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“Where is the line?” Campaign for Change around Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is still a daily occurrence in schools, public spaces and online settings across South London and young people are ready to do something about it. As a result of being raised in a society which upholds rape culture and often blames survivors, who are disproportionately women and girls, for the violence they experience and excuses perpetrators, who are disproportionately men and boys, young women often feel it’s their behaviour that need’s to change, rather than the perpetrators.

For far too long, sexual violence prevention consists of ‘safety messages’ which are predominantly aimed at women and girls, instead of focusing on the simpler and more effective message to perpetrators: ‘don’t sexually harass’.

‘Where is the line between sexual harassment and flirting?’ is a telling question, which is asked often in our workshops. The real question sitting underneath this is ‘what can I get away with?’ often followed up with ‘girls need to make the line clearer’. But the problem does not lie with ‘blurred lines’: young people, like adults, understand and read verbal cues and body language every day.

The young people we work with know exactly where the line is – that it’s not a compliment if it leaves us feeling uncomfortable, because it means that behaviour comes from a place of power, control and entitlement.  The problem lies with the fact that we socialise men and boys to feel entitled to ignore those lines, often with no accountability.

What can we do about it?

Prevention messages aimed at girls changing their behaviour, dress or language clearly do not work, with one in three girls telling us they have experienced sexual harassment in their school uniform. That’s why our sexual violence prevention work instead focuses on challenging the abusive behaviour, and the attitudes and beliefs which support violence against women and girls, shifting the responsibility to the perpetrator, whilst creating a space for support and empowerment for survivors in the room.

We centre young people’s voices in all the work that we do, in line with Rape Crisis South London’s Empowerment Model. As sexual violence and harassment is about having power over someone and taking their power away, our approach to facilitating prevention workshops with young people models the opposite.  We create a space to explore the power, voices and choices of the young people we are working with. Young people are recognised as experts on their own lives and experiences, who are capable of driving their own solutions. Young people’s voices must be front and centre in the prevention of sexual harassment.

It is powerful work, informed directly by RASASC’s experience of over 30 years delivering specialist sexual violence support to women and girls who have survived sexual abuse. Young women and girls aged 5 are included in those who access our service, which in turn ensures that we are in an incredibly and honourable and unique position where we can always ensure that our prevention is rooted in a deep understanding of young people’s lived experiences of sexual violence.

Empowering young people to end sexual harassment within their communities

A recent example of this work was a 7 week programme focused on sexual harassment, with a group of young women studying at Merton College. They told us that sexual harassment happens to them every day, and yet they are rarely believed or taken seriously when they tell people.

The focus of the programme was Bystander Intervention – a concept stemming from an understanding that ultimately, sexual harassment is only ever the responsibility of the perpetrator, but as communities, we can hold perpetrators accountable for their abusive behaviour, support the person who experienced that abuse, challenge social norms that support sexual harassment and create a culture and an environment which does not turn away from violence.

But there are some key voices that must be brought into these discussions. As with our programme at Merton College, so often those who sign up to our training and workshops are women and girls. In a society where women and girls and LGBTQ+ people are experiencing disproportionate levels of sexual violence and harassment, the labour of ‘preventing’ sexual violence and harassment is still weighted towards those experiencing it on a daily basis. Men and boys need to be encouraged, supported and challenged to do more, with women and girls leading the charge for change.

Creating a better world

Over the course of the programme, the young women at Merton College decided that they wanted to take social action against sexual harassment. They created a poster campaign at their College aimed at harassers, bystanders and those experiencing harassment. They also developed an Agenda for Change – a powerful document outlining the action they wanted to see from their council, their College and their peers to help them end sexual harassment in Merton. Here are some of the key things they what they want you, and other people in their communities to do:

  • Don’t sexually harass people
  • Intervene if you see sexual harassment happening, by being an active bystander
  • Find out more about sexual harassment so you are more aware about what it is and how you can stop it if you see it happening
  • Listen to and believe someone that talks to you about their experience of sexual harassment.

A group of these young women are now advocating for these changes to be made by presenting their ideas directly to a board of stakeholders at Merton Council in summer this year. Watch this space.

They also thought about what the world would feel like if sexual harassment didn’t exist, envisioning a world where they felt ‘safe’, ‘confident’, and ‘free to do what they want’. We all have a part to play in helping them to create this world.

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If you are interested in knowing more about our training and prevention packages, including workshops for young people, please get in touch with our Training and Prevention Coordinator by email on training.coordinator@rasasc.org.uk

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