Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools Contents

1The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools

The scale of the problem

How common is sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

11.There is no centralised data collection of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. Under-reporting, and a lack of consistency in schools reporting sexual assault to the police and other authorities, also makes it hard to establish a definitive picture of levels of sexual violence in schools.

12.Data collected by the BBC in 2015 found that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three year period, including 600 rapes.9 However, the journalist who gathered this data said that problems with how data is recorded and a reluctance to record incidents means:

I personally believe the…data I collected and collated from nearly all UK police forces reflects the tip of the iceberg in relation to sexual harassment in UK schools.10

We assess current data recording and reporting mechanisms further in Chapter 3.

Survey data on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools

13.Despite the lack of centralised data on incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of the extent of this problem through the extensive quantitative and qualitative data submitted to this inquiry. A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school:

14.Teaching unions also raised concerns about levels of sexual harassment in school. In 2016 the NASUWT survey17 included a section on sexualised incidents and bullying between pupils for the first time. Teachers reported:

Qualitative evidence

15.This survey data is backed up by extensive qualitative evidence. Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project observed that:

Our project entries and my interactions with pupils across the country strongly support [the BBC] statistics—this is a widespread, regular and common problem. It doesn’t affect every child but it is something that the majority of girls are experiencing, and is widespread even in its most severe forms.18

16.A focus group by Brook in the Wirral found that the problem begins in primary school, with young people reporting that:

Sexual harassment in primary and secondary schools occurs “multiple times a day”, “lots”, “quite a lot”, and “definitely happens in primary school, especially in year 5 and 6”, with the activities occurring in years 5–6 listed as “Lifting up skirts and pulling down pants” and “Some kids [being] scared to wear skirts.”19

17.Research by Public Health Bristol City Council20 confirms these findings. Young people from school years 9–11 (aged between 13 and 16) said that:

Personal testimony

18.We received a number of submissions outlining incidents of sexual violence and harassment that had occurred within schools. These included evidence from the parent of a girl who had been sexually assaulted and harassed throughout primary and secondary school; the parent of a young woman sexually assaulted by a male peer and who struggled to gain any support from the school; and the parent of an 11 year old girl sexually assaulted and blackmailed by male peers at school.

19.Young people who gave evidence to us noted the ubiquity of sexual harassment in school:

I guess the thing that people would say they see the most, and we see as well, is slapping of bums and flicking [lifting up] of skirts. That is a common thing that people see in schools. There is also derogative term calling—calling women bitches and stuff like that—which is also a common thing that you see in school, on a daily basis really.21

You see it every day in my school. I wouldn’t say it was appropriate, but it still happens.22

20.We also received anonymous evidence from teachers and other school staff concerned about levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence at their schools and inadequate responses to this behaviour. One Birmingham teacher told us:

I have had many young girls sobbing and humiliated in my office because partially naked images have gone viral. I have seen girls being threatened with those images going viral if they chose not to perform sexual acts on a boy. I have seen girls have to leave school because of the bullying they received from their naked images going viral. I know of pupils, boys and girls, who have been sexually assaulted and felt too ashamed to come forward and tell an adult.23

A lunchtime supervisor at a middle school explained how prevalent sexual harassment was in her school:

In the Year Eight and Seven playground I hear constant sexual language particularly from the boys. I have witnessed boys being very rough with girls… The girls seem resigned to this treatment and when I have spoken to them about it they say none of the teachers listen. If I challenge the boys they seem to feel it is acceptable and just “banter.”24

The normalisation of sexual harassment and sexual violence

21.As the testimony above demonstrates, there is a problem with sexual harassment being dismissed as “just teasing” by a “boys will be boys” culture.25 This issue came up strongly in our evidence session with young people. As one girl told us:

The thing is that [boys] don’t see it as harassment. They just see it as being with their friends, having fun, calling girls “sluts”—stuff like that. So whereas the girl may feel upset or less confident, they see it as, “I’m just having fun with my friends if I slap a girl’s bum.” …So if a teacher says, “What are you doing?” and tells them to stop, they are just like, “I’m just playing around, Miss.”26

Other young people told us that teachers often do not take incidents of sexual harassment seriously:

I don’t feel that it is really dealt with. If a teacher sees it, they will say, “Oh, you shouldn’t say that,” and then it will be forgotten about really easily and no action will be taken about what happened.27

Teachers should be a little more aware of what sexual harassment is and how sometimes, even if it seems like the boys and girls are playing, it can be sort of demeaning. They need to be aware of what it is and how it can affect people.28

22.The normalisation of sexual harassment and violence is described in evidence submissions from academics working in this area, including Dr Vanita Sundaram of York University. She refers to a range of research demonstrating the prevalence of “lad culture” from a very young age:

Research with 13–18 year olds suggests that young people trivialise and justify violence against women and girls, view some forms of sexual harassment as normal and even inevitable and excuse rape. Teenagers excuse sexual assault and rape in certain circumstances, including when girls/women are viewed as having behaved ‘inappropriately’ in relation to a male friend, acquaintance, partner or ex-partner.29

23.The Addressing Sexual Bullying Across Europe (ASBAE) Project, which interviewed young people across five EU countries between 2013–2015 found sexual harassment was often taken for granted:

It became apparent that, whilst sexual bullying was widespread, the young people had previously accepted most sexual bullying behaviours as just a ‘normal’ part of their everyday lives. …The findings from the professionals further supported this…viewing sexual bullying as a widespread problem that had become normalised by young people, and suggesting that the ubiquity made it difficult for young people to identify problematic behaviours as sexual bullying.30

The researchers also noted that this normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse makes it less likely that victims will identify behaviour as abusive and are therefore unlikely to report it.

Victims and perpetrators

24.There is strong evidence that young women are more likely to be targets of sexual harassment and sexual violence than young men. Analysis by the Connect Centre for International Research on Interpersonal Violence and Harm concludes that “the impact of sexual victimisation within young people’s relationships appears gendered: girls report higher rates and a greater negative impact compared to boys.”31

25.Their research found that, of the 80% of young people who reported having some form of intimate partner, 31% of girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual violence from a partner. A subsequent study in 2015 found UK rates of 41% for girls and 14% for boys respectively. In both studies most young people reported being subjected to emotional pressure rather than physical force.32

26.The Centre for Gender Equal Media also noted that:

Young women and girls are still overwhelmingly the target for sexual violence and harassment online. The perpetrators of all forms of online sexual harassment are most frequently young men, meaning a gendered approach to prevention is required.33

27.The Growing Against Sexual Violence project, which delivers workshops to equal numbers of young men and women, also finds that young women are disproportionately the victims of sexual exploitation. In their work, they found that girls and young women made up 93% of child sexual exploitation (CSE) related disclosures in 2012–13 and 87% of CSE related disclosures in 2013–14.34

28.However, although there is clear evidence that girls and young women are most likely to be victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence, it is important to recognise that boys and young men can also be victims. As the Youth Justice Board noted:

Statistically, girls and women are more likely to experience harassment, violence and abuse. However, it is widely believed that the numbers of boys and men experiencing abuse is heavily underreported. The Children’s Commissioner’s 2015 report highlighted that boys and young men are less likely to be identified and perceived as victims.35

29. The Youth Justice Board is also one of several organisations pointing out that disabled young people are much more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than others. This point is also raised by the Anti-Bullying Alliance:

Disabled children and those with special educational needs are at particular risk of sexual abuse. A report for the NSPCC also showed that children and young people with learning disabilities were over-represented when researching children and young people that display harmful sexual behaviour. It is important to be aware that disabled children and those with special educational needs report the highest levels of both severe and physical bullying in schools and are therefore likely to be a high risk group in relation to sexual violence in schools. 36

30.Other groups of young people are also particularly affected by sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The issue of LGBTI bullying and harassment was raised by a number of respondents to this inquiry and should be acknowledged as a significant issue, though beyond the scope of this report.

31.The differential impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence on young people from black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds must also be recognised. As Marai Larasai from Imkaan told us:

One issue that we also need to be mindful of is that different groups of girls experience sexual harassment in different ways. BME girls are much more likely to be called names that are racialised—things like “black bitch”.37

Victim Support also told us it has “noted an increase in sexual harassment and violence against Muslim girls in the wake of national, high profile cases of child sexual exploitation involving male Muslim perpetrators.”38

Impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools

32.Girlguiding UK’s 2015 survey found that three quarters of girls aged between 11 and 21 say anxiety about experiencing sexual harassment negatively affects their lives in some way—from what they wear and where they go to how they feel about their bodies.39

33.It can also have an impact on girls’ participation in class, as noted by UK Feminista, who point out that 25% of 11 to 16 year old girls say that concerns over potential sexual harassment make them consider whether or not to speak out in class.40

34.Members of the ATL teaching union reported some of the consequences of sexual harassment that they had observed.41 These included:

35.In their research with over 1,000 young people across the UK, arts organisation Tender found sexual harassment and violence had an impact on both genders:

The impact of sexual violence on victims was described as reducing levels of self-esteem, confidence and ability to concentrate in class; with reference to perpetrators, reduced levels of empathy was observed, and in both boys and girls an increase in the normalising and acceptance of a range of violent behaviours.42

36.Other impacts of sexual harassment at school have been identified as: post-traumatic stress disorder; self-harm; isolation and withdrawal; substance use; sexually transmitted diseases; depression and anxiety; and lack of attendance at school.43

Is sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools increasing?

37.As noted above and in Chapter 3, there is limited data to show the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. More generally, there is evidence of an 88% increase in the number of child sexual exploitation offences being reported to police over a four year period. Around a third of the child sexual abuse offences reported to the police relate to alleged perpetrators under 18 years old and therefore can be potentially categorised as ‘peer on peer’ abuse.44

38.An increase in reports may show a positive shift in the propensity to report incidents, rather than an increase in prevalence. However, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigations, said he believes that there is also an increase in sexual offences against children:

A rise in actual child sexual abuse offending…is being predominantly driven by the online world and the opportunities which this is presenting to potential offenders.45

39.An increase in the number of young women seeking support after sexual harassment and sexual violence is also reported by Rape Crisis South London.

Within our own organisation, we have seen an increase in the number of young women under 18 seeking specialist support through the national rape and sexual abuse helpline and both our counselling and advocacy services. Collectively, the young women’s experiences of sexual violence have included; rape (anal, oral and vaginal), sexual assault, grooming (face to face and online), sexual abuse and sexual harassment (including being sent pornography). Recent police data at the end of March 2015 also showed 30% of recorded rapes were committed against girls under the age of 16.46

40.Practice-based evidence from those working in schools suggests there may be an increase in sexual violence and sexual harassment, facilitated by technology and social media. The link between pornography and sexual violence was a consistent theme amongst expert witnesses and is discussed further in Chapter 6.

41.In their research with members, the ATL teaching union found that:

Nearly 40% of education staff say young people they work with have viewed pornography, and half have noticed an increase in sexually explicit conversations among pupils in the last five years.47

42.Big Talk Education have also seen an increase in younger pupils exhibiting sexually inappropriate behaviour at school:

It was about twelve years ago that we first started to receive referrals regarding sexual inappropriate behaviour amongst pupils in a Primary School. Since then we have seen a steady increase and deal with approximately 1 or 2 referrals a week. …We do believe that this is the tip of the iceberg and because of the cost implication pupils/students are only referred to us when schools feel out of their depth.48

43.Some contributors to this inquiry have argued that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is no more common today than in the past. Dr Andrea Richardson said that:

The role of online pornography is cited as a key contributory factor for this kind of harassing behaviour. In fact, such behaviour was commonplace long before such online materials were available…I attended primary school from 1990–1997 and the practice of boys pulling up girls’ skirts to reveal their underwear was extremely commonplace at this time, in my school, and others in the area.49

44.However, many other experts argued that access to pornography has changed the culture in schools and young people’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent. We assess the evidence for this in Chapter 6.


45.Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is a significant issue which affects a large number of children and young people, particularly girls, across the country. Evidence shows that the majority of perpetrators of this abuse are boys, and the majority of victims are girls. However it is essential that the negative impact on both boys and girls is recognised and addressed.

46.There is insufficient data to conclusively demonstrate that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is a growing problem. It is true that such behaviour has occurred in schools for many years, as in wider society. However, significant qualitative evidence suggests that increasing access to pornography and technological advances, including online platforms, can facilitate harassment and violence and thus exacerbate the problem.

47.Teachers, parents, young people and third sector organisations are telling us that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is having an impact on young people and school life. Consequences include: physical and emotional harm, including teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; girls feeling unable to fully participate in educational and extra-curricular opportunities; teachers spending valuable time dealing with incidents of sexual harassment and bullying; and young people developing a sense that sexual harassment and sexual violence are acceptable behaviours and learning social norms that are carried through to adult life.

48.The Government and schools must make tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence an immediate policy priority.

10 Ms Claire Savage (SVS0083) para 1

11 Girlguiding UK Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2014 December 2014

12 End Violence Against Women Poll Results October 2010

13 Connect Centre (SVS0024)

14 Girlguiding (SVS0061) para 10

15 End Violence Against Women Poll Results October 2010.

16 Ibid

17 NASWUT (SVS0072) para 25

19 Brook (SVS0055)

21 Q37 Student K

22 Q43 Student J

23 Birmingham school teacher (SVS0030)

24 Anonymous written submission (SVS0005)

25 Dr Andrea Richardson (SVS0094) para 6

26 Q6

27 Q25

28 Q33

29 Dr Vanita Sundaram (SVS0042) para 6

30 ASBAE Project (SVS0017) para 16

32 Ibid

33 Hill, C., & Kearl, H. (2011) Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school

37 Q104 Marai Larasi

38 Victim Support (SVS0073)

40 UK Feminista (SVS0029) para 15

43 See UK Feminista (SVS0029), The University of Bedfordshire (SVS0065) and Girlguiding UK (SVS0061)

45 Ibid para 7

46 Rape Crisis South London (SVS0076) para 40

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

8 September 2016