This morning, I read Mariella Frostrup’s reply to a father whose son had sent a ‘sexually explicit’ email to a female teacher. The father was concerned that his son – although punished by the school – has not taken the incident seriously enough. I usually enjoy reading Frostrup’s column, but her opening paragraphs today caused me concern. I’ve quoted them below:
“There are few places on Earth where a child can escape the relentless barrage of indoctrinating imagery suggesting women’s bodies are there to be exploited. It’s proved extraordinarily durable propaganda.
Part of the problem is that we women are complicit. Where once we donned dungarees and burned our bras, today we’re queuing for Victoria’s Secret. If we really have earned the right to choose then what we’ve chosen is to perpetuate the presumption that our appearance matters more than what comes out of our mouths. It’s no longer something that we can blame on boys and men. We actually need to do a little navel gazing ourselves, which shouldn’t be so difficult in a world where they’re just one of the many female body parts abundantly on display!”
My initial thought was ‘Good Lord! Aliens have stolen Mariella Frostrup and replaced her with a poorly researched imposter!’ and then I was angry. I would say that one of the places on Earth where a teenager might escape the relentless barrage of imagery suggesting women’s bodies are there to be exploited, might be the classroom. There’s no mention in the father’s letter of the content of his son’s inappropriate email, but the words ‘sexually explicit’ are worrying. And I’m not sure why Frostrup has leaped from classroom to Victoria’s Secret. What does it matter what underwear the teacher wears? How would the child even know? How on earth does a choice of underwear make anyone – male, female, teacher or otherwise – complicit in receiving unwanted sexually explicit emails?
In any event, it doesn’t take much to arouse the teenage imagination. When I was at school, there was a young teacher who accidentally popped open two top buttons of a blouse during a lesson. It was the talk of the cloakroom for years. She was in reality, a modestly dressed young woman of mild demeanour, but the Third Form interpreted her two popped buttons as evidence that beneath her M&S cardi seethed a sexual volcano. I’m not sure how much of this lurid supposition got back to her. I hope none.
Wild gossip about teachers is bad enough, sexual harassment is worse. It’s not only unpleasant, unsettling and undermining but frightening. Young teachers – male and female – are particularly vulnerable. Sometimes the slender age gap between student and teacher can make the boundary for the student unclear. Teenagers push the boundaries anyway. None of us have escaped inappropriate comments and although they can be deflected with humour, often a firmer approach is required. There are times when another colleague needs to be consulted to help manage these interactions. I’ve known teachers who’ve been deeply embarrassed by conversations that have got out of hand and it takes some work to re establish boundaries.
But – blimey – email! That’s not on. In some schools emails between students and teachers are encouraged as it’s an excellent way of communicating instructions and feedback. But the rules should be clear: the content must be work related, the tone and greetings formal, anything else, let alone sexually explicit content, is unacceptable and without those limits, email between student and teachers are unworkable.
I wonder what Frostrup’s reply might have been if the letter had been from an adult seeking advice about another adult sending unsolicited sexually explicit emails at work. I would imagine she might want employers, unions, possibly even the police involved. I can’t see why it should be any different in this case.