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Action against sexual harassment in schools is more about protecting the male orgasm than girls

As MPs urge the government to tackle widespread sexual offences among pupils, we are still aiming to teach boys the “acceptable” level of misogyny, rather than equality.

How much pain and suffering is the male orgasm worth? Is there ever a time when a man’s right to access hardcore pornography is outweighed by the rights of young women to feel safe?

I am wondering this in light of today’s Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The way in which young men see their female peers is tainted, poisoned by broader cultural narratives about what female bodies are for. Boys are not born with a need to hurt and humiliate for pleasure, but they are acquiring it, and fast.

The findings of the report are dismaying, if not altogether surprising. It states: “A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school.”

Data published in September 2015 found that over 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over the course of three years, including 600 rapes. Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, while 41 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 in intimate relationships reported experiencing sexual violence from their partner. Sexual harassment starts in primary school, with lifting up skirts and pulling down pants, driving some girls to wearing shorts under their school skirts.

One obvious conclusion to draw might be that boys do not like girls very much. They see them as objects to sneer at, flesh to grab at, holes to penetrate. They don’t see them as people, at least not in the way that they see themselves.

The report claims that, “boys and young men . . . are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people”. The images they are seeing distort their beliefs not just about what women want, but what women are.

Of course, it’s not as though sexism and rape culture are products of the internet. They have been with us for millennia. We tell ourselves that we are making progress. Eventually – not in my lifetime, though, nor even in my children’s – such things should not exist. Yet it seems that as soon as one channel for hate disappears, another emerges. The report posits “a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours”:

“The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise . . . The government should immediately update its guidance on SRE [sex and relationship education] to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”

While I don’t disagree with any of these recommendations in particular, there’s something about the whole enterprise that makes my heart sink. It’s as though pornography is a natural disaster, something terrible that cannot be avoided, or some strange, dark offshoot of youth culture – a modern version of painting your walls black while listening to Joy Division – around which the grown-ups must tiptoe and fret.

You’d never think it was something created, paid for and used by men of all ages and classes, as part of the way they systematically dehumanise, objectify and exploit female bodies. You’d never think it was a multibillion pound leisure industry in its own right. You’d never think that violent, abusive pornography only exists because huge numbers of men want it to.

I understand the arguments. It’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it (other than make more of it, harder, faster, crueller, the lines between consent and coercion increasingly blurred). The only thing we can do now is hope that SRE (sex and relationship education) lessons at school – followed up by consent lessons for those in higher education – will counteract the worst effects.

It’s as though misogyny itself is not something to be eradicated, but something young men must learn to enjoy in moderation. Grown men can handle it, we tell ourselves (after all, it’s not as though they’re sexually harassing and raping anyone, is it?). It’s the young ones you’ve got to worry about. They just don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Unlike the punter who can magically tell whether the person he is penetrating has been coerced, or the viewer with a sixth sense that informs him whether the rape he is watching is real or fake. We’re genuinely meant to think it’s only children who are at risk of not seeing the humanity in others.

I am tired of this. I do not want my sons to grow up in a world where watching violent pornography and paying to penetrate the body of someone poorer than you are seen as a perfectly acceptable recreational activities as long as one is over 18. Where watching scenes of choking, beating and rape – without knowing how much is acted, how much is real – is justified on the basis that nothing that gives you an orgasm ought to be stigmatised.

I do not want my sons to attend the “sensible, grounded sex education” lessons being proposed by Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller if all they learn is how not to be too “laddish”, how to keep their misogyny at an acceptable level for polite society, how to pretend women and girls are human without truly seeing them as such. Because then this is not about equality at all. This is about etiquette. The gentrification of misogyny: down with lad culture (so vulgar!), up with hardcore porn on the quiet. No rapes until home time, this is a serious establishment.

It’s not good enough. Girls are suffering, horrendously. Their self-esteem – their very sense of self, their belief that their bodies are their own – are being destroyed. What if the cost of ending their suffering would be to say “Enough. The male orgasm is not sacrosanct”? There is nothing liberal or enlightened about promoting an age-old system of exploitation via the cum shot. Men – adult men – could end this if they wanted to. Surely a first step would be to stop pretending otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA