What about the boys? How churches can tackle the growth of sexual violence

It has not been a good week for women and girls. Today is the International Day of the Girl, and the news this week has shown us just how much girls need to be heard and their struggles recognised.

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein seem to have come in brutal waves, as more and more women disclose the ways they say that he sexually harassed them, sexually assaulted them or impacted their careers when they rejected him. News continues to emerge of men (and women) who protected Weinstein and colluded with him. This public news has led to numerous women sharing their stories of men who harassed and assaulted them. Alongside this, data released from police forces across the UK show there has been a 71 per cent increase in peer on peer sexual abuse. Generally this has been boys sexually abusing girls.

ReutersHarvey Weinstein on the red carpet after arriving at the 89th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 26, 2017.

Christians might imagine that these issues are concerns for those outside of the church. However, our focus on sex only within marriage can create situations in which women are unable to recognise sexual abuse within marriage and view sexual abuse outside of marriage as involved with their personal betrayal of Jesus. Rather than being separate from sexual abuse, abstinence teaching and Christian purity culture can make sexual abuse harder from women to recognise and increase self-blame for women. 

A couple of weeks ago the Girls' Attitude Report from Girlguiding was released. It includes the experiences of almost 2,000 girls and young women (and their parents) from across the UK. The element of 'Personal Safety' for girls makes for depressing reading.

More than half of seven to 16-year-old girls are concerned about seeing pornography online.

Girls aged 7-10 were asked about their worries in seeing 'rude pictures' while 13-17 year olds were asked about worries around 'unwanted pornography'. Interestingly the report doesn't report 18 to 21-year-old's thoughts on pornography, which is a similar perspective to many organisations raising concerns about pornography and children – once they reach adulthood, pornography seemingly becomes a non-issue. Almost all pornography watched today includes men ejaculating on women's faces and/or multiple men violently penetrating a woman while they spit obscenities at her. MILF, step sister and step mom are the top three search terms on pornography sites. When you turn 18, it's as if that stuff is just nice sexy fun.

We're seeing increasing numbers of young men with 'porn induced erectile dysfunction', a term that's had to be invented to describe the phenomenon. However, the impact on girls is much harder to assess. The Girlguiding survey doesn't tell us how pornography is affecting girls, and it would be difficult for girls who've always had hardcore pornography exposure to know what the difference to their lives would be without it. What we do know is that there are increasing numbers of girls (as young as nine) seeking genital surgery and that one in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they are 14. Assessing how pornography is affecting girls' ability to have sexual agency is much more difficult to find statistics on, but at least anecdotally, many youth workers are able to recount stories of how girls expect to perform oral sex, endure extremely painful anal sex and choose to have sex because they are expected to, rather than because sex is actually pleasurable for them.

Sixty-four per cent of girls aged 13 -21 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in school, including sexualised jokes, sexist comments on social media, obscene graffiti about women and girls or unwanted touching.

When my daughter was 13, she came home from school with her tie in a plastic bag. A boy had pulled the tie off her neck, shoved it down his trousers, rubbed it against his genitals and then handed it back to her. When she reported it to student services, their only response was to give her a plastic bag to take it home in. In my call with the Deputy Head later that evening, he needed significant convincing to accept that the incident should be treated as a form of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment forms the backdrop to the majority of UK girls' education. Most weeks they will be reminded in some way that their value is based on their sexuality and their relationship to boys. Their schools may normalise this backdrop presenting the harassment as 'boys being boys'. But what an appalling view to take, that sexual harassment is an inevitable part of maleness! What a male-hating attitude, to not believe boys are capable of being better!

Within the week before the survey, 39 per cent of girls had their bra strap pulled or witnessed a boy doing that to another girl, while 27 per cent of girls had seen or experienced a boy pull their (or another girl's) skirt up.

What about the boys? Who are these boys who are pinging girls' bra straps and pulling their skirts up? Who are these boys who sexually intimidate girls and disrespect their boundaries in a place those girls should feel safe and liberated, their school? These boys are our sons, nephews and the teenagers in our churches.

One of the reasons schools rarely take sexual harassment seriously is the way society 'others' sex offenders. We monster them. Those who commit sex offences aren't really human beings, they are awful monsters. If a teenage boy pings a girls' bra strap, or rubs her tie on his genitals, or mocks her sexual performance online, he isn't categorised as sexually offending, but simply as a boy doing what boys do. Unfortunately for the boy (and for all the girls who have to still exist in the same space as that boy), a lack of consequences gives him the message that he can get away with sexually harassing girls, and maybe next he'll refuse to take no for an answer, becoming part of the 71 per cent rise in peer on peer sexual abuse. Maybe when he grows up, he'll become a film director who sexually harasses or assaults his female colleagues. And he'll know he can get away with it, because he has for years.

In my experience, we are much more comfortable seeking to make girls 'unabusable' than we are telling boys not to abuse girls. To accept that the boys we love or care for could treat girls badly is often too uncomfortable. But if we want to address the levels of sexual harassment girls are being subjected to, we must ask, 'What about the boys?' And we must be willing to take action to prevent boys growing up thinking they are entitled to touch girls, speak about them in derogatory ways, or force girls to do stuff the girls don't want to.

The ubiquity of male violence towards women can feel all consuming. It can feel easier to compartmentalise the news we hear. We place Harvey Weinstein's behaviour into the entertainment/Hollywood compartment, the Girlguiding survey becomes part of the "how young people are struggling" category and the 71 per per cent rise in (mainly) boys becoming sexually abusive into the 'tragic state of the world' section. We don't need to connect the dots, because if we did, we'd begin to feel utterly desolate about what it means to be a girl or woman in the West today.

However, we must make these connections. We must be willing to recognise that how boys treat girls is directly linked to sexual violence. We mustn't conform to the myth of isolated incidents, when these terrible situations are actually part of an entire system.

However, the Girlguiding survey did offer some hope! It also found that 59 per cent say they would feel confident to stand up to sexual harassment at school.

More than half of girls feel confident to challenge the way boys treat them! And that is probably thanks to the long-term work being done with girls by parents, youth workers, Girlguiding, Girls' Brigade and others. Yet that leaves us with 41 per cent who don't feel confident yet and so we still have an awful long way to go.

Let's celebrate the awesome ways girls are doing well, and continue to work to build their confidence and sense of agency. But we mustn't forget that to make the world a good place for girls we must also be working with boys, encouraging them to be respectful and caring. Humanity can only flourish when all of us are working to make the world a better place. Women and girls cannot do it on our own.

Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women