Supporting girls and young women victims of sexual harassment in schools: "me and you and everyone we know" podcast

Host Iram Satti talks to Dr Anthony Goodman about an innovative project, across three European countries, Italy, Sweden and Romania, that used pictorial designs to empower young women to demand the right to live without sexual harassment.

The project gave a voice to young people to discuss sexual harassment.

The article Supporting girls and young women victims of sexual harassment in schools: "me and you and everyone we know" will remain free access until the end of December 2022.

Speaker profile(s)

Dr Anthony Goodman, Professor in Community Justice at Middlesex University.

In this episode:

  • What is sexual harassment?
  • How is sexual harassment understood in Romania, Italy and Sweden?
  • And how can it be tackled in those countries?
  • How can schools be more explicit about their policies on sexual harassment?
  • How can schools tackle sexual harassment effectively?

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Supporting girls and young women victims of sexual harassment in schools: "me and you and everyone we know"

Iram Satti (IS): On this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Anthony Goodman from Middlesex University. We will be talking about the paper he recently published titled ‘Supporting girls and young women victims of sexual harassment in schools: Me and you and everyone we know’.

Hi, Anthony.

Anthony Goodman (AG): Hello again.

IS: Well, firstly, thank you for taking sometime today to talk to us. And obviously, this is all in light of your article that you've written recently about sexual harassment in schools.

AG: Yes.

IS: So I guess it would be really useful to know what your research is about and why you chose to look at sexual harassment in schools.

AG: I think that, in a sense, for me, it was unfinished business, I got started many years ago back in 2008, with a colleague, we did an edited book on children as victims. And what came over very strongly was this notion of the deserving and the undeserving victim. In many ways we wish we'd called the book children victims and survivors, because for a lot of them the trauma they suffer during their childhood stays with them. A lot of my work has been around work with adult offenders and you can see that a lot of traumatic experiences from childhood, if they're not resolved, end up with them really finding life very difficult to cope with and often get into serious trouble.

IS: So tell me why you specifically chose to look at sexual harassment in schools.

AG: I think schools are a really important area where these subjects can be addressed, because I think the other thing which may not immediately be apparent is that for many children, they're not really aware of what is harassment, so that what we found in the research was that a lot of the young women, the girls were resigned to having to put up with behavior, which we would consider as adults as unacceptable, but they felt they just had to put up with that, in some ways that it does seem a bit strange, but you have to really work with the children and young people to say, well, what is harassment? What is, what do you understand by that? What do we understand by that? Try and help them to realize that they don't have to suffer for unwanted attention from adult males, but also slightly older males very often.

IS: It's really interesting, what you're saying, and to be honest with you, it sparks a lot of things in my mind. So obviously, there's that recent example of the 15 year old school girl who was strip searched by police at school, which, you know, it's meant to be a safe environment for people and then when you've got people who you're meant to trust, who are adults who sort of elicit these types of behaviors. That's really troubling, isn't it?

AG: Yeah, I think there were two things that really concerned me about that, first of all, that the teachers did not go in and understand that to leave this girl unsupported with police, and that the police treated her it really all manner of circumstances as an adult, they didn’t look at her as a vulnerable young woman who should have had a mum with her. Really, so there's two things there is an issue about really looking beyond just the age of the child and see how young women are treated if they may be white, or if they are a person of color. There is research that has come out after we finished ours, which would imply that a lot of adults treat children of color as adults rather than as children. So yeah, it raises a lot of issues that case and left me feeling very troubled about what had happened.

IS: Yeah, yeah, no, it. It's something obviously, within the context of this, it is more in all contexts. It's really troubling and something really challenging to, I mean, I don't think I would ever understand it and why anyone would think that that's acceptable behavior. The other thing that all of this has sort of sparked in my mind, and I don't know if this is a little bit out there. I don't think it is. But in light of, you know, really high profile cases around the likes of Jimmy Savile. We're in a different time now, aren't we where people can be much more vocal about what's going on, because children who were victims back in the 70s, or, you know, 30, 40 50, years ago are now speaking out as adults. Would you? Would you hope that your research enables children to speak out at the time that these issues are actually happening instead of the situation's following them into adulthood. And, you know, this, they've carried on with this trauma.

AG: I think there's no automatic change that has occurred, that means that young women, young girls will continue still to be sexually harassed. And in all the three countries that we did the work in Sweden, Italy, and Romania, the projects that were going into the schools were already in there doing this type of work so that there was an awareness that this was needed. In England and Wales, there's research to show that there is quite a low level of awareness amongst a lot of young women about what they should not have to put up with. I think the strength of what we did was that we tried to bring in something that schools could use to help them to, to address this issue. And I think unless this the issue is actually put onto the agenda, the danger is that this sinks below the surface again, and there is a danger that young women will continue to have to put up with this unwanted attention and to think that this is what they have to accept.

IS: So you've just mentioned there, Anthony, the study focused on the three countries; Italy, Romania and Sweden, why was it these countries that you chose to research?

AG: I think they all had a, in some ways, a different background. If we literally go through them one by one, Romania, the level of knowledge of sexual harassment, the researchers there, the level of knowledge is low, there was an element we found talking to the young people that they felt they could be blamed that somehow if we go back a long time, though, a dress too short, or what have you done to have caused this. So it was really important to put across that this isn't something that you've done, this is something that's been done to you, and it's not acceptable. Again, in Italy, more knowledge, but also a lot of work being done in the schools to help young women to understand what they don't have to put up with and what is unacceptable. Sweden, on the other hand, has got more rules and understanding that this area has been researched more, and showed that there's a high level of abuse out there, but in all three countries that need for this type of work was there. So, in a sense, what it shows us it doesn't matter superficially, at least how well informed authorities are that this is taking place and how much they might be willing to say, yes, it's something we need to do with the problem is there. And for the young people, it's really important that they engage with this and we had interesting results. So, some of the young men began to appreciate that their behavior had been unacceptable and that they needed to change. So, you know, it works both ways that for young men, what they thought might be, okay, sharing pictures, and so on, they begin to appreciate, though it's not okay, it's not acceptable and that they need to change.

IS: One of the key findings from the project was that schools need to be explicit about their policies on sexual harassment. Can you expand on that?

AG: Yeah, so for a lot of the young people, male and female, they felt that the schools weren’t taking enough responsibility for ensuring that this was an area that was open to be discussed, and that, you know, the schools had a responsibility for their policies to make sure that those policies were acted upon. If there was a lesson to be learned, it was also that for the professionals, you need to be trained to be able to, to deal with this issue and some schools, the practitioners who are going in involved teachers, and in others they chose not to because depending on whether they felt that the teachers were confident enough to be able to handle this type of issue, and some teachers expressed surprise that where they had, had issues around harassment that a year down the line that the young people were still distressed, they didn’t appreciate that this wasn't something that was going to clear up overnight, just perhaps because it had become the public attention. So yeah.

IS: That's insightful, just bringing it back to schools and practitioners and people who are there to support young victims of sexual harassment. What would your advice be to them? And sort of what would be a good starting point for them to tackle sexual harassment? Surely, it's more than having policies and everything. But in practical terms, what could they be doing?

AG: I think just having policies on their own is not going to be sufficient. Because as I was saying, if you look at the three countries that we went into, Sweden has got the policies that they've also, like the other countries got the issues and problems. So, it's having professional staff and put it that way, who feel confident enough to be able to deal with the issue and I think it's important that all staff at the schools, whether they are backup staff, cleaners, whatever, that they understand the issues and feel confident enough to be able to bring it to the attention of others, because you can see whether a young person is withdrawn or angry and, you know, these things need to be picked up and looked at because a young person will show distress, and it may well be that the problem was within the family, they can't share it within the family, or it might be a slightly older, relative, or it might be somebody in the school who's a bit older. And for these students at such a formative time in their lives, it's really important that they feel that it's okay to have a significant adult that they can turn to, and that person will help them through a difficult pathway of coming to terms and understanding what's been done to them. They, they are victims, but not just passive victims, you know, they have a key role to play to stop others maybe for being hurt themselves to, to grow from being so hurt. And it's a responsibility for all of us.

IS: Yeah, absolutely. I think a really interesting point there is about and obviously, this has been picked up with the countries that you've studied, that in other countries where, you know, harassment, sexual harassment might be seen as a cultural norm, or where sort of women's rights are violated regularly. Have you got any insight on how these issues can be tackled in those countries?

AG: Well I think it's in all countries, it was very interesting, if I just turned to my own university, I had a display, we were doing this for students just explaining some of our research and one of the students was visibly upset, it was clear that things had happened to her. So I was able to say to her look, the university have got support services, all ages, not just in schools, you know, this sort of exploitation and vulnerability exists. And so, it's so important that people feel that they can have the confidence to go and get help, not just to, to accept this. So you know, whether they are children or older, it beholds on all of us to see this is on the agenda. And I think, for me, what the research was all about was to say, what can we do to help the professionals and the young people and the set of cards that we produced, which I take no credit for the cards because they were done by a professional, but for me, they're absolutely brilliant. And I would say to people, they could be downloaded, they could be used, you know, for further research, I think we could perhaps learn more about what circumstances and at what point use one card more useful than another. But we've got, I think quite a considerable set of cards here that have both scenarios that came from the young people, we did focus groups and pictures to help us understand what the pictures that are quite (illegible) I don’t know if that’s the right word, but you could look at these pictures and think, what do they mean what they display and it's the pictures that enable discussions to start so they might just be two people together. You know, there's one that's called intimacy for example, and it's just got two people in a quite an innocent embrace, but it's there for people to think through what does that mean? So, it helps break down the barriers. It just encourages young people to start speaking honestly and openly and I think that's what we need and for some we had all girls groups that seem to work, for some the girls wanted boys in there as well, because they wanted them to hear and understand which gave you is not just brave, but really helping to understand that it's both sides as it were that need to, to really get to grips with what's going on and understand what is acceptable, what can be shared, what shouldn't be, and how to treat people with dignity and respect.

IS: So yeah, 100%, you've mentioned the cards that were created for the study.

AG: Yes.

IS: What's next with them? And do you think there'll be used in the future? Are you hoping for that kind of wider dissemination?

AG: I really hope so. Really, this podcast is another opportunity to plug, these are, you know, these are available, there's no copyright, you could download them, I would be really interested to learn from people who have used them, how they found them, the they can be adapted, there are scenarios about acceptable behavior and when it goes a bit further. For me, these scenarios were very believable, because some of them are about how young people behave in terms of egging each other on things getting out of hand. I remember when I was, many years back when I was a parent governor of a school, we had an experience where two boys at the bottom of a stairs started off pushing girls then they started to touch outside and they end up putting hands up their skirt so that they were expelled and we had an appeal which we upheld because we could see how this behavior was dangerous. They needed to understand it. But the other thing of course, was had that behavior happened say at the bottom of a stairwell to a block of flats, then the police could have been called which didn't happen in the school, the boys didn’t get a criminal record which stays with them, and it would stop them perhaps doing all sorts of things. And it's this educative need, because when behavior is unacceptable, it then becomes you and that could stay with you for the rest of your life. So just because it happened to the school and the school took I wouldn't say lenient approach, but decided not to go down the route of putting the police in line would imply that there is that wide band spread of what could happen to those boys, from getting a criminal record to perhaps getting nothing and to getting away with it. And I think if it happens within the school, you can help them to understand yeah, this is really part of your growth and development. You mustn't do this. It's not acceptable.

IS: I again, I'm not sure if this is entirely accurate here but I guess that role of sort of toxic masculinity gets dismantled, doesn't it? Because if it's if it's already prevalent in a school setting, and it's challenged, that's only going to be a positive thing, not only for potential victims of sexual harassment, but for that individual, as well, because they're not having to play to whatever pressures are being put on them.

AG: Indeed, and it's funny, because when you're your turn, if you put it that way, you attuned you become vigilant. I was on the tube the other day, there was a sign and it said something like if someone touches you, this is harassment. And I was thinking, well, actually, where does the line end between what I would consider harassment and what I consider offending, sexual offending. And I, as far as I'm concerned, if somebody's actually touched, that goes beyond harassment. And yet there was this silo on the tube on there's a, you know, this is not harassment. And so, again, we may have our own definition of what we think is sexual harassment. I just think that the legalities of it people really do need to understand that this can be damaging for, for people for a long, long time. We know we're beginning to think, well, we haven't had anything on our statute before about what they call up skirting you know, taking pictures up a woman's skirt, I used to think this is outrageous, yeah, that's got to be an offence. So, if a woman is breastfeeding, you know that which is a natural thing, you take a picture of that, that is beyond what is acceptable. And you know, it that sometimes what all these things show is that the criminal justice system, the legal system, is always playing catch up with what is going on. But we do know enough, more than enough to know what is not acceptable sharing pictures, sharing images and so on. You know, this can be both male and female. Because you know, there are examples where, where girls have encouraged a boy to send a naked picture, then it's gone all around the school. This is, this is a terrible thing to do to that person, and it will haunt them because once the pictures are out in the public domain, they don't go, they don't go away, that this doesn't seem to be learned even by Hollywood stars. But for young children, they feel that it's the end of the world, they've shared a picture, and they just feel that their life has come to an end. And that is very, very depressing and worrying.

IS: It's the intersectional piece around, you know, this work that you're doing, the education element, the criminal justice aspect to it really does make you sense how interconnected everything actually is when you put it that way. And how far reaching the ramifications can be of what might one person seem like, like, a bit of banter, or whatever it might be, but actually, on the extreme end of it, it can really have devastating effects on people's lives.

AG: I really think so. Just sometimes what we picked up the sense of resignation of this is how it is, it's not how it has to be, I just think that the school is such a significant area where this could be picked up and dealt with, because there is an element in some communities that they don't want, as it were their dirty washing out in public. So, there is an element, we certainly we see this with adults and domestic abuse where, you know, in communities, they don't want this to come out into the public domain. And it's just so important that that support is there so that young people could learn in safety about what is okay, and what's not okay. In the different countries, I think what came out was, there has to be strategies about how you sell this type of education, and it has to be done through education and health, because otherwise, in some cultures, if I can put it that way, have more of a religious inclination, you know, they may just not want it to be dealt with at all. But I just think it's so important that we that we don't shy away from dealing with these difficult subjects.

IS: Yeah. 100%. And we're equipping people to protect themselves in the future as well. So yeah, it's only a good thing. Anthony, I think that's a wrap for us. This has been such an interesting conversation. Thank you.

AG: It's been my pleasure, my interest because I was really, you know, I admired the professionals that were delivering these programs. It was a tough ask because they had a hard job sometimes get this onto the agenda, but they persevered. And I think our project wasn't trying to show whether this existed it was just trying to show how can we do something that's more effective and helpful. We know it exists.

IS: Fantastic. Thank you, Anthony.

Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find a transcript of my conversation on our website as well as more information about our guests. I'd like to thank Anthony Goodman for today's episode and Alex Jungius from this is distorted

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