Reversing and Preventing a Culture of Silence Among Girls

In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the #MeToo movement that followed, Louise Favaro shares insights from dealing with what appeared to be an incident involving inappropriate language by middle school boys, but further investigation opened a Pandora’s box of misogynistic behaviour toward middle school girls that had been secretly tolerated for years. This led to a better understanding of how blind acceptance, normalization, and a culture of silence can start at a young age, and what we can do in schools to reverse and prevent it.

The Catalyst

It started out as a straightforward school discipline incident. A 12 year-old-girl in a one-to-one laptop school had borrowed a school computer because she had forgotten hers at home. She returned it without signing out of her school gmail account, prompting a staff member in the IT department to inadvertently see an inbox listing of hundreds of inappropriate group messages sent among a class of middle school boys and girls.

These messages appeared to be part of an ongoing dialog among classmates, but were littered with comments that were at times overtly sexual, racist, sexist, homophobic, and even on occasion, pornographic. In addition to the comments, some students were also distributing inappropriate song lyrics, rhymes, photos, videos, and rants that not only described sexual acts, but also jokingly encouraged suicide. While the girls, for the most part, participated by sending relatively innocuous messages, almost all of the vulgar and inappropriate messages had been sent by the boys.

We suspended all of their accounts to stop the flow of messages and to provide time to investigate properly. We spoke to the boys and girls separately. The boys acknowledged that they were being inappropriate, but most of them minimized the significance of our discovery by saying that they were just joking around and trying to be funny with one another. Discussions with the girls revealed something even more concerning.

The Silence

The girls were unusually quiet. They were reticent to convey any reactions or opinions about the barrage of inappropriate content that they had been exposed to. They shrugged their shoulders and said very little. We were puzzled. These girls were not normally this quiet.

I asked how they felt about reading so many inappropriate public comments, including one in particular that really stood out. The title of the group email thread was I Smell You. An example of a comment directed at a classmate from India was, I smell So and so, he smells like curry. To the girl with a heartbreaking cyclical vomiting condition, the comment made was, So and so smells like a mixture of lavender and vomit. But the dialogue toward the girls had devolved into a new low with, I smell your p***y. It smells like tuna.

It is important to note that this was before Donald Trump was exposed for his now famous “Grab them by the p***y” comments on the Access Hollywood tape.

When asked about the specific public comment I smell your p***y,  some girls shrugged their shoulders. Other said, I don’t mind, or I’m not bothered, followed by more shugs.

This was truly baffling.

At one point, as administrators, we began to ask ourselves, is this just this class? It is our school? Or is this how middle school kids talk today? In other words, the dismissiveness of the boys, combined with the ambivalence of the girls, prompted us to question whether or not we were out of touch.

Opening Pandora’s Box

I decided to go back and question the girls again.

Girls, when these messages reached the level of I smell your p***y…it smells like tuna, why didn’t anyone come forward?

That was a better question to ask. It was somehow easier for them to provide reasons and context than it was to voice personal thoughts and opinions on the actual content.

Several girls said We were taught in school never to tattle. It was drilled into our heads. Others added, This has been going on for so long, I guess it’s just normal. We’re used to it.

Further probing revealed that this went way beyond words on a page. The girls had been dealing with inappropriate behaviour that had been normalized and secretly tolerated for years. The combination of blind acceptance together with what had become a covert rule (never tattle) made it somewhat of an open secret.

We’re All in This Together

We organized a girls only advisory lesson, where we posted positive, negative, and neutral words all around the room. Each girl was asked to pick a word to describe their current relationship with the boys. This was our way of generating discussion and it proved to be not only revealing, but bonding.

The girl who had originally said, I’m not bothered, picked Y for Yucky and said to the group that the stuff that she is exposed to on a daily basis grosses her out. That got a lot of nods from the other girls.

A fairly soft-spoken girl picked Q for Quiet, but articulated that her choice was not because she herself is shy, but because she chooses to be quiet around the boys when they behave inappropriately, hoping they will stop.

Two girls who appeared to have a close relationship with the boys picked F for Flirty, explaining that they are extra friendly with the boys, and appear to go along with them, so that these boys will not turn on them. Other girls who had been judging these two girls all long for being flirty, now understood that even they had a strategy for coping.

One by one, each girl shared thoughts, feelings, and ways that they had been dealing with a silent culture of misogyny. They realized that they had more in common than they thought, and that perhaps some of their mean girl behaviour toward each other was less about hormones and more about competition. In a world where boys tend to dominate (in this case the vulgar talk literally drowned out all other voices) maybe they needed to stop judging each other and come together in solidarity.

More Widespread Than We Thought

We did another circle talk, this time with the girls in the year level below this age group. This led to an outpouring of more of the same behaviour. It was as if, without the boys present, these girls finally gave themselves permission to speak up. In doing so, they realized that they were not alone, and the floodgates opened.

They make sexual comments all the time.

They make sexual gestures all the time.

They say gross stuff that we sometimes don’t even understand.

They describe sexual acts that we have never even heard of before.

It happens all day long, in person and online.

Clearly, this behaviour was pervasive.

Once they got it all out, it was surprisingly easy to reverse the long established mindset among the girls that this behaviour was somehow normal and needed to be tolerated.

Five Ways to Reverse and Prevent a Culture of Silence Among Girls:

Make a Clear Distinction Between Tattling and Informing

We should never introduce the concept of tattling without also introducing the concept of boundaries. Make clear distinctions, with examples, that show that while tattling about the small stuff isn’t necessary, one must come forward over something that makes them uncomfortable. Start young and reinforce these distinctions often.

Encourage Girls to Question Everything

Females are trained from early on to be good girls, to be obsequious, to be obedient to external expectations, to the point where the enormous pressure they now put on themselves is self perpetuating. Take every opportunity to encourage girls to pause, think, question, challenge everything, including topics of gender, equality, marriage, sexuality, beauty, weight, domestic life, career, etc., so that they are not just dogmatically obedient to whatever the culture dictates.

Provide Opportunities for Girls to Find Their Voice

Historically, circle talks have propelled revolution and social change, from the Chinese Revolution, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Women’s Movement. Get girls together in circle talks without boys present. Create a safe space for them to express their opinions. Ask about their current relationships with the boys, and about their current relationships with each other as girls. Not only does this give girls permission to speak openly, but it also fosters mutual understandings and reinforces common ground. Even girls who dislike each other have far more in common with each other than they realize.

Introduce the Shine Theory

Encourage girls to support powerful girls around them instead of hating them because they appear to be amazing. Providing mutual support promotes the idea of females lifting other females up, instead of tearing them down. This is particularly critical, and possibly life changing, during adolescence. Teach girls that when one girl shares an idea in class, it’s good to publically acknowledge her idea, and give her credit. When any girl is on the receiving end of something abhorrent, instead of quietly thinking, Thank goodness it’s not me, teach girls to come forward on behalf of each other. The entire #MeToo movement is now proving that when women find their voice and support each other, things change.

Provide Support to Boys

This uncovering of blind acceptance and a culture of silence shone a bright light on work that needed to be done with our girls. It is important to note, however, that we also did an enormous amount of work with our boys around appropriate behaviour, boundaries, inclusive humour, the concept of consent, the effects of pornography on the brain and on relationships, and the importance of standing up for others.

Final Thoughts: Be Better

We also did a lot of work with the teachers and the parents of all of these children to help with the overall mandate of bringing about much needed change. The entire situation required significant effort, but then again, every major incident in school provides opportunities for us to find ways to help kids to do better and be better.

This is the third in a series of posts by Louise.  Feel free to read her first post “A Fresh Perspective on ‘Bullying’ and a Framework for Handling Interpersonal Issues in Schools.”

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