A man appeared in court last week charged with the rape of an 11-year-old girl on her way home from school. The news has caused widespread shock and consternation, but stories submitted to the Everyday Sexism Project website this year suggest that the sexual harassment of young girls in school uniform is far less rare a phenomenon than we might like to think.
The huge number of entries we have received detailing the sexual objectification and harassment of schoolgirls comes from parents, from bystanders and from victims themselves. One girl told us:
"I was 13 when I experienced sexual harassment for the first time... I was stopped by a group of men (at least 17 or more years old) in a black pick-up truck. They were telling me that they liked school girls and that I probably "have a tight pussy." I didn't understand what they were talking about. I was 13... I barely had started growing pubic hair when this happened."
When the girl objected, she says one of the men shouted "you're feisty, I like that" before speeding off. She continues:
"For years I have been keeping the secret of all the attacks fellow school mates an [sic] strange young men have shown towards me. I very much considered myself a child at the time of these events."
Too often the reports we receive suggest that girls are too scared to speak up or shamed into feeling that what has happened was their own fault. Because this frequently silences victims, many people are unaware of how severe the problem is. A man wrote to us, shocked, after witnessing a similar event:
"The other day when I was sitting outside of my work two middle school girls walked out after getting ice cream on their way home from school... a jeep drove by and a man yelled "sluts" at them. It was a very upsetting thing to witness. I dont [sic] want to live in a world where men think its okay to treat any women, much less two girls who couldn't have been more than 14, like that. Something is very wrong."
Many of the stories we have received also suggest a worrying normalisation of sexual harassment within schools by students themselves, with one woman telling us:
"At my child's primary school is a playground corner difficult to see by supervisors - kids call it The Rape Corner".
Another woman described her own experiences of sexual assault in a school setting, and explained the normalisation that left her feeling unable to report them:
"Between the ages of about 12 and 14 I and many other girls were regularly pestered and groped by boys in the halls. I remember one boy in particular would run after a friend of mine and kind of tackle her grabbing her boobs. Thinking back it's really odd none of us felt we should/could tell teachers about this... It happened a lot... It felt like it was just something that happened when you got older. But it shouldn't be."
Another told us:
"In the first year of high school I was walking home with a friend and a group of boys (three or four I think) from my year pushed me against a wall trying and managing to put their hands up my skirt. My friend just watched and laughed".
One student even said:
"When I was 15 I was reading aloud in English. I asked what page to start from and was told Page 3, and the male laddish teacher added 'you should be on Page 3'. I was a geeky kid and already ashamed of my body. All the class laughed I never forgot it."
A theatre in education facilitator working on projects with young girls in schools told us about 13-year-old girls "telling me they get beeped at and catcalled on [the] way home from school" and a girl of the same age who was sent a text message from a boy at school "threatening to rape her".
It is deeply saddening that young girls are receiving the message, both as they walk to and from school and from within their own peer groups, that their bodies are fair game for catcalls and groping, and that sexual assault is something to be laughed at, played down and made into a joke. At the same time their male peers are also affected, as they form their ideas about what constitutes 'normal' treatment of the opposite sex. Of course these reports vary in their severity, but it is important to sit up and take notice of what is happening all the time, not just when a serious crime has been committed.
To give some idea of the frequency with which events like this are reported, every one of the accounts mentioned in this article was received in the past week alone, without any special request for particular submissions on this theme.