Teachers take on ‘rebranded sexism’
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) met for their annual conference in Liverpool last week, and high on their agenda was the subject of sexism and the damage it is causing to girls and young women.
During a resolution debated at the start of the week, concerns were raised that young women and girls were being sexualised too early and that women’s liberation had been set back forty years by a ‘raunch’ culture, where sexism and inequality were alive and well and ‘still a huge factor in shaping women’s lives’.
Teachers said that the sexism of old had not gone away but had been ‘rebranded’ as something fashionable, ironic or empowering, where young girls were learning to accept as normal the exploitation and objectification of women’s bodies.
They cited pole dancing being sold as ‘an empowering form of exercise’ and the wide availability – and growing social acceptance – of pornographic images as causing long term damage and having ‘a disastrous effect on the self-image of girls’.
‘Far from being ‘ironic’ or ‘empowering’, the rise of the new sexism is damaging.
‘Growing up in a world where it is normal for women’s bodies to be seen as sex objects affects the way that girls in our schools grow to view themselves and their place in society,’ the NUT said.
While a ‘lads mag’ culture is something that is depressingly visible in everyday life, it is quite shocking to hear of young girls being sold Playboy pencil cases and intelligent young women taking part in student beauty pageants.
It seems, then, that the sexualisation and objectification of women is still happening, but it is becoming frighteningly normalised by a culture that embraces Esquire and GQ Magazine, and encourages women to be image-centric, where, in terms of clothing, less seems to be more.
And it is also jarring in its blatancy.
Only a few weeks ago the editor of Esquire Magazine bluntly stated to a feminist discussion panel, doh! – that the women featured in the magazine were little more than ornaments, and that readers were not interested in women’s brains, just their bodies.
So we are basically living in – and allowing to flourish – a culture that says, out loud and proud, that it is normal, nay fashionable and edgy, to objectify women.
Or as NUT member Sara Tomlinson put it ‘Women’s bodies have long been seen as commodities, but the only difference now is we are supposed to celebrate our commodification as empowerment.’
So it is reassuring to hear that teachers have decided that they are in a position to do something about it, to educate the next generations out of the social acceptance of this new breed of sexism.
The agenda and notes published for NUT delegates included a section on equality, which was debated during the course of the conference, noting that, ‘As educators, teachers are in an ideal position to challenge sexism and gender stereotyping, helping girls and young women to feel confident and secure both academically and socially.’
It also noted that the ‘Conference is deeply concerned about the rise of what has become commonly known as ‘raunch culture’ where the old sexism of the past has been rebranded by big business.
‘In particular, the gains of the last 40 years in terms of women’s sexual liberation are being turned back on women and girls in commodified form.
‘ The objectification of women’s bodies is playing an ever more horrifying role in society and is having a disastrous effect upon the self-image of girls and young women.’
The NUT also raised concerns about the sex education curriculum in schools, particularly in light of the announcement a few weeks ago by the coalition government that Personal, Social Health and Economic education would not be made statutory, and there would be no mainstreaming programme or guidance from Westminster.
Given the fact that school is where most young people learn about sex and begin to form relationships, this could have a detrimental ripple effect on generations of young women.
Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, said: ‘If schools do not have the time and are not encouraged to invest in this area of the curriculum, then some pupils will be left to struggle with issues that can seem insurmountable and they will miss the chance to acquire vital life skills.’
To counter this, the NUT suggested a campaign to make the delivery of Sex and Relationships Education in schools compulsory.
They also made a series of recommendations which included actions to ‘commission a study into the attitudes of girls and young women towards their bodies; disseminate and, where necessary, produce anti-sexist teaching materials’ and ‘support the women and men who protest against these manifestations of the new sexism’
Ms Blower explained why teachers are taking up the issue.
She said: ‘There have been legal advances, but women still suffer significant inequality.
‘Austerity is making women poorer and sexism still needs challenging to ensure that all women can achieve their full potential.
‘Teachers are in a good position to empower girls and gay women to be self-confident and to reject stereotypes.
‘It is important for all children and young people to learn, in an age-appropriate manner, about respect for their own and other people’s bodies and emotions.’
The significance of this work cannot be underestimated.
Giving our children the tools to respect each other and treat each other equally will have an inestimable impact.
Maybe it is the grown ups who need a little extra help.