The ESU’s public speaking competitions are not only an opportunity for young people to develop their skills but the topics discussed are stimulating and relevant. Here, Elinor from St Benedict’s Catholic School, Bury St Edmunds, a finalist in the East Region Public Speaking Competition in December 2021, continues to explore the issues raised in her speech with competition organiser and Chair of ESU Colchester, Brian Cooke
Brian: Elinor, you spoke with commendable conviction on the need for a national strategy to combat sexism in schools. What has influenced your views on this topic?
Elinor: Ultimately, the personal experiences of myself and my friends. Growing up in school, it would anger me how often I would hear sexist comments and slurs from students with very little punishment for such statements. It meant school became a stressful and upsetting environment for myself and many of my peers and I hated how there seemed to be no consideration of fixing this issue despite our constant protestations. It was this lack of education and punishment in schools coupled with the constant reminders of our patriarchal society in the news that has led me to become so passionate about this topic.
Brian: I’m sorry to hear about your experiences at school. When you refer to ‘sexist comments and slurs’, are you referring more to personal remarks or suggestions that girls are somehow inferior to boys?
Elinor: I’ve definitely experienced both in the past. I’ve been called ‘bitch’ and told by boys to ‘go back to the kitchen’, but I’ve also heard generalised comments suggesting girls are somehow inferior to boys. It would often include comments such as ‘don’t be such a pussy’ or ‘man-up’, statements which imply women are the weaker sex and insinuates that womanhood is a negative thing. However, my most horrifying experience was when I read in my RE textbook that ‘girls should obey their husbands’ and should ‘only work out of necessity’. These statements were written in a tool designed to educate students, creating the false and extremely harmful perception that boys have control over women but also diminishing the idea of women learning and striving for higher education and work.
Brian: Well, I have to say I’m surprised at such casual offensive comments in this day and age and the Biblical references are undoubtedly provocative. Mind you, men tell other men to ‘man up’ and in saying that are surely not making a gender comparison, at least not intentionally, so this comes down to language. The dictionary explains that the phrase is used simply to tell somebody that they should be braver. To what extent would you ‘police’ language itself rather than an intention to insult. And what action should be taken to eliminate deliberately offensive sexist remarks at school?
Elinor: I think there are many nuances to ‘policing’ language. In certain circumstances the policing of language is definitely necessary. As a society, many people understand that using racist slurs such as the n-word is offensive and harmful so any use of the slurs is condemned. This form of ‘policing’ our language is extremely important because of the awful connotations the words have. However, ‘policing’ language on a wider scale can be difficult because like you say often people use terms such as ‘man up’ in everyday conversation without understanding how these comments fuel our culture of toxic masculinity. They create the perception that men must be strong and emotionless in order to be ‘manly’ when this is unrealistic. Here I believe instead of having punishment for such comments especially when they are used with no intention of harm, we should offer education. After learning about meanings behind the phrases as well as the impact these perceptions can have on both boys and girls, people may choose to change the language that they use. In answer to what actions should be taken in schools to eliminate deliberately offensive sexist remarks, in my opinion punishment is imperative because not only will it validate the girls’ complaints and pain, it will also highlight to the perpetrators that sexist comments will never be tolerated both within school and later life. Students know there won’t be any punishment and that’s half the reason they make the comments – the thrill of doing something wrong with the sense of power gained from having to suffer no consequences. And while punishment is not the only necessary solution, it will act as an important deterrent to create safer environments for female students.
Brian: I hear what you’re saying, Elinor, but I can’t help be struck by your perception of sexism as one-way. I wouldn’t be the bitter and twisted man I am were it not for the negative comments about my appearance made by girls and women from my schooldays up to recent times! Do you see females as victims generally? Are males your concern? Do you really think you can change how people think even if you change what they are allowed to say?
Elinor: It is important to recognise that is sexism is not just one way because in order to eradicate it for good then we have to recognise its every form. However, I do believe that sexism is a greater issue for women. You ask whether I see females as victims generally and I do because I think it is undeniable that we live in a patriarchal society which affords men more privileges than women. There are biases and threats towards women as a group in society that men do not have to experience. You argue that you have encountered negative comments about your appearance from women and while I apologise for you having to suffer people being so rude and awful, this is arguably not the same as the sexism women experience on a daily basis. For example, there is a considerable lack of representation of women in senior positions and a discrepancy between male and female pay; women are constantly vulnerable when walking home in the dark and there is an expectation placed on women that their primary role is to give birth and anything different is condemned. So ultimately sexism and the prejudices against women surmount to more than just negative comments made about appearance. However, you also ask me whether males are my concern and to this I answer ‘absolutely’. Especially in more recent years the effect of sexism on men is being discussed so much more and this conversation is vital. And while I think the impact of sexism on men is different, I do not believe it is any less important. I mentioned in one of my earlier answers about toxic masculinity and how this is a product of our patriarchal society and can be detrimental to men and their mental health. In order to remove sexism completely we have to understand, discuss and challenge toxic masculinity so boys feel safe to be whomever they want to be. Finally, no, just censoring what people can say will not change how our society thinks because there will be no understanding of the repercussions of the words they use and the true meaning behind such comments. So instead, education must be coupled with the altering of acceptable words in society. Without that aspect of learning, changing how we speak will merely be considered an inconvenience. It is through the action of understanding why those words are being policed that attitudes change, because ultimately, the majority of our society are empathetic of people’s struggles and care about causing harm to others.
Brian: I can sympathise with some aspects of the points you mention and believe you are sincere in wanting a better society for all. However, numerous biases in society in favour of women, especially in matters of law, come immediately to mind. A woman who accuses a man of rape remains anonymous while an innocent man named in the media has his reputation destroyed. Women are able to have an abortion with no reference to the father while the law would require the father to contribute financially to the life of the child should the woman complete her pregnancy.
Elinor: I believe, ultimately, these biases towards women are in place to mitigate the effects our patriarchal society has on women; to enable women the same opportunities as men and provide them with the possibility of gaining top positions like their male counterparts.
In your argument you mention the example of rape allegations to highlight the biases towards women. However, this argument is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. Most significantly, anonymity is not a bias towards women because under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 any individual who alleges they are a victim of rape are granted anonymity for life. It just so happens that statistically more women are victims of rape than men. However, in relation to your wider argument about the effect rape allegations have on innocent men, I believe it is also important to recognise two things. Firstly, the number of false rape allegations is extremely low with only 3% of all allegations being fake (results from a study by the Home Office in 2005). It is imperative that any person who is falsely accused should have those accusations retracted publicly and any loss of earnings or reputation properly compensated. However, the majority of named suspects have committed their alleged crime and consequently deserve the destroyed reputation you believe they experience. Secondly, to argue that a damaged reputation is not suffered by women in rape cases is naïve. As a society we are guilty of victim-blaming where women (even if kept anonymous) are often accused of lying or ‘asking for the crime’. For example, in the 2015 Stanford Sexual Assault Case, perpetrator Brock Turner’s successful career as a ‘superstar’ swimmer was persistently reported alongside his alleged crimes whilst he was standing trial. However, the victim, Chanel Miller, was criticised for being ‘too drunk’ and ‘for wearing a dress in winter’. While the jury found in favour of Miller, these articles about Brock Turner were published before the conviction, demonstrating that men’s reputations are not destroyed by the media until they are proven guilty. So, an innocent man will not have his life ruined by a bad reputation because very rarely do false allegations result in a wrongful conviction. However, many women do not report sexual violence for the fear of having their reputation destroyed.
Finally, you mention the discrepancy between women’s total control over abortion and how the law requires men to contribute financially to a child’s upbringing as another example of the bias towards women under the law. However, in my opinion these protections under the law are in place to recognise the greater impact pregnancies have on women. It is imperative that as a society we understand the difference between having an abortion and giving birth on the one hand and paying childcare support on the other. The decision for a woman not to have a child is always more nuanced: it’s not just the case of deciding they’re not ready and moving on like it is for a man but instead they must undergo an invasive procedure which can be mentally traumatic. In addition, the concept of financial support is to benefit the child and ensure their wellbeing: it is not a bias towards women but a system to protect young people.
Lastly, legalising male consent for abortions would have a detrimental impact on women and their autonomy. Demanding joint consent could mean women would be placed into a position where they are forced to keep a pregnancy because of abusive partners, unknown fathers or rape. Ultimately, women deserve to have control over what happens to their body and so the perceived legal bias is justifiable because of the greater impact pregnancies have on women mentally, physically and socially. Women are the ones who will give birth so they are the ones who should choose whether they want to do it or not.
Brian: Thank you Elinor, I have very much enjoyed our exchange.
Elinor: Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to discuss a topic I am so passionate about. It has been an honour to have the opportunity to raise awareness about the endemic sexism within schools and wider society and discuss ways to create a better, safer society for women both within education and beyond.