I just finished up sexual health week in my bio class, where we talked about STIs, contraceptives, and I answered a hundred burning questions from teenagers about sex (both as a noun and as a verb). We ended the week with consent as the discussion topic of the day, and it spilled out into a whole new can of worms that I’ve been mulling over for the past few days — rape culture in high school.
A few disclaimers to start with: I’m not an expert on anything. I’m not an expert in teaching, not an expert in science, not an expert in rape culture, not an expert in sexual health, not an expert in psychology, not even an expert in fashion (which is what this blog is all about). I’m also not intending to make blanket statements about any groups of people. I may inadvertently do so in this post, but please know that it is not my intent to create nor perpetuate stereotypes about any groups or communities. So, take this for what it is – a teacher who is struggling with how to approach a sensitive topic with her teenage students.
I started the lesson with a warm-up, asking kids to respond to this comic I found from an old Huffington Post article. Responses in my first period class (non-honors Bio) ranged from “some of the things being said aren’t bad at all” and “she’s getting complimented”, to “she looks angry”. Responses in 3rd and 5th (Honors Bio) were more what I expected to hear, such as “she’s being cat-called and it’s gross”. Following the warm-up, we watched this video about a woman walking the streets of NYC for 10 hours and getting cat-called a ridiculous number of times. The conversations exploded the moment the video finished in every class, but the difference in the tone of the classes was striking.
In first period, the conversation was dominated by the boys (and one girl) with comments such as “well, she was walking down by the clubs, so what would you expect?” and “that’s rude! she should say thank you when people say good morning!”. Girls are already out numbered in this class, and most of them pretty much kept quiet unless I called on them. A couple girls tried to argue back with the boys, but they ended up getting drowned out. One kid said something along the lines of “well, you know, she’s got curves and she’s wearing tight pants, you know, how can people ignore that?” The most vocal girl was agreeing with the boys – even going so far as to say the guy in the video who followed the woman for 5 minutes was “just going in the same direction, what’s wrong with that?” My jaw just hit the floor at that point.
This was when it really hit me (at 8 in the morning) how grossly ill-prepared I was for this conversation that was happening around me. These are teenage boys (and a girl), earnestly and innocently having a conversation that essentially perpetuates rape culture in our society – victim blaming, mansplaining, and #notallmen. The saddest thing of all was when I moved the conversation on to Brock Turner, a couple girls said, “it’s sad, but that’s what we expect now”. *tears*
My 3rd and 5th periods were so different from this – girls spoke up, the boys agreed with the girls, and even expressed solidarity with the woman in the video. *tears* One kid mentioned that a girl from 1st period had warned her that she “was going to get so mad about class today”.
In the end, I failed my kids big time on this. I hadn’t created enough of a safe space for my girls to speak up. I assumed the kids were mature enough to tackle these sensitive subjects and I assumed they’d all agree that cat-calling was a negative thing to do. I failed to recognize and anticipate past experiences of my students (one kid told a story about when he had paid a genuine compliment to a stranger who misunderstood and cussed him out and how he’s still upset about it). I was woefully unprepared for what happened. I should have paid closer attention and structured the lesson to give girls opportunities to share in smaller groups. I should have designed a pre-lesson that focused on empathy. I should have done a lot of things, and next year, there will be changes.
Or…maybe I should just leave it up to the experts? Who are these experts in high school? I know some of my colleagues also struggle with this. When I asked around, I heard that one year an English teacher taught A Streetcar Named Desire, and some kids said that Blanche deserved what she got (rape). Who’s taking this on and is it even our place? Is this one of those things were I’m stepping out of line as a biology/science teacher? I really don’t have an answer to this. Reader, do you?
In the meantime, here’s an outfit from this past week. Moving through my Australian COS haul slowly. A lovely kid in 6th period (AP Bio) said that my “outfit is on point today, Miss.” *tears*
top: cos – jeans: uniqlo – shoes: cole hahn