abuse). We don’t use terms like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” but rather “partner” or “date”. Both spaces are inclusive.
I was recently at a school and the girls had been sceptical about being separated from the boys. Midway through the session, they explained to me that they had complained prior to meeting me and now they felt dreadful because they could see this was exactly what they needed. Incredibly, they went up to the school leadership during the break and said they had been wrong and explained how valuable the sense of sisterhood was, and wanted to make observations about why having a girls space was valued (shared here).
The day ended with absolute rave reviews from ALL students.
And of course students all then came back together after their sessions and discuss what they have learnt, share with each other and grow TOGETHER. But they do so after first being INFORMED and having some space to share, reflect, and craft a path forward ( the notes below were just a couple given to me by girls after a recent session).
LET’S THINK BEYOND TRIGGER WARNINGS
Schools often ask me if I will start my sessions with trigger warnings. Nope. Here’s why not (and what I DO instead):
Trauma informed practice is about REDUCING stress and emotional agitation. Kicking off the day by preempting the session may be distressing simply sets up someone who may have experienced trauma to feel tense from the get go – they are left sitting there worrying and waiting for the distress.
Firstly, connection and trust needs to be developed. I begin by sharing my story and explaining what brings me to the work with them. There’s laughter ( this helps put everyone at ease), moments of connection (“Same! Me too!”) and trust is built ( “She seems to know her stuff…”). I’m modelling inclusivity (simple things like using gender neutral pronouns help here).
When we do get to content that could remind young people with trauma about their experiences, I explain some of the CONTENT may be upsetting. It’s a broader term that trigger and I think it’s less loaded ( colloquially, to be “triggered” is now associated with being hypersensitive).
But the key here is not to use either term as a tokenistic disclaimer.
I explain calmly and with great care (again, signaling I’m a safe person) what we could do if we feel distressed. I explain who within the school could help, I provide contact numbers for support services ( and explicitly explain how to use these), I share techniques they might want to try to help emotionally regulate themselves, and I set up how the room will be kept respectful and establish my boundaries ( for example, we must be aware we all come to the session with different experiences and we should be particularly mindful with our language – just as I have been). I also explain that before I talk about particularly challenging content, I’ll indicate how long that discussion will last (e.g.: “I am now going to talk you through some of the types of relationship violence. This may be upsetting to hear for some of us, it will last around 12 minutes”).
Set up this way, I’ve never had a student decide they didn’t want to join in our session. Even young people who have had extremely traumatic experiences and thought they’d find the session very hard chose to stay. Sometimes, they do decide to follow my advice and step out for 5 minutes, but they always chose to rejoin us, and tell me they found the work very respectful and healing.