A High School Teacher on New Zealand’s Problem With Schoolboy Sexism

We're setting the bar too low.
March 13, 2017, 3:45am

(Image by Michael Coghlan via Flickr)

South Island summers are fickle things, and a summery day this year has been both a rarity and an event. A day to bust out a summer dress.

I should have known better. That one day of summer, I was relief teaching in a boys' school. At the end of the day, one of the management team came to speak to me. I finished the lesson, sent the boys away and wondered what I was in for. I suspected the school had become aware of the literary journal of erotic writing I edit, Aotearotica. My previous principal had okayed the project, but I wasn't sure how it would fly in a more conservative school.


I needn't have worried. It wasn't my professional choices that were being called into question, but my sartorial ones. She wanted to tell me that my skirt was too short. The dress I was wearing is my mum's favourite, a blue wrap dress with a 40s vibe. It's a dress that makes me feel happy and confident, one I've presented in at a national teachers' conference. She emphasised that she thought I looked great, and that we all make mistakes, but the view of my knees would make the boys think about sex, and I wouldn't want that. Ironically, I do want that. Aotearotica and the specialist Gender Studies course I'd developed and taught for years are all about getting students to think about sex, and gender, and to have the tools to critique and analyse representations of these. Despite this, my good-girl, people-pleasing self could feel a drift of red creeping up my neck. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and as though my legs and I had somehow irrevocably harmed the boys.

But when I thought about my day, there was no sex. There'd been a boring relief lesson on grammar. A boring relief lesson with a worksheet. A more interesting lesson where I got to talk excitedly about post-apocalyptic fiction. I hadn't really even thought about myself in terms of my gender over the day, rather as my role as a teacher.

The problem is a culture that expects boys to treat women as though they are sexual objects, and makes it clear it is women's job to prevent this.


It wasn't until later in the week that it really came home to me, when my relief was to play a room full of boys the film Seven. Thirty Year 13 students and I sat through the scene in which a murder is committed by a man being forced to rape a prostitute while wearing a blade harnessed to his penis, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair. I realised that seeing my legs under a summer dress are not the problem. The problem is a culture that expects boys to treat women as though they are sexual objects, and makes it clear it is women's job to prevent this. This is reinforced, not through explicit messages but through the expectations of the staff, the culture of the school, choice of texts, the lack of women and minorities in staff rooms. It's why in co-ed schools, girls' clothing is policed with regards to how the boys and male teachers might see it. In education, holding high expectations for students is seen as key to their success. However, we have very low expectations of our sons in terms of their treatment of women. Often, they grow to fulfil those expectations: becoming teens who make threats on social media, who sexually harass women, and who don't take responsibility for their own actions.

My experience in these boys' classrooms happened several weeks before news broke about Year 9 students at St Patrick's College inappropriately filming female staff and uploading it to Instagram. The boys were suspended over allegations of sexual harassment. This hit on the heels of the revelations of Wellington College students posting on social media that you couldn't be a "true WC boy" if you didn't "take advantage of a drunk girl". These experiences, and the hundreds of others that haven't gained exposure begin to paint a picture of a disturbing culture.


There's evidence, now, that the way we talk about sexism does impact the way boys treat women. Studies indicate that men with a high tolerance for sexist jokes or hostile language towards women also reported a higher proclivity to sexually assault women. The way we discuss these issues has consequences.

In high school, these boys are asked to think about their futures, to set career goals for the rest of their life, and yet we also treat them as though they have so little impulse control, it is the women around them who are in charge of containing their sexual impulses.

In setting the bar so low for boys, we do them a disservice. We show them that the kind of behaviour we are seeing at these schools is what we expect if they are around women. I should have known better… it is easier to address those who expose the flaw in the system than to address a broken culture.

But I haven't worn that dress again.

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