EXCLUSIVE: Dr Liz Gordon – Sexual harassment: silence and power

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For the past couple of months I have been researching and reporting on claims of sexual harassment by students at Christchurch Girls’ High School.  In an anonymous and confidential survey, they were asked about their experiences of sexual harassment.

During the course of the study there was some media coverage from the UK.  First was Keira Knightley’s story that she was sexually harassed every day of her life. Was this some celeb hyperbole (love that word, even if I can’t pronounce it) or something real?  Then, in response to reports of high levels of sexual harassment towards schoolgirls, a national report from England by OFSTED, the review agency, that 90% of girls reported having been sexually harassed.

We already had our own study underway, of course. Ours did not show a 90% harassment rate, but certainly a 60% rate. 

What it did show was that the 430 girls who had experienced sexual harassment had experienced it in total nearly 2700 times between February and May 2021.  That made us think.  2700? How did that happen?

The harassment happened on the streets both near the school and in town, on the buses, at parties and really wherever the girls were. Most of the harassers were young males (48%) or older males (43%) with a smattering of workmates, family members, teachers and girls/women.

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The most common harassments were verbal, including cat-calling, yelling, shaming.  This may not sound so bad, but imagine if your daughter, aged 15, walked along a street and past a group of boys, who shouted out “B****” or “C***” or “I want to f*** you, or even, a phrase I haven’t heard since the 1970s but is apparently a meme on the internet, “get back to the kitchen”. Really? And the worst of the worst, delivered by a relatively young boy to a senior student walking past: “I want to f*** you ‘til your back breaks”.

Older males often appear in cars or on bikes, overtaking the young woman and harassing her.  A group of them in a car might turn around two or three times to come back for more. It is terrifying. On bikes, cyclists might zip by yelling, or sometimes stalk a young woman down a street.  One cyclist shouted “I want to rape you” to a girl, and she took shelter in a restaurant until he went, heart pounding. Younger males are, of course, everywhere the girls are.  They seem to hunt in packs.

One of the questions unable to be answered by this study is whether there is a small number of repeat offenders out there, or lots of one-timers.  Do groups of blokes get in their car every afternoon to abuse girls on their way home? Are they sort of career harassers? Does every young man have to perform a harassment or two as a rite of passage? Or are there, indeed, just a few performing their abusive rituals over and over?

Apart from the sheer number of events, there were more than 20 direct reports of rapes, with many more hinted at. We know that some young women chose not to complete the survey due to the overwhelming effect of their experience on them, which they wanted never to discuss.  I expect some of these young women will read this blog and I don’t want to go into too much detail.  Let’s just say that the worst of these was three separate incidents, all at parties, where drunk girls were led, on a false premise, into situations where a group of boys was waiting to have their way with her.

Was it three different groups, or is there a rape gang operating in Christchurch?  Who knows? Because none of these events was ever reported, and in a couple of cases we were the first to have been told.  None of the rapes – not one – was reported to the police.

Which leads me to the next bit. The silence. Girls reported feeling uncomfortable, upset, nervous, degraded, embarrassed and afraid as a result of their experiences. A good number of them fear it was their own fault. 

But they change their behaviour.  They love party skirts, but will never wear them again. They wear baggy clothing, loose jackets, shorts under school skirts, trousers where they can. They disguise their bodies.  They take different routes home and avoid public transport in general and specific buses in particular.

They walk only during the day or in well-lit places.  They avoid lonely roads. They walk with fear. They want to forget and find it hard. What many don’t realise, but was evident from the stories they told, is that they carry with them trauma and possibly PTSD.  We also know, of course, that this does not just go away, and for some the scars will remain for life. The testimony of the victims of sexual abuse in state care shows that these things can shadow a whole life.

What has happened? Well, we have not yet done work on the why, but perhaps the influence of violent and deeply sexist rap songs, the ubiquitous internet delivering up porn, alongside old insults in new terms…. I don’t know.  It does make me wonder, though, how relationships are going to go in the next generation, if the only terms by which boys can address girls are abusive ones.

The silence of the girls is what remains with me (I am one traumatised researcher, believe me, after working through all that material). I want them to start fighting back, taking photos, noting number plates, saying what happened to them, comparing notes.  Not as vigilantes, but as witnesses to the harm.

As we congratulate our society for finally getting to the bottom of historical claims of sexual abuse by church and state, a tsunami of sexual harassment and abuse is coming to your school-aged children, right now, on your local streets. 

 

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

27 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe we could make sexual harassment and rape a hate crime.
    Poor girls, they already have learned their place in society.

  2. As with most sexual harassment minor and major it’s all about power less about the sex with male perpetrators. This is closely linked to the tough guy mentality which is promoted in NZ and throughout many parts of the world. Cultural, born and bred ape like behavior IMO. It pisses me off listening to all these tough guys showing off to all their dimwit mates with proudly misogynistic opinions to gain a few laughs. Starting with Fathers, friends and family it needs to change. Men need to understand that bullying smaller people is not the way to strength. I think much of it is immaturity even with old men and this could be one area to focus on. Actually grow up all you meat heads out there, would be start anyway.

  3. While I could imagine this possibly happening in CHCH, (extremely strange place where naive meets vice), I think you would have to work out if that is really true?

    The Peter Ellis case Day-care sex-abuse hysteria https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-care_sex-abuse_hysteria Satanic ritual abuse https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_ritual_abuse

    Peter Ellis (childcare worker) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Ellis_(childcare_worker)

    (Note, unfounded or blown out claims resulting in criminal charges, mean now our kids don’t have male teachers!)

    The ‘trans’ phenomenon in the 2020’s when you are attacked by trolls constantly to get attention, to gain twitter traffic and likes, or to get ahead. Chimamanda Ngozi https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/16/books/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-essay-tweets.html

    I believe there is harassment towards woman and children, but I can not imagine that happening anywhere on the scale that is indicated.

    I have school age kids, (although they go to ‘liberal’ schools”) but the main thing going on so far is that many of the kids are identifying as non binary and everyone has to call them ‘they’ not him or her. Very little harassment apart from my son is called ‘gay’ but I don’t care and neither does he particularly, because whether he is gay or trans or heterosexual, is irrelevant to who he is and how much we love and support him.

    We need to teach kids to be strong in themselves and not think that they can’t control their own lives. There is always going to be others that put others down and I don’t my children to grow up worrying about that and laying endless complaints, but to grow up and think about what they want to achieve and not let other’s stop them!

    • “but I can not imagine that happening anywhere on the scale that is indicated.”
      Really? Your imaginings are more valid than these girls testimonies?
      What unadulterated arrogance is that?

      I do feel sorry for your son. Being so hopelessly unaware you are happy with the notion that he doesn’t care about being called ‘gay’.
      He tells you what you want to hear you complete fool.

  4. Thank you for your contribution Liz
    I know that I want to support girls to to know that they are much more than a body, and
    to have the strength to insist that NO must be respected.
    I think that females must do better at supporting one another.

  5. Liz it would be good to hear about your survey methods. Did you get a random sample of students? (and if so, how?) Or did respondents self-select? Or what?

    If you don’t have a random sample, then we don’t know how representative these reports are of school girls’ experiences in general. Self-selected responses are nearly always biased, as those with nothing to report are much less motivated to take the survey.

    That said, it’s horrible that anyone on our streets is hearing things like “I want to rape you”.

  6. “…perhaps the influence of violent and deeply sexist rap songs, the ubiquitous internet delivering up porn, alongside old insults in new terms…. I don’t know.”

    Gee, I remember hearing this argument back in the early 1990s (i.e. just before the internet) about how increased access to pornography would lead to a tsunami of sexual assault… which never happened. This is a tired old argument that needs to be put out to pasture.

    • I disagree. Back in the day, when I was a very curvy and attractive 15 year old I was harassed nearly everywhere I went, walking down the road, in the town centre, at school, later at work (getting pulled onto the knees of guys I worked with). And I heard some offensive stuff but I never ever had anyone say to me they’d like to rape me or I want to ””’ you. I got asked a lot if I wanted to **** but I never got told it. So there is a difference, once I got over the embarrassment and thought it was a pain and learnt to ignore it or on occasion, tell people where to go. I never ever felt scared, sometimes humiliated but never scared. Times have changed and it has to be down to something – my money is on TV and other influences.

      • Interesting comment Binky, useful to have an historical perspective. Social media might be a factor too, as it effectively gives peer pressure a megaphone. And I wonder if neoliberalism has made us more dog-eat-dog and more status-obsessed.

      • Yet, you have no evidence for this. Access to pornography has increased over the last 30 years in a way that nobody could have imagined, and sexualised content in media is at an all time high, and yet there has been no corresponding massive increase in sexual crime, as 1990s feminists had at the time predicted with absolute certainty.

        In fact, much the same sort of people made connections between violent media and violent crime, and yet violent crime has decreased in most societies, sometimes quite radically.

        If you weren’t there at the time, it is hard to understand how hard these lines were pushed at the time, how apocalyptic the predictions were, and how silly it all seems now after a few decades of the internet.

        For example, feminists used to point to Ted Bundy as someone who had been driven to violence by pornography, even though this was just an excuse Bundy was using to try to avoid execution (he failed). They would say that our culture promotes violence against women and this is why Bundy ended up as he did. Except that Bundy was a necrophiliac, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m struggling to remember our culture or society relentlessly promoting necrophilia.

        Society has a problem with sexual violence, and pornography and hip-hop may be objectionable for other reasons, but this desire to blame it all on Snoop Dogg and Hugh Hefner is completely crazy and a massive waste of everyone’s time.

  7. Sigh. Same old same old. Girls lie. It’s not nearly as bad as made out….

    Let’s just assume they are telling the truth- then the picture looks quite different, doesn’t it?

    Sampling: the whole school was invited. Around 200 younger children (under 15) did not have parental opt-in (largely because parents don’t read their emails, we think), leaving around 1000. The participation rate was 71%, which is pretty good and has reasonable reliability. We do know that some victims of serious assaults chose not to participate, not wanting to stir up their demons.

    The police have been on site today and a number of students have made disclosures to them (One of the main concerns was that none of the victims, even of the group rapes, had told anyone, let alone police).

    • See my reply to A. This behaviour has always been around but the violence aspect and the amount of harassment and severity is what has changed. Years ago, it was limited to men in groups eg: workmen and by and large it was catcalling. Direct comments were far less frequent. Now rather than the perpetrators being older teens and in their twenties, we are seeing kids and young teens perpetrate this behaviour and the violence aspect is definitely new. Social media, tv etc have all contributed to a loss of innocence at an earlier age than ever before and with a slant towards violence on TV and media its easy to see where it comes from.

  8. Let’s not sweep these appalling findings under a carpet of silence by questioning whether this is a representative sample. We either have to believe is some kind of mass hysteria – unlike the Ellis case not fomented by the media! – or that something is very very wrong. I think the latter is overwhelmingly more likely.
    Two contributing factors to the toxic male behaviour may be (a) that this is a response to insecurity as males lose their confidence that they will always be the dominant group in all forms of community activity and is expressed in as violent a way as possible to discourage potential challengers (which alas may be thought from the survey to be working to some extent; and (b) the corrosive effect of the internet and social media in allowing violent and sexist discourse to run unchecked.

    • Jeremy I’m not sure anyone is trying sweep this under the carpet. Nearly everyone who’s commented has acknowledged that all is not well, and that nobody should have to hear things like “I want to rape you”. My difficulty is that a non-random survey of one high school is no basis for saying that “a tsunami of sexual harassment and abuse is coming to your school-aged children, right now, on your local streets”.

      BTW, I’m struck by this suggestion of yours:

      “that this is a response to insecurity as males lose their confidence that they will always be the dominant group in all forms of community activity”

      You appear to have an astonishingly adversarial view of relations between the sexes. And what is your evidence that men are the “dominant group”?

      • A random survey refers to a random sample selected from a whole population. As I have tried to explain, this was a whole population survey – everyone who had the appropriate consent from parents were able to participate, and 71% did so. This is a really robust survey.

        • Even so Liz, a survey limited to just one population, one girls school in ChCh. That’s really a good start, beyond opinion and anecdote. But as any pg student would attest, supervisors and examiners would be cautious about extrapolating such survey findings to other populations without supporting evidence. My gut feeling is that similar findings would be uncovered irrespective of location but in the chance thats not the case it would point to environmental factors.

  9. Do children today have lower impulse control than previous generations? Are they taught in the home and in the classroom that they can express themselves in any way they feel like and that doing whatever they feel like doing is fine? Have they been taught that actions have consequences and have they learnt from experience the consequences of their actions? Or have they grown up thinking that their actions have no consequences for them? These ill effects may be the results of encouraging self-expression without self-discipline and failing to instil a high quality moral framework in our youth.

  10. I wonder if we have somehow become more brutalised into a Lord of Flies mentality thanks to neoliberalism or something over the last thirty years.

    When I was at an average coed state high school before Rogernomics, in an average provincial city (not Chch), I never heard of anything like this going on in our class.

    Then again, whether times have changed in the direction of greater degree of anomie and retreat of common decency, or not, I do suspect that in any case whoever is doing this stuff belongs to a certain bullying minority who also bully other boys, and that these bullies are one and the same. I.e. bullies of the more inoffensive sorts of boys and harrassers of girls.

    One of the best dramatic potrayals of that sort is of Biff Tannen and his mates, who are always cruising around and hassling Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies.

    They say Biff was modelled on Donald Trump even back then, and of course we know that DT was a fairly grabby guy when it came to women too.

    An expression I have heard lately is ‘soy boy’, i.e. that Marty McFly types who just want to be left alone are seen as fair game for bullying because they supposedly suffer from lack of testosterone caused by consuming soy products (which, for some reason, makes them fair game).

    Although there is a certain equivalence, the ‘soy boys’ who are hassled by the cruising ape-men are at effectively zero risk of sexual interference, precisely because these harassers are obsessed with proving that they are 100% hetero. For the same reason, girls are at 100% risk.

    Yep, whether this issue has got worse or not since the coming of Rogernomics, in any case, I think we can identify the ‘type’ who are most likely to be doing it.

  11. I believe, as with aggressively anti-social behaviour in general, that it is a relatively tiny minority doing the perpetrating repeatedly — as it is a habitual personality trait. Whether this is the case or not your speculation on whether it is a general rite of passage for boys sounds like you are referring to a foreign species you have had little or nothing to do with. Talking about rap music in terms of “the next generation” would also seem to be out of touch, as this music and its vile lyrics has been around for several decades.

    • Yeah, it does actually feel very alien. The question of whether there are a tiny number of repeat offenders is a really important ne – we just don’t know. Thanks everyone for the comments.

  12. Good that police are acting in response to your research Liz. Has it been published in The Press? This could provide an impetus for parents and girls to act.

    I think you should research boys at Christchurch Boys to find the extent of their behaviour, and what influences them.

  13. Any harassment that includes threats like rape should be reported to the school, parents and police immediately and children should feel safe doing so.

    Remember the Roastbusters case where in spite of the 13yo being gang raped and the boys boasting about it on social media and the girls being under age, and complaints to police, the police failed to act appropriately (apparently one of the boys was the child of a police officer).

    My concern is that extremes are not being investigated, maybe that is why this is happening.

    I’d also like there to be warning system in place. AKA if somebody is alleged to have been involved in sexual harassment but there is not enough evidence to prosecute then it is still recorded against their names by the police (but not public). So if a pattern emerges then the record of the complainants is available to go back to for police.

    Then there should rape and sexual charges on sliding scales, aka there is confusion between the Julian Assange type complaint, (consensual sex turned not consensual sex) vs someone who never agree to sex in the first place, vs someone who does not know their attacker and then those who physically attack at the same time.

    If there were different scales of sexual crime then it would be easier and fairer to all.

    Also the children should have courses at school when they hit puberty of what is consent and when they should not have sex (aka for boys do not have sex with someone who is drunk because they may not be in a state to give consent).

    • There are some great courses that teach this stuff really well (especially the Loves Me Not programme developed by Lesley Elliott after Clayton Weatherston stabbed her daughter 216 times, thus ruining his own charmed life and that of many others), but there is little funding to deliver them.

      I haven’t written or spoken much about the rapes but I can confirm they run the gamut from a lack of consent between a couple (just a couple of these) to much more insistent, violent and/ or dangerous invasions. I wish I could tell you more of these stories, but we have agreed to protect the girls. The worst were the gang rapes, than haunt my nights, something stuffed in their mouths, multiple hands holding them down, being raped by one after the other. I hope these extreme cases are the ones being reported to the police first, but I am obviously not a part of that process.

  14. What surprises me is the apparent “surprise” of some.
    We have politicians, supposedly the nations ‘leaders’? – modelling sexually abusive behaviour , and getting away with it. Why should younger men not take that as their cue for normalcy?

    Woodhouse and the toilet seat disgusting behaviour – dog-whistling abuse of women. He is still there.

    Foulloon. Lying – as an immediate response when accused – He claimed he didn’t do it, and and must have left his phone somewhere – someone else did it. What he did was again, to model abuse of women. Yet he hardly received a tap on the wrist – The message sent out to young men – This is an ok way to behave. So he lost his immediate job- but he may even be getting a parliamentary pension??? Taxpayers funding…?

    And that toxic sadist Bezzant. Didn’t even warrant a mention here on tdb. The message? “Abuse women, guys!! Go for it!!!”

    As well, there were all the ways Jacinda was referenced and put-down simply for being a younger female. I even include the “pub puppet’ of Jacinda here – There are plenty of ways to laugh at someone without becoming sexually abusive by deliberate suggestion.

    It has all been normalised. And led by those ‘at the top’ – those who should be setting an example. So, why the surprise, I don’t understand.

  15. Perhaps females should be taught how to best evidence the abuse, use of the cell phone to record behaviour – overt as a warning to desist and or covert to record and use as evidence.

  16. I have a BAC close relative married to a thicko who denies all claims of sexual assault by women. She keeps going further down the rabbit-hole. Now thinks Biden is illegitimate. Since she went to CGH, this is the last chance for her. Don’t expect her to grab onto reality. Grabbing onto him 30 years ago was the tell.

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