Can you remember the first time you were harassed in a public place? What comes to mind? Can you remember how old you were, or what you were doing? Perhaps this isn’t something you’ve experienced personally, though we know 87% of young Australian women have been publicly harassed.
We spoke to 47 adult women and LGBTQ+ people our recent study street and public harassment about their earliest memories of feeling sexualized, uncomfortable, or unsafe on the street. Many said they first experienced street harassment in their school uniform. We repeatedly heard variations of the phrase “it happened when I was in my school uniform”.
For many, street harassment began or became more common when they started wearing a high school uniform. However, some participants looked back on experiences when they were younger, in an elementary school uniform.
Studies from the United Kingdom have shown 35% girls wearing school uniforms have been sexually harassed in public places. Despite the importance of schools in the daily lives of young people and the high level of street harassment they experience, there is surprisingly little attention paid to harassment of young people in school uniform.
Findings of our new research show that school-related harassment is a serious problem that has largely flown under the radar in Australia.
Read more: Catcalls, homophobia and racism: we explored why people (especially men) engage in street harassment
It happens outside the school gates
We know the experience of young people sexual, homophobic and transphobic harassment of their peers and even teachers while at school.
But participants also told us about harassment outside their school grounds. This was committed by strangers (usually individual adult males, or groups of adult males) while in uniform and therefore clearly identifiable as schoolchildren.
This took many forms, ranging from watching, staring or lurking, wolf whistling and being chased by men in cars as they walked to school, to public masturbation and men rubbing against victim survivors (usually while taking public transport to school). traveled). ), assault and rape. As one interviewee told us:
walking home from high school […] that’s where most of the bullying I’ve experienced took place […] As soon as I stopped wearing a school uniform, it happened less. So that’s disgusting for a lot of reasons.
As another interviewee shared, these experiences were truly frightening not only because of what was happening at the time, but also because the perpetrator “knows which school you go to” because of the uniform worn.
The ‘sexy school girl’
Why is it that young people – especially young women and girls – are so routinely harassed in school uniforms? We found that harassment of schoolgirls was seen as culturally sanctioned through the “sexy schoolgirl” trope. As one interviewee noted:
if you go on google images and search for “schoolboy” it will come up with a five year old boy, but then “schoolgirl” comes up with the sexy schoolgirl costume.
Participants discussed being targeted because they were perceived as vulnerable and (paradoxically) as both sexually innocent and sexualized:
that was part of the appeal for them [the perpetrators]the innocence of a schoolgirl, an anxious schoolgirl in that situation was like horny to them, they really started to pull it off.
Another interviewee told us:
I went from an innocent child to a child who was uncomfortable and didn’t know why I was being sexualized—and I didn’t understand because I didn’t understand what sex really was.
Because they were so young, many participants often lacked a framework or language to understand their experiences. For many, these experiences were also so routine that they were simply part of the background buzz of everyday life.
It was often years after these formative experiences that participants were able to articulate them as sexual harm and think about the consequences.
Try to avoid harassment
During our interviews, many participants discussed changing the way they presented themselves or the routes they took to school. They often focused on changing their own behavior and made their life smaller in an effort to prevent further harassment. For example:
I started walking the long way. I just started walking the main roads and avoiding the back streets, even if it was a longer walk to be extra safe.
In the longer term, participants usually described feeling unsafe, hyper-vigilant, and suspicious of men in public spaces.
‘What if there is a pedophile on the tram?’: reactions from schools
Unfortunately, the view that victim survivors are responsible for their own harassment was often reinforced by schools when harassment was reported.
Numerous participants told us how they were reminded of school uniform policies (such as mandatory skirt and dress lengths) when they asked teachers for help. One participant related an experience where her teacher asked:
Why would you wear your skirt like that? [short]? Whose attention are you trying to get? […] what if there is a pedophile when you are on the tram home from school […] thinking ‘this is the best day of’ [my] to live’.
Others did not seek help from their teachers because of this focus on the appearance of the students at school – they felt they would simply be blamed for what happened.
These kinds of reactions teach young people to think that street harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are their fault. It also tells them that their bodies are high-risk locations that need to be managed and contained to prevent harassment.
Read more: Should school uniforms become mandatory? We asked five experts
School uniform harassment is not ‘normal’
Although schools and school-related contexts often harm our participants, schools nevertheless play a very important role here. School uniform harassment should not be viewed as a “normal” part of growing up.
There is an urgent need to provide a framework for young people to understand their experiences.
Educational efforts should challenge the idea that harassment should simply be tolerated. Instead, schools should help young people understand harassment as a form of violence and provide safe and supportive spaces to talk about their experiences with peers and adults. This should be included in existing sexual and relational education in an age-appropriate manner.
It is important that responses to harassment should never blame or involve young people themselves. It’s time that outdated practices like measuring the length of school uniforms became a thing of the past, where they belong.
In the words of one participant, “the length of my skirt doesn’t affect how much I learn”.
If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Helpline for children on 1800 55 1800 or 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In case of emergency, dial 000.