Joanna Mathers recalls horrifying experiences at school in the 80s
intermediate and high school In the first year of intermediate school, a boy attempted to rape a girl in my class. He was short, sporty, and sandy-haired: a known bully. They'd been "going around together" for a week, which translated into ownership in his prepubescent brain.
"I'm going to rape you!" he growled. Lurching across the carpet, he grabbed her arms, and forced her to the floor. She screamed as he tugged her school skirt upwards, while his mates cheered.
The teacher must have intervened at some point (the details are fuzzy). But I recall the girl standing up, and running from the class, sobbing.
Even views of the Waitematā and soft caress of sea air (a key selling point for the school) couldn't placate the palpable brutality in that classroom.
The teacher "had a breakdown" soon after (I pictured her transmogrified into sub-atomic particles) and left the profession forever. She turned up on the doorstep of a school friend a few months later, hawking Encyclopaedia Britannicas.
In the 1980s, school, for me, was a parade of atrocities. If you escaped sexual assault in the intermediate classroom, the metalwork teacher would snap your bra strap and perve down your top while you soldered.
There was a rage for "poking", which involved alpha males picking off the nearest girl and attempting digital rape. Terrified girls would scatter as groups of jocks sprinted; erect fingers raised.
High school saw both the hormones and the violence ratcheted up. Life, for some, was hell. Girls who were "popular" with boys were beaten up in corridors by jealous female classmates. At 13 "popular with boys" meant used, abused, cast aside and labelled a "slut". You didn't want to be popular with boys.
Literal torture took place at high school. Red hot chillies rubbed in eyes; acid poured on skin. Date rape at parties. Kids mocked, humiliated, broken.
The Christchurch Girls' High School sexual harassment survey (which revealed that 60 per cent of students had been subject to sexual harassment and 20 incidents of rape) was no surprise to me. This is an indictment. We take it for granted that young women will be harassed, abused, and raped. At a societal level, we are paralysed, inert, and complicit.
There is something potent in the nexus of adolescence and school. Dominant cultural mores (masculine, straight, cisgender) are given a shot of steroids. Locker room "banter" and verbal sexual harassment (toxic masculinity's starter kit) emerge. They are accepted, unchallenged, and morph into violence.
Sexual harassment, abuse and bullying doesn't just happen at school. But the cattle class, one-size-fits-all nature of our school system seems to leave teachers and administrators so overwhelmed they are helpless to address it. There's not enough time between the endless assessments to call out the rape culture that permeates our classrooms.
Independent organisations like Rape Prevention Education do an amazing job across high schools in New Zealand. Running programmes Bodysafe and Mates & Dates, they address the issues many parents and teachers skirt around.
Their programmes offer education around building healthy relationships, focusing on consent, respect, and support. But they are limited in their reach – it's up to individual schools to adopt the programmes and it often takes the tough work of advocates within schools to make this happen at all.
Debbi Tohill, executive director of Rape Education Prevention, wasn't surprised by the findings of the Christchurch Girls' High School survey either. She knows what's happening in schools; what has always been happening. But she believes the prevalence and availability of porn have created a new challenge for young people.
"We are in a different period at the moment because of the strong influence of porn. Young people are learning about sex from watching porn and it's creating different expectations around what is 'normal' behaviour," Tohill says.
It's not all negative. We are starting to bring the dialogue out in the open. Sexual harassment and abuse are openly discussed. But this is countered by the ubiquity of social media and online bullying, the popularity of sharing nude photos - and all that porn.
In the decades since I went to school, nothing has changed. What are schools to do?
Maybe we need a priority reset. Wellbeing, rather than academics, could sit at the centre of every school's ethos. Zero tolerance of bullying, violence or sexual harassment could be communicated and acted on at all stages of school life. Kindness and respect modelled by staff and student leaders. And that "locker room" talk could be labelled as what it is: anachronistic, toxic, unacceptable.
It would be a start. Kids are suffering, teenage mental health services are at breaking point. We can't go on like this.