Beyond schooling: primary school girls experiences of gender and sexual violence.
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This ethnography explored primary school girls’ experiences of gender and sexual violence at Westhills Primary School. My key objectives were to understand the underlying factors that shaped my respondents’ experiences of such violence, to develop an understanding of how teachers’ attitudes contributed to these experiences, and to explore how the girls constructed their sexual identities. Throughout the study I highlight the importance of understanding the context in which gender and sexual violence occurs. Gender and sexual violence and harassment is not easily explained but through girls’ own experiences this study seeks to provide a contextual understanding of such violence. Often feminist researchers suggest that such violence is always an exercise of power that boys and men engage in to subordinate girls. Sexualised verbal abuse, taunts and teasing are conduits through which boys assert themselves to display dominance. In this study I ask questions about how humiliating acts—such as the ‘sexualised touching’ of girls’ private parts—can be interpreted both as an indication of heterosexual teasing linked to heterosexual attraction and as a humiliating act that seeks to erode girls’ sexuality by drawing attention to their sexual development. Such confusion suggests that girls are complicit in their own subordination, just as they are subordinated by the performance of dominant heterosexual masculinities. The study shows that heterosexual femininity is shaped by broader structural, cultural and social processes in which girls are subordinated through rampant sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Girls’ experiences of persecution and oppression are located in socio-cultural factors that manifest in gender asymmetries that benefit the construct of hegemonic masculinities and subordinated femininities. Such misogyny is part of the enactment and pursuit of hegemonic ideals since it works to destroy a girl’s concept of herself, eroding her sexuality and dignity and causing her humiliation. To claim that the girls were passive victims nullifies their sexualities, just as to claim that boys performed sexually harassing behaviours towards girls because of their age and stage of development is too simplistic: it nullifies the legitimacy of the girls’ experiences of unwanted touching, fondling and groping. While the school thus became a platform or training ground for boys to display culturally exalted forms of masculinity, such as boldness, sexual entitlement, heterosexuality and the privilege of male power, it was also a training ground for the girls. However, embedded in the girls’ experiences of persecution and oppression was their negotiation of their own gender and sexual identities in heterosexuality. Girls, too, are invested in heterosexuality, and a central aim of this thesis is to show the agency that young girls’ exercise through their experiences of gender and sexual violence. The girls’ increased sexual assertiveness debunks the myth of the sexual innocence and sexual passivity in young school girls, resisting the construction of them as little people who have little or no agency. The girls’ resistance and challenge to the hierarchal positioning that the boys occupy constitutes a challenge to hegemonic displays of masculinity such as male supremacy and male domination.. Girls have a sophisticated sense of what constitutes sexual harassment and violence. They have the ability to name and make visible their complex gendered and sexual entanglement with and among boys. Listening carefully to what girls themselves raised as problematic, unwanted and oppressive, has enabled me to illuminate the nuanced dimensions of sexual harassment and violence – physical, verbal and emotional assault – and its dynamic association with heterosexual masculinity and the broader social and cultural environment through which girls are subordinated. The girls’ experiences of sexual harassment, and the teachers’ lack of interest in addressing it, suggest that whilst the education system has evolved over time, the violence that the girls experience is situated within a larger sociocultural construction of gender that has its roots in patriarchy which, whilst being malleable, remains steadfastly robust and resilient. I conclude by arguing that what is required is a rigorous and concerted effort on the part of all teaching staff to examine our teaching practices, our accountability and our integrity in relation to our jobs as teachers and our ethics of care towards the learners. More importantly, it requires an analysis of our own gendered behaviours and beliefs, and a critical reflection of how these contribute to the regulatory capture of young girls’ sexuality and agency. Once we have a better understanding of young girls’ sexuality and agency, we will be able to reject practices that condone gender inequalities in our school and beyond and offer alternatives whereby the school can become a core site of change, and where teachers are prepared and supported to challenge the widespread practice and tolerance of unequal gender norms.