Content warning: This article contains multiple references to sexual violence, particularly in relation to those under the legal age of consent. Reader discretion is advised.

 

In June 2020, Soma Sara founded the Everyone’s Invited movement and website. The goal of this movement is to reveal deeply entrenched patterns of sexual violence in society and in schools, otherwise known as ‘rape culture’. The website hosts over 14,000 testimonials from survivors of sexual assault, abuse and harassment – many of whom reported their experiences of rape culture in schools.

The onslaught of survivor testimonies detailing the problematic and worrying culture of sexual violence and harassment in schools has prompted the government to investigate, and has given rise to Ofsted’s new commitment to reviewing safeguarding arrangements and policies.

In this article, we explain how your school can critically assess its own culture with regards to harmful sexual behaviour, and ensure you are doing everything you can to minimise this harmful environment for pupils. Read on for more detail.

  • What does rape culture mean for schools?
  • What can you do?
  • How can you prepare for Ofsted?
  • Helpful resources
  • Next steps

What does rape culture mean for schools?

 

Defining rape culture

 

The Everyone’s Invited website defines rape culture as: “When thoughts, behaviours and attitudes in a society or environment have the effect of normalising sexual violence.” Society has a rape culture, whereby sexual violence against women is very common, and where it is often trivialised, glamorised and normalised. This can lead to a society in which women and girls feel less safe in their daily life than do men and boys. Although rape culture has damaging and violent repercussions for people of all genders, rape culture impacts women and girls most of all. In 2021, a UN Women UK survey found that roughly 80 percent of women and girls in the UK have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

 

Signs of rape culture

 

All women and girls are harmed by rape culture, whether directly or indirectly, as are many nonbinary and gender diverse individuals and some men and boys. This separates this issue from other safeguarding issues that you will likely deal with, as keeping your pupils, particularly young girls, safe from harm involves recognising where behaviours and views are symptomatic of, and uphold, rape culture. Interventions are more effective if they come in to action before cases of harmful sexual behaviour take place – if you are solely focussing on how to handle active cases, your interventions is likely to come too late to make meaningful change across your school. Ignoring behaviours associated with rape culture normalises them, which contributes to a culture of sexual violence. Such behaviours include:

  • Making inappropriate and/or sexually-charged comments or ‘jokes’ about other individuals’ bodies.
  • Calling individuals ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’.
  • Expressing misogynistic views and opinions.
  • ‘Upskirting’ or otherwise taking and/or sharing indecent imagery of others.
  • Pressuring individuals into relationships of any kind, especially when those individuals initially rejected their advances.
  • Displaying double standards in thoughts and speech about sex in relation to gender, e.g. praising boys for ‘scoring’ with girls whilst degrading girls for sexual contact with boys.
  • Making ‘jokes’ about rape or sexual assault.
  • Defining masculinity in a way that is dominant and aggressive and defining femininity as submissive and passive.
  • Victim blaming, i.e. believing that victims are totally or partly to blame for sexual assault committed against them.
  • Asserting that obtaining consent from an individual before sex is ‘too complicated’ or ‘confusing’, and/or describing the new emphasis on consent as an attempt to trap men.
  • Failing to understand when they are making people uncomfortable with their actions and/or sexual or romantic advances.
  • Accusing people of being a ‘tease’ if their sexual advances are rejected.

 

How does rape culture impact schools?

 

Schools have a pivotal role to play in eradicating rape culture. Schools need to be proactive in safeguarding pupils, which means looking more deeply at their environment, culture and atmosphere to see where mechanisms, patterns of thought and action and systems uphold normalisation of sexual violence. It is not enough to react to concerns as they occur. Schools should promote a zero-tolerance stance on harmful sexual behaviour, and sexual violence should never be considered a ‘normal’ part of sexual development as this contributes to the nurturing of rape culture in schools and in wider society.

Schools are in a unique position not only to safeguard pupils from sexual violence by their peers, but also to aid in the wider movement to eradicate rape culture in society. This can be done by teaching young people about healthy sexual attitudes, consent, and consequences for harmful sexual behaviour. In response to this movement, school leaders should start asking questions about what they are doing to eradicate rape culture, and what they are inadvertently doing to uphold it.

 

Other definitions

 

Other important definitions include the following:

Rape – The legal definition of rape in the UK is when a penis penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of someone without their consent.

Sexual assault – A sexual act carried out without consent, i.e. forcing, coercing or manipulating someone to be a part of any kind of sexual activity. This includes any of the following activities if they are conducted without the explicit consent of the individual:

  • Touching someone sexually
  • Groping
  • Watching an individual participate in sexual activity
  • Forcing an individual to watch you participating in sexual activity
  • Penetrating someone with an object other than a penis without consent; this is sexual assault by penetration and carries the same sentence as rape.

Sexual abuse – This is generally used to talk about actions towards individuals under the age of 16. Because the age of consent is 16 in the UK, an individual under that age cannot legally consent to sexual activity.

Sexual harassment – This is any unwanted sexual actions or advances, whether a one-off or a repeated incident. Sexual harassment will often leave someone feeling uncomfortable, distressed, intimidated or humiliated; however, it is important to note that just because someone may laugh along with a joke you made, it does not mean that your behaviour was not sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can be anything from leering at someone’s body and making sexually degrading comments about them, to sending unsolicited nude images to them without consent.

 

What can you do?

 

A lot of safeguarding guidance focusses on identifying those who may have been harmed or who may be at risk of harm; however, rape culture is a more complex issue. Rape culture is not an incident, it does not concern a particular group of perpetrators and/or victims, and it will involve asking some difficult questions about your school’s environment, e.g. how sex, sexual behaviour and gender roles are discussed in your school, and how sexually harmful behaviour amongst pupils is handled. This section explores some actions you can take to address this issue.

 

Publish your most up-to-date safeguarding policy

 

It is a statutory requirement to publish your school’s Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy on its website; however, it is more important than ever to ensure your school publicises this policy.

You must have the most up-to-date version of this policy on your site at all times. Even if you only make a minor update, you should upload this latest version to site. It is possible that Ofsted may do ‘dip tests’, i.e. looking at a random selection of safeguarding policies on school websites, and you need to ensure that you are giving everyone who looks at your website, including Ofsted, the most accurate picture of your school’s safeguarding provision.

Ensure your safeguarding policy includes a clear and robust section on peer-on-peer sexual abuse. Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is now a national concern and the Everyone’s Invited testimonials evidence that this issue deeply affects thousands of pupils across the country. You must make sure that your safeguarding policy takes the significance of this issue into account and outlines clear, logical and detailed processes for recognising peer-on-peer abuse, reporting concerns and incidents, handling these concerns appropriately, and disciplining perpetrators. Permissive policies can often lead to lax practice in the case of safeguarding – meaning that pupils are often unclear on how and to whom to report a concern, and there is often a lack of consequences for harmful sexual behaviours. Where there are no robust processes for disciplining this harmful behaviour, the cycle of rape culture is allowed to continue, meaning that:

  • Victims of abuse often feel as though their trauma has been trivialised, which can be incredibly traumatising in and of itself. Victims can begin to feel as though the abuse was their fault, or that it was not really abuse in the first place, making them vulnerable to further harm in the future.
  • A message is portrayed to victims and potential victims that there is no point in reporting sexual violence against them if it happens again because nothing will be done about it even if they do report.
  • Perpetrators can conclude that there was nothing wrong with their behaviour and commit similar acts in the future.

Ensure that the policy is easily accessible. Your safeguarding policy should never be hidden deep within your website. It is good practice to ensure it is easy to find, and in a readable format that can be seen on any device. Even if you have not updated your policy in a while, you should still review its place on site periodically to ensure that all relevant links and downloads still work properly and can be read in all formats.

 

Check that your policy matches your action

 

Policies are traditionally filled with language in future tense, e.g. ‘the school will…’. It is important to ensure that these statements of action in your policies are being routinely enacted in the day-to-day environment of your school. Look through your safeguarding policy and highlight the areas that you don’t feel are taken as seriously as they perhaps could be.

It may be a good idea to form an action team, led by your DSL, to accumulate any actions written in your policy that are not being carried out to the best of the school’s ability and work out a plan to address these. Think beyond statutory requirements, and beyond keeping pupils safe from harm – instead, you should deeply analyse how best your school can challenge harmful sexual behaviour in all its forms and ensure that the behaviours and thought patterns that uphold rape culture are identified and challenged.

 

Know and analyse your data

 

It is vital that your school’s leadership is aware of the number of instances of peer-on-peer sexual assault, abuse and harassment that happen in your school. Knowing how many of these instances have been reported and managed can be a really useful starting place. You can begin to analyse the actions you took in response to each report and question what each party learned from the experience. If you feel as though the perpetrators in each instance were not adequately aware of what was wrong with their behaviour and how to avoid repeating that behaviour in the future by the time your school moved on from the handling the incident, you should question whether there is more your school can add to its processes for dealing with harmful sexual behaviour, e.g. a course for those about whom reports of harmful sexual behaviour have been made that teaches about consent, respecting others and healthy sexual behaviour. 

It is also important to look at other safeguarding concerns under different labels and interrogate whether your school has been mistakenly classifying certain behaviours as bullying rather than sexual violence. Although bullying is also a severe form of peer-on-peer abuse, it is incredibly important that incidences of sexual violence are dealt with as such, as classifying them as bullying ignores the deeper problem of rape culture.

Although you must know your school’s data, do not take the figures you have as fact – be realistic about the fact that there will be many instances of sexual violence that have not been reported to your safeguarding team, and that your school is unaware of. Take a look at how incidents have been reported previously and analyse how those processes could be better and more appealing to victims.

 

Ask yourself the smaller questions

 

Obviously, it is tempting to go straight to asking yourself that one big question: ‘Does my school have a rape culture?’. It is important to note, however, that if you ask this one question, without delving into the deeper issues and smaller questions, you will likely answer it with a ‘no’. No school wants to believe that they propagate a culture of sexual violence amongst young people; however, the reality is that a lot of schools do, albeit often inadvertently.

Think about the following questions, and record your answers:

  • How does your school define peer-on-peer rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment? Is it sufficiently differentiated from the definition of bullying? How many incidents of sexual violence have been mislabelled as bullying if you use broader definitions, such as the definitions outlined in this guidance?
  • Does everyone in your school community, including pupils and parents, know the identity of your DSL and their deputies and how to contact them?
  • Does your school actually know how safe pupils (particularly girls) feel at school, and with their peers outside of school? How does the behaviour of boys in the school make girls feel?
  • How does your school work with pupils who have committed harmful sexual acts to support them in changing their sexual attitudes? Have you seen evidence of a change in these pupils’ behaviour since the incident(s)?
  • Do your staff understand the difference between healthy and harmful sexual behaviour? Are there any staff members whose behaviour or lessons to pupils surrounding this issue need to be improved?
  • Does your curriculum and education on sexual behaviour match the level of risk around your school? Does your curriculum talk enough about consent?
  • Does your school have an understanding of what groups are at increased risk of becoming victims of sexual violence, e.g. LGBTQ+ individuals, girls from BAME backgrounds and pupils with SEND? Does your school know how to support these groups with regards to their sexual safety?
  • Does your school’s ethos and values promote safety from harmful sexual behaviour?
  • How does your school handle low-level concerns, i.e. behaviours that have minor impact but could be harmful if repeated more than once or could lead to majorly harmful behaviour in the future? Does your school only step in once behaviour becomes a serious issue? Is there more preventative work your school could be doing?

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of the questions that should comprise this action, and your self-reflection will have to be tailored specifically to your school’s circumstances. These questions will, however, give you a start. If the answer to any of the above questions is negative, you should immediately turn the question into an action to be addressed. For example, if you answered ‘no’ to the question about whether your school community knows your DSL, then make an action to remedy this a priority, e.g. a poster campaign with a picture of the DSL and their contact details.

Make sure you are honest and realistic in your answers. Remember, sugar-coating your answers to these questions might make you feel better in the moment, but it will only harm your school and pupils in the long run.

 

Show how you are taking this seriously

 

It is a good idea to be as transparent as possible when you are taking action against rape culture in your school. With the publicity this issue has rightfully received, there will be more eyes on how your school is handling the situation, including those of Ofsted. You need to demonstrate that you are treating the issue with the weight it deserves. As rape culture relies, in no small part, upon brushing sexual violence under the rug, an open and transparent commitment to handling the situation is, in itself, taking action against rape culture.  

It is advisable to speak to pupils. You could conduct focus groups in school with those you identify to be at the most risk of sexual violence – this is likely to be girls. Ask them how they feel the school upholds rape culture, and whether there are areas of the school or people within the school that make them feel unsafe or at risk of sexual violence. Ask them if they feel the school would take their concerns seriously, and, if not, what they think the school could do better. Not only will this help give you a clearer insight into how your school environment propagates rape culture, it will also give your pupils the reassurance that you are acting to protect them and that you care about their sexual safety. You could also speak to boys about their attitudes towards sex and sexual relationships to give you more of an idea of any harmful attitudes that you need to put in work to change.

Write to parents, governors, stakeholders, etc., to reassure them that you are evaluating your safeguarding procedures and arrangements and acknowledge any hurt or concern there may be about rape culture hitting the headlines. You can give them positive examples of what you are doing or what you have done in the past, and tell them what they can expect to see your school doing to combat this issue in the future.

Again, it may be a good idea to set up an action team to look into the issue explicitly and evaluate how your school is upholding rape culture, as this will not only help you to get to the root of rape culture in your school more quickly, but can also reassure your stakeholders, and the pupils who may have been victims of sexual violence in the past, that you are handling this issue with the severity and care that it warrants.

 

Look at your relationships or RSE curriculum

 

Your RSE or relationships curriculum can be the perfect place to reach pupils with regards to sexual behaviours. You should look through your learning materials and the topics you cover and ensure that you are emphasising what positive and healthy sexual behaviour looks like.

This can be introduced from a young age. Even if pupils are too young to learn about sexual activity, they can be taught about how to respect people’s boundaries, e.g. when someone does not want to give them a hug, they should respect that as a personal boundary of that person. The most important thing that pupils can be taught about in this situation is consent. If your curriculum does not adequately address what consent is, what enthusiastic consent looks like and, most importantly, what consent is not, this can feed into rape culture.

A symptom of rape culture is that a lot of education on sexual violence focusses on the victim; what they were wearing, where they were walking, how they can avoid making themselves vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation in the future. In order to eradicate rape culture, it is advisable to come at this from the opposite angle, focussing on how to respect the boundaries of everyone involved in the sexual activity.

To help combat rape culture in your school your RSE or relationships education curriculum should:

  • Define consent, and make it abundantly clear that:
    • No one is entitled to someone else’s body, being allowed to touch someone else’s body is a privilege that only they can explicitly grant.
    • Certain things can impair an individual’s ability to consent, e.g. excessive alcohol or being under the legal age of consent, and consent is not valid if it is impaired.
    • The absence of a ‘no’ does not mean a ‘yes’, e.g. someone who is uncomfortable and silent, or says phrases such as ‘I’m just really tired’ or ‘I’m not in the mood’, is also displaying that they do not consent to the activity – only a ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.
    • Consent can be rescinded at any time – if someone initially consents but later changes their mind, this must be respected and the activity must stop.
  • Talk about sex and relationships openly in an age-appropriate way. If you treat sexual activity as taboo, it is more likely that rape culture will flourish in your school. Children are naturally curious about sex – this is a normal part of development – and if they are implicitly taught that talking about sex in an open and honest way is off-limits, they are likely to:
    • Not understand how to communicate with sexual partners or potential sexual partners about healthy sex, which can lead to unhealthy relationships or misunderstandings surrounding what behaviour is appropriate.
    • Find answers to their questions by looking at pornography, which is likely to give them a skewed, harmful and unrealistic expectation of what sex really is and how to treat sexual partners, particularly women and girls.
    • Fill in the gaps of their knowledge with other messages they hear from society, e.g. young boys assuming that they are free to objectify and touch women because that is what they see on television and hear in music.
  • Focus on communication and empathy, and emphasise bodily autonomy of all individuals, e.g. by driving the message that everyone has a right to not be touched by someone else unless they want to be.

It is also important to recognise where your school and the staff within it inadvertently uphold rape culture during RSE or relationships education. Teaching young girls how to avoid being raped or assaulted, particularly when this teaching is done in front of their male classmates, contributes to culture where women and girls are blamed for the degradation and violence committed against them based on what preventative and protective actions they did or did not take in the lead up to their assault. Although there are things that people can do to make themselves feel safer and to minimise a perpetrator’s ability or opportunity to attack, if this is a key focus of your school’s approach to teaching about rape and sexual violence, this can uphold rape culture in your school. Your focus should be on how to prevent perpetrators attacking victims, not the other way around.

 

Map out the quickest route to success

 

Ask yourself what some of the challenges to eradicating rape culture are that can be addressed immediately. You can use any analysis conducted on your data or on the content and quality of your safeguarding processes and curriculum to help you with this step. Obviously, addressing this issue is likely to be a long-term effort, as harmful sexual attitudes cannot disappear overnight; however, there is likely to be things you can do immediately that might make a difference.

For example, you could publicise the identity and contact information of the DSL throughout the school. You could start a drop-in with the DSL that is available to all who want to address concerns. You could create a confidential email address for pupils to use when reporting incidents of harmful sexual behaviour. You could see whether there are any safeguarding organisations or specialists, e.g. the NSPCC, you could partner with to help you in overhauling your school’s culture and environment.

Little steps are as important as big steps, and although it will be frustrating that this issue is not one with an easy or overnight solution, the most important thing to display to your stakeholders is that you are taking steps to address rape culture in your school. Getting some achievements under your belt as soon as possible, however small they are, can help in massive ways.

 

Analyse the root causes

 

Harmful sexual behaviour is disproportionately committed against women and by men, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that this type of sexual violence comprises as much as 98 percent of total incidents in the UK. A large part of the reason as to why it often happens in this way is the construction of gender roles. Rape culture is exacerbated by promoting the conflation of masculinity with being strong, aggressive and dominant, and women with being submissive. Messages that young boys receive throughout their youth often tell them that it is not okay to be open about their emotions or to show care and respect towards women. Cultural influences, such as pop and rap songs, often encourage boys to see women as objects of the masculine gaze and promote the idea that sex and attraction to women is an essential part of growing up – the portrayals of sex they find through these mediums are often very unhealthy and harmful!

To tackle rape culture, you have to look at how boys, girls and nonbinary individuals are treated and differentiated in your school on the basis of their gender and how your pupils are encouraged to think about their sex and gender. You could think about promoting healthy behaviour that is taught to be practiced equally by all genders and encouraging your pupils to diverge from rigid gender roles, e.g. setting up a boys musical group or a girls football team.

 

Remove harmful phrases from your vocabulary

 

Be very cautious with the messages that you are putting out to the pupils in your school with regards to sexual behaviour. Even though you might not realise it, small things that you say or do, as the adults and role models in your pupils’ lives, can have a large impact on pupils’ perceptions of harmful and healthy behaviour and of right and wrong. It’s time to retire the common phrases that, when interrogated, are shown to condone harmful sexual behaviour.

For example, the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ is often used when young boys engage in low-level harmful sexual behaviour; however, this phrase trivialises this behaviour. When this phrase is used, regardless of whether its usage is in relation to sexual behaviour or not, it contributes to a culture where men and boys are not expected to take full responsibility and accountability for their actions and the harm that they cause people. Other phrases to avoid, and to challenge if you hear them used, include:

  • Phrases that minimise the importance of full and enthusiastic consent, e.g. ‘don’t take ‘no’ for an answer’.
  • Phrases that imply victims are at fault for sexual violence, e.g. ‘she was asking for it’.
  • Any phrase that uses the word ‘rape’ as a slang word, e.g. as a synonym for ‘destroy’.
  • Phrases that use euphemisms or gentle language to describe sexual violence in a more palatable way, e.g. non-consensual sex (there is no such thing as non-consensual sex – this is rape).

Think carefully about the message that your pupils could be getting from what you say and ensure that you are promoting a culture whereby all of your pupils, regardless of their gender, are held to the same standards of behaviour, and are held accountable for all of their actions.

 

How can you prepare for Ofsted?

 

In response to the growing number of survivor testimonies on the Everyone’s Invited website, Ofsted is set to investigate how schools in England deal with harmful sexual behaviour amongst their pupils. The DfE has announced that a review will be launched to “look at the extent and the severity of the issue and ensure schools have appropriate processes in place to allow pupils to report concerns freely, knowing these will be taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and appropriately”. It also made a commitment to ensuring that guidance on how schools should deal with harmful sexual behaviour is sufficient and analysing whether current inspection arrangements can appropriately address concerns.

The review is set to last until the end of May 2021, and will involve the inspectorate working with various agencies and settings to address the issue. Ofsted has said that the terms of its review will be released shortly – we will update this article when more information has been released. To ensure you are kept up-to-date with Ofsted’s plans, add this article to your ‘Watch list’ by clicking the blue bell icon on the article page.

In the meantime, however, there are some things that you can look at to help you prepare for Ofsted taking a closer look at your safeguarding arrangements. There are five areas that Ofsted will normally make judgements in during full inspections that you can use to frame any internal reviews of your safeguarding provision: overall effectiveness, behaviour and attitudes, quality of education, personal development, and leadership and management. It is important to ensure that safeguarding is threaded through all five areas as much as possible. For example, your school can be judged inadequate in ‘overall effectiveness’ and ‘leadership and management’ if your safeguarding processes are ineffective, and in ‘behaviour and attitudes’ if your pupils do not feel safe. These are big issues, and can impact your school’s reputation and Ofsted grade. Although Ofsted’s review will not impact your school’s grade, keeping Ofsted’s frameworks in mind while responding to its concerns can be helpful to ensure you are paying the necessary attention to all aspects of safeguarding across your school’s operations.

Ofsted will be looking at whether pupils feel safe and your processes for handling peer-on-peer abuse, so look at what you can do to improve these areas as much as possible before Ofsted gets the chance to review your safeguarding provision. Even just being able to display that you are making a clear effort to address rape culture in your school will go a long way with inspectors, especially if you can clearly demonstrate where improvements have been made.

 

Helpful resources

 

There are a number of places you can go to for support with this issue. For compliance and procedural matters, you can take a look at our Safeguarding Hub, which includes a variety of resources from model policies to guidance.

It is also wise to familiarise yourself with the kinds of stories and patterns that crop up through the Everyone’s Invited testimonies page – please note that this page includes detailed depictions of harmful sexual behaviour that may be triggering for some readers. Discovering patterns of behaviour by reading these testimonies can help you get a clearer picture of the behaviour you are trying to change and the places and groups within which harmful sexual behaviour normally take place, both inside and outside of schools.

The Contextual Safeguarding Network also has a collection of resources entitled ‘Beyond Referrals – Schools’ that are designed to help schools to create safer school environments and to help them in self-assessing their current safeguarding provision.

Next steps

 

 

Contextual Safeguarding Network (2020) ‘Beyond Referrals – Schools’ <https://www.csnetwork.org.uk/en/beyond-referrals-levers-for-addressing-harmful-sexual-behaviour-in-schools> [Accessed: 6 April 2021]

Hall, A., (2021) ‘Webinar: Could your school have a rape culture?’

Everyone’s Invited (2020) ‘We are a movement committed to eradicating rape culture’ <https://www.everyonesinvited.uk/about> [Accessed: 6 April 2021]

Office for National Statistics (2020) ‘Nature of sexual assault by rape or penetration, England and Wales: year ending March 2020’ <https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/natureofsexualassaultbyrapeorpenetrationenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020> [Accessed: 6 April 2021]

Ofsted (2019) ‘Education Inspection Framework’

Strain, Hockett and Saucier (2015) ‘Precursors to rape: pressuring behaviours and rape proclivity’

UN Women (2019) ’16 ways you can stand against rape culture’ <https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/11/compilation-ways-you-can-stand-against-rape-culture> [Accessed: 6 April 2021]

UN Women UK (2021) ‘Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces’