Between children

On the first day of the first full week of the new school year, the BBC reported that cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ had doubled over a period of two years. In 2016-17 the police in England and Wales recorded just under 8000 incidents where both the abuser and the victim were minors; in 2018-19 the figure was over 16,000. During the pandemic the number fell, but there were still more than 10,000 cases recorded in 2020-21. And since these figures include only cases which were reported to the police, they almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.  

This news would, of course, be shocking whatever words were used to report it; but I couldn’t help being struck by the phrase ‘sex abuse between children’. This formula seems to have originated with the BBC (the statistics were compiled for its long-running current affairs programme Panorama). But it soon became ubiquitous: as so often happens in contemporary news reporting, the language used in the original source got picked up and recycled by other media outlets with minimal or no alteration. The Times’s headline, ‘Sexual abuse between children more than doubles in two years’, was almost identical to the one that appeared on the BBC website (‘Reports of sex abuse between children double in two years’). The Mail Online had an expanded version, ‘Reports of sex abuse between children doubles [sic] in two years to 16,000 cases in England and Wales – with 10% of youngsters accused aged 10 or under’. The Sun was an outlier, diverging from the ‘between children’ formula and going with ‘Reports of children sexually abusing other kids DOUBLE in a year to almost 16,000 cases’.

One thing that’s notable about all these headlines is their use of gender-neutral/inclusive terms like ‘children’, ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’. That pattern continues in the body of the reports, and in quotes from named sources like the psychologist Rebekah Eglinton, who said that unwanted touching and being pressured to share nude photos had become ‘a part of everyday life for children’. There were also quotes from politicians who affirmed their commitment to ‘keeping children safe’ and ‘creating a safe learning environment for children’.

In most contexts this would be unremarkable—neutral/inclusive terms are the default choice—but in this case it’s striking because the issue under discussion is by no means gender-neutral. In the words of the BBC’s report, ‘a big majority of cases involved boys abusing girls’. Later the report spells out what ‘a big majority’ means: around nine out of ten abusers were boys, while eight out of ten victims were girls (figures which suggest that there must have been as many cases of boys abusing other boys as there were of girls abusing anyone). The framing of sexual abuse as something ‘children’ do to other ‘children’ glosses over this enormous imbalance. Apart from the BBC, most media outlets treated it as an incidental detail: the Times and the Sun each devoted one sentence to the information that most abusers were boys, while the Mail didn’t mention the issue at all.  

But when I first heard ‘sex abuse between children’, what caught my attention wasn’t primarily the word ‘children’. In the headlines, at least, I found the choice of ‘children’ understandable: the point, I assumed, was to flag the topic of the story as cases where both abuser and abused were under 18, as opposed to cases where children are abused by adults. Still, to my ear there was something not quite right about the phrase–and on reflection I concluded that the problem was ‘between’.

My guess is that ‘between’ was chosen for the same reason as ‘children’—to emphasise that the report dealt with cases where both the perpetrators and the victims were minors. More familiar phrases like ‘sexual abuse of children’ wouldn’t have made that clear. But ‘between children’ is jarring, because it tends to imply that what’s being described is in some sense a joint activity. That’s how ‘between’ works in phrases like ‘a quarrel between neighbours’ or ‘a fight between rival gangs’. The activities referred to are inherently adversarial, but they are nevertheless understood to require reciprocity. You can’t quarrel or fight with someone who isn’t also quarrelling or fighting: if your adversary doesn’t reciprocate you’re not having a quarrel or a fight, you’re just ranting at them or beating them up.

‘Sexual abuse between children’ is apparently constructed in the same way, but it doesn’t fit the template, because reciprocity is not part of the meaning of ‘sexual abuse’. You can see this even more clearly if you turn the nouns (back) into verbs. If it’s true that ‘the Jets fought the Sharks’ then it’s also true that ‘they fought [each other]’; but ‘Jack sexually abused Jill’ does not entail that ‘they abused [each other]’. Sexual abuse, by definition, is something one person does to another without their consent, let alone their active involvement. That’s what makes ‘sexual abuse between children’, and indeed any reference to ‘abuse between Xs’, so peculiar.  

As I’ve already said, I don’t think whoever came up with ‘sexual abuse between children’ actually intended to convey the idea of mutuality or reciprocity. It’s more likely they just didn’t notice that implication. But I still think it’s a problem, as is the consistent preference for gender-neutral or inclusive terms. These linguistic choices are part of a larger pattern—one I’ve commented on in several previous posts about the representation of both sexual violence/abuse and sexism/sexual harassment in schools.

In commentary on these issues there’s a persistent tendency to present coercion or exploitation as mutual engagement. One way in which this is often done is by exaggerating girls’ maturity, agency and power. You see this a lot in court cases involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of children by adults, where it is clearly intended to minimise the adult’s culpability. By presenting the girl as an autonomous agent who voluntarily engaged in a relationship with an older man, defence lawyers hope to persuade jurors, judges and/or public opinion that the so-called ‘abuse’ was in reality no such thing: though her age makes it technically illegal to have sex with her, her precocity makes that a victimless crime, and the verdict or punishment should reflect that.

The idea of female precocity can also be invoked in cases where the abuser is a minor rather than an adult. Boys, the argument goes, mature later than girls both sexually and socially, and this is a reason to cut them some slack: they’re not really bad, just clumsy and impulsive (and easily manipulated by more sexually sophisticated girls). Both versions of this discourse represent girls as more grown-up, and more equal in their relations with boys and men, than most really are, or than they tell researchers they feel.

In relation to schools there is also a persistent tendency to frame sexism and sexual harassment in terms of an eternal ‘battle of the sexes’ which ‘naturally’ expresses itself in conflict between boys and girls. In 2015, when the Institute of Physics issued some guidelines for combatting sexism in schools, commentators regretted that this po-faced political correctness might bring an end to (in one Telegraph writer’s words) ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake”’. Like the ‘between children’ formula, ‘baiting each other’ implies reciprocity: the combatants are by implication positioned as equals, ‘cheerfully’ engaged in the mutual ‘baiting’ which has been a feature of playground culture since time immemorial.

The IoP made it easier than it should have been for the media to take this line. Though its intervention was prompted by concern about the way sexism affects girls, its guidelines made a point of being inclusive, treating sexist insults directed to boys, like ‘sissy’ and ‘man up’, on a par with those directed to girls (most of which are far more degrading than ‘sissy’). Other reports published since 2015 have taken a similar approach: though they invariably report that both verbal and other forms of harassment are experienced far more frequently by girls, they end up paying disproportionate attention to the minority of cases where boys are targeted. Presumably this even-handedness is meant to counter accusations of anti-male bias; but when the evidence shows clearly that sexism in schools affects girls far more commonly and more seriously than boys, a representation which suggests otherwise is itself biased.

The same bias is apparent in comments like the one I quoted earlier from the psychologist who said that unwanted touching and pressure to share nude photos had become ‘part of everyday life for children’. It is overwhelmingly girls for whom those things are ‘part of everyday life’, just as it is girls who make up the great majority of victims in cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ (while boys are an even larger majority of abusers). In both our language and our actions we need to face up to the reality of that difference, and of the power imbalance that underpins it. We will never solve the problem of sexual violence and abuse if we habitually use linguistic formulas that obscure what the problem really is.   

Life lessons

Where I live September is back-to-school time, and this year the annual ritual had a special significance because it followed a period of several months when schools were closed to most children because of the pandemic. There were many reports on how delighted pupils were to be back with their friends in real classrooms with real teachers. But we all know (some of us from first-hand experience) that for some young people that won’t have been the story. There are many things that can make returning to school a less than delightful prospect. One of those things is sexism.

I first blogged about this back in 2015, when the Institute of Physics (IoP) published a report called Opening Doors, about sexism and gender stereotyping in schools. This document was on my radar because of the emphasis it placed on language. The Institute’s research had found that sexist language—covering a spectrum from casual stereotyping (‘I need two strong boys to help me with this table’) to name-calling and verbal bullying—was ubiquitous in schools. Half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using it to girls, and one in five teachers had themselves been subjected to sexist verbal abuse by pupils. The researchers also noted that this was rarely treated as a problem: often it was dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, though ‘many pupils, especially girls, did not see it as such’.

The IoP’s mild suggestion that schools should be less tolerant of sexist language got a predictable reception from the right-wing press, which treated it as both an outrage and a joke. The Sunday Times’s report lamented that

The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

Still, I found it encouraging that the report was getting some attention (and some buy-in from the government—it had a foreword written by Caroline Dinenage, the then-Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities). If anyone bothered to read the whole thing they’d find some useful examples of good practice and various practical, achievable recommendations. So, five years later, what progress has been made?

I fear that the answer is, ‘not much’. Some schools may have acted on the IoP’s recommendations, but the national initiative that made headlines in 2015 had evidently been forgotten by 2017, when the National Education Union (NEU) in association with UK Feminista conducted another study and produced a report entitled It’s Just Everywhere: A study on sexism in schools—and how we tackle it.

For anyone who’d read the IoP’s report two years earlier, this was déjà vu all over again. Once again, the researchers noted that ‘the use of sexist, misogynist language…is commonplace in schools’. In a sample of over 1600 teachers, almost two thirds of those who worked in mixed-sex secondary schools said they heard this kind of language at least weekly, and nearly a third said they heard it every day. Their further comments made clear they were not talking about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. Teachers expressed concern about boys discussing girls in language they described as ‘degrading, sexualised and offensive’ or even ‘violently misogynistic’; one interviewee reported that ‘sexually unacceptable/ threatening comments’ were made by certain boys both to girls and to female members of staff. Though the report treated sexist language and sexual harassment as separate issues, the accounts it reproduced showed that language played an integral part in many or most incidents of harassment.

In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like (Secondary school teacher)

Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years’ bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal (Female student)

In secondary schools, the use of sexist and misogynist language is no longer, if it ever was, a reciprocal, equal opportunity activity: it’s overwhelmingly a case of boys targeting girls with overtly sexual comments. And the effect on girls is not trivial. According to Girl Guiding UK, which conducts an annual survey with a sample of girls aged 11-16, fear of attracting these comments from boys makes many girls reluctant to draw attention to themselves; about a quarter report that they try not to speak in lessons. Even if most girls do not practise self-censorship, why should any girl (or indeed, anyone at all) be expected to spend 30+ hours a week in an environment where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence? Beyond its effects on girls’ academic education, what life-lessons is this experience teaching them?  

According to the NEU/Feminista study, few schools were making any systematic effort to tackle the problem. In their sample, 78% of students and 64% of teachers were not aware that their school had any policy on sexism (suggesting that even if one existed it wasn’t being followed), and only 20% of teachers had discussed the issue during their training. The report concluded with a list of recommendations: sexism should get more attention; schools should adopt explicit policies; teachers need specific training; students need opportunities to talk about it. This is all pretty obvious, and it’s also pretty similar to what the IoP came up with. So, three years later, has anything changed?

This month a book has been published which claims that something has indeed changed since 2017—but not, unfortunately, for the better. In her introduction to Men Who Hate Women, a tour of the misogynist subcultures of the online manosphere (incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs (‘men going their own way’) and other assorted men’s rights activists), Laura Bates explains that what prompted her to investigate these subcultures was hearing their language and their talking-points parroted by boys she met when she went into schools to talk about sexism. This hadn’t been a thing when she first started visiting schools, but two years ago she began to notice a change:

[Boys] were angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism. Men themselves were the real victims, they’d tell me, in a society in which political correctness has gone mad, white men are persecuted, and so many women lie about rape. In schools from rural Scotland to central London, I started hearing the same arguments. The hair rose on my arms when I realised that these boys, who had never met each other, were using precisely the same words and quoting the same false statistics to back up their claims. …These [online misogynist] groups have dug their claws into teenage boys across the country.

Laura Bates is among the feminists who place the ideas and activities of online misogynist groups in the conceptual frame of terrorism (this is a framing I have some reservations about, but in this post I’ll leave them aside). She is concerned that teenage boys, most of them more confused and lonely than violent and hateful, are being radicalised online, and recruited into an extremist movement which bears comparison with white nationalism or radical Islamism. Education, she believes, has an important role to play in countering this radicalisation, just as it does in the other cases. She suggests that schools could make use of the expertise that already exists in organisations like White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative, run by ‘men who hate men who hate women’.  

My own feelings about this proposal are mixed. I don’t dispute that some of the young men who are drawn to the manosphere are struggling with personal and social problems; but the thought that kept coming into my mind was ‘what about the girls?’ If schools are pushed into doing something about misogyny only because it’s been added to the list of extremist ideologies that can lead to acts of terrorism—and if what they do focuses on boys as potential victims of radicalisation—what does that say about our priorities? Where does it leave the victims’ victims?

I think that what schools most urgently need to address is the sexism of the ‘hidden curriculum’—what students are learning, not from explicit instruction, but through participating in the daily routines of school. It’s no use teaching formal lessons about the evils of sexism and misogyny if students’ whole experience outside those specific lessons shows them that in practice ‘no one thinks it’s a big deal’. In many schools, if the studies I’ve linked to are anything to go by, that’s exactly what their experience shows them. How much can sexism and misogyny matter if boys can verbally abuse girls with impunity, and girls’ only refuge is silence?

The most general lesson girls are learning from the experiences described in study after study is that their needs, rights and feelings are not important–or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ freedom. Until we as a society decide that this is intolerable, we will doubtless be presented with many more reports which highlight the same problems, make the same recommendations, are met with the same brief flurry of concern, and are then left to gather dust.