This week my 16-year-old daughter and around 40 of her peers were told by a teacher that the girls shouldn't walk home in the PE kits they had just worn for a lesson "in case they got followed and dragged into bushes".
When I complained to the school, I was astonished that this position was defended under the guise of "we are just trying to protect the girls, as there are bad people out there". When I pointed out they were giving the message that their short skirts would make them somehow culpable if they did get attacked, they struggled to see the relationship.
Sadly, this attitude is incredibly common. The Fawcett Society has just published a shocking report which found that 38% of all men and 34% of all women said that a woman is totally or partly to blame if she gets sexually assaulted.
Sky News anchor Stephen Dixon and weather presenter Nazaneen Ghaffar caused outrage when discussing the report implying they agreed women were partly responsible for attacks depending on what they wore.
This insidious 'victim blaming' side of rape culture sadly starts in schools, and can begin when a girl is very young. A local primary school recently told pupils as young as seven that they "must wear cycling shorts under their skirts if they are going to do cartwheels, in case boys see their underwear"
This privileges their sexualisation at a ridiculously early age over education and physical activity, a very dangerous message to give. One of the reasons found in research by a government select committee into girls under participating in sport was poor body image, and feeling embarrassed by what they were wearing.
I spoke to Lisa Clarke from the No More Page 3 team about what happened to my daughter in particular. She agreed:
"This is such an irresponsible thing for a school to say and in so doing they have sent a dangerous message to young women and young men.
Society teaches girls that they are sexual commodities first and foremost and that their bodies are there to be decorative and to be acted upon. Sport and physical exercise can teach the opposite. It can show that our bodies can be trained by us to do amazing things. That we can be strong and in control. Yet in one misguided line this school have reduced girls' bodies in sports wear to something sexual and dangerous before all else. They have also reinforced to all the boys that they are powerless in the face of female flesh and are not responsible for their actions.
If uniform policy is an issue it must be reinforced without gender prejudice and without laying any responsibility for others perception or actions at the feet of our young women. Anything less is irresponsible and endangers young women more, not less."
It's not just that this message will discourage participation in sport for girls, but policing uniform skirt length in general is a huge issue. There is a very fine line to be navigated between enforcing uniform rules and appropriate dress, and reinforcing the message that women's bodies are dangerous, as highlighted excellently here by Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project.
What schools also need to be aware of here is that many girls being given this message will have already been assaulted. Personally, I had been seriously assaulted by age 16 (and blamed myself for my behaviour and dress). 1 in 6 women will be victims at some point in their lives, and we all have a responsibility to ease that suffering, shame and guilt by reinforcing that it's NEVER what we wore, drank or said at the time. How we approach uniform rules in school needs to be framed with this in mind.
I challenged the teachers with their comments on 'protecting the girls' based on real evidence. It is a MYTH that women in short skirts or wearing 'provocative or revealing' clothes are more likely to be assaulted. This study by Theresa Meiner, focuses on the topic: Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play a Part in Sexual Harassment Cases? concludes that the way a woman dresses plays NO PART.
So, how can we make this right so we DO give the correct message to our young people? Many schools are beginning to get to grips with this thorny issue.
Perhaps we could start with good education for students and teachers, and debates around the issues of safety, consent and sexual violence. Jo Morgan, Head of Pastoral Curriculum at The Portsmouth Grammar School has written some excellent guidelines - Dealing with Sexual Violence: A Guide for Teachers, and believes "to help protect girls and boys from the negative impact of rape culture, it is time to start a frank dialogue about sexual violence in schools."
Mark Woodward, Head of Careers at (my old school) Bablake in Coventry, challenges male leaders and teachers to be positive role models, and here discusses the importance of bringing feminism to the fore for the benefit of all.
Strong leadership in schools is another solution offered in this TED talk by Jackson Katz: Violence against women--it's a men's issue:
"You know what's missing? The leadership. But it's not the leadership of student athletes. It's the leadership of the athletic director, the people in charge who make decisions about resources and who make decisions about priorities in the institutional settings."
So let's see some leadership from our schools, please.
Our girls need to learn without being over-policed for their skirt length for the wrong reasons.
Our girls need to feel strong and empowered in their PE Kit, not ashamed. Taught #KitOnHandsOff.
All our young people, boys and girls, need to be taught frankly about sexual assault, consent, and how deeply entrenched our rape culture is. We can turn this around, so let's start early.
It's now more important then ever to get this right. Let's start in schools.