TW: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault.
“She’s going to be a heartbreaker when she’s older, isn’t she?” says the old man on the street, convincing himself that he’s just being nice.
“The boys only hit you because they like you!” says every mum on the playground while you’re crying after one of the boys slapped you across the face until it stung.
“Aw, you’re a little minx, aren’t you?” says my dad, presumably without really understanding the word ‘minx’ to its full extent.
It started early. It started earlier than we might have expected. It started when our eyes began sparkling, our hair began swaying. It continued when we started to walk; when we began to talk. It continued through our earliest school days and carried through to our preteen years. It showed on the streets; in our schools; on the bus; in bars and clubs; for many, it showed at home. But our knowledge of it grew with experience. We didn’t get taught this. We had to learn through trauma, through tales from the women around us, from the uncomfortable feeling when an old stranger is leering at us, and the whistle from a car full of boys.
In saying that, the discomfort and disgust didn’t come naturally. I used to be flattered when a group of much older boys would beep their car horns at me. I took it as a compliment. Finally, I’m the girl they think is pretty, I would think to myself at 12 years old when a group of 21-year-old boys drove past and wolf whistled at me. That gesture grew old very fast. When I saw it happen to my friend’s younger sister, I started feeling the discomfort. That’s when it hit me.
It wasn’t just in the streets. It happened in school. It happened when our so-called ‘protectors’ were supposed to be protecting. I was given a set number of points in high school like an object in a game show. All the girls were. The boys would run around the school, slapping girl’s behinds. With each slap, they gained the points that were attached to the girl. Whoever assaulted the greatest number of us won. None of us thought it was wrong until one teacher (Ms. Gardner, bless her) stood and spoke about the intent behind it. Even then, there was no assembly to address, and no punishment given regarding this dehumanising game.
Of course, this was just an early sign of sexual assault and harassment. This was just the warmup. Now most of the girls in my school have had experience and trauma by the age of 15 years old. It got worse and more common as we grew older. I noticed it most when I got to university; living alone for the first time, trying to make new friends, trying to figure out who we are and living up to the casual hook-up culture that is so incredibly romanticised and sought after. I enjoyed the hook-up culture to begin with. It felt almost rebellious after living with my parents for so many years. Until I was unable to move under a man’s body weight and the overwhelming fear of being raped flooded my mind. This was only one of my experiences with this, and scarily enough, I am only one of millions. Hook up culture became something that gave me overarching issues with self-confidence, body image, self-worth and respect.
When I told my female friends, they were almost in tears. They had empathy. They knew how it felt to be frozen under a man; how it felt to be helpless. They told me “It wasn’t your fault” or they just hugged me with sheer care and love. Either way, I felt safe at last. I was able to take a break from being a female, and just be a person. Taking all this into consideration, one of my male friends was my rock in this scenario … he was absolutely amazing. That wasn’t the case for all of them. The change of perspective of who my “good guy” friends were was astounding after I began speaking of the incident with them.
“What?! You have such bad taste in men.”
“That’s awful… but why did you let him come over when he was drunk?”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you. Maybe you should just take a break
Once again, the blame was taken from the man, and placed right back onto me. The reason I ended up there was because of my own doing; because I allowed a friend to stay at my place; because I have bad taste; because I go for the wrong men, or I go for too many men. It was never because what that man did was fundamentally wrong. Even after all this, I couldn’t bring myself to report him. I couldn’t ruin his life, even though he ruined so many aspects of mine, for the fear that I’d be accused of giving a false accusation.
That is only my experience of being a girl turning into a woman, and this piece is a miniscule glance into the wider issue. The issue that continues to come up time and time again is the relationship between the education system and the sexualisation of women. In my experience, the school didn’t take any action to resolve or reform the issue regarding the mindset the boys in my area had about women. They simply glanced over the fact that every single girl in my year had been assaulted, or at the very least harassed. In addition to this, one of the 5 classes I had regarding sex education was a graphic movie of a girl being sex trafficked. Every girl in the room left crying. The boys had a good rest of their day.
The issue lies in the ways public and private schools handle these types of situations. In high school, there are too many stories of sexual harassment, rape and image-based sexual abuse to count. If we delve into private schools specifically, it is well known that the environment of these schools are based around a culture of peer pressure, sexualisation and patriarchal values. Though this has been going on for decades, it has only recently been talked about in the media. With an increase of people going against these institutions, more accusations and stories of sexual violence continues to show, some schools (specifically in Sydney) have taken to the media to address these accusations. While these efforts are a brilliant step forward in education, it breeds the question: what about past generations?
As we know, those who attend private school are predominantly from wealthy families, which tends to lead into higher education. The University of Sydney has elite residential colleges, which tends to cost over $700 a week. Looking into Usyd’s St Paul’s College (a previously all-boys and brother school to the all-girls Women’s College), there has been a prominent history of sexually violent offenders who have been residents in the past — using “in the past” very loosely. Before becoming a co-ed college this year (2023), St Paul’s College has built up a reputation of being home to the toxic culture of masculinity in the privileged that still has many people talking. One of the major issues with the continuation of these cultures is that these generations of private school children are placed in an environment where disrespect towards women is accepted and encouraged. With respect to their current placement in societal hierarchies, these men are likely to go on further and become leaders, teachers and “respectable” citizens creating a continuing cycle of hostility and perpetuation of these values onto upcoming generations.
The risk of this provides a stagnation in the progression of sexual education, leading to the risk of women growing up facing the same issues in the future. This indicates that action needs to be taken within schools and in the field of education as a whole. Some of the recent changes in education have been led by former and current students, not experts in the field of consent or sexual education.The cycle needs to be cut from an early age and should not be the job of only survivors. I believe that the first way to really begin the route to respect is by ensuring offenders are punished in a way that allows them to understand what they did wrong. The more passive schools are with their actions and discipline, the more sexual violence there will be. Young girls should not have to experience violence to learn that everyone should be taught not to commit these crimes.