'Modesty shorts' not the way to fight UK school sexual harassment, critics say

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 18 June 2021 17:39 GMT

A girl arrives at Watlington Primary School as some schools re-open, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Watlington, Britain, June 1, 2020. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

Image Caption and Rights Information

Several schools in Britain have encouraged girls as young as four to wear the shorts, fuelling debate about sexual harassment and abuse in schools

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Suggestions that British schoolgirls wear "modesty shorts" under their skirts to protect them from sexual harassment or abuse were criticised on Friday by women's campaigners and teaching unions, who said such recommendations smacked of victim blaming.

Several schools have encouraged girls as young as four to wear the shorts, according to national newspaper reports, which came as a study by education inspectors found sexual harassment and online abuse had become "normalised" in English schools.

"Clothes are not the problem - misogyny is," said women's rights campaigner Gina Martin, who fought successfully for a legal change to criminalise the taking of "upskirt" photos under women's clothes without their consent.

The upskirt law should not be applied to children, but schools must tackle ingrained norms that sexualise women and girls' bodies by speaking to boys about consent instead of making girls feel responsible, Martin added in a Twitter post.

"Telling girls they HAVE to wear a skirt and that they HAVE to wear shorts underneath in case someone sees their pants is IMO the worst of all worlds," author and youth mental health campaigner Natasha Devon said in another post.

"(It's) imposing outdated expectations of femininity, inequality & body shame simultaneously."

It is up to individual schools to set their policies on school uniforms, and it is not clear how many schools have suggested or demanded that girls wear modesty shorts.

A spokesperson at Britain's education ministry declined to comment on the media reports, which said the schools had recommended the shorts to stop young girls accidentally showing their underwear while doing handstands or cartwheels.

Amanda Spielman, the head of the Ofsted schools watchdog that issued last week's report on sexual harassment, warned against a culture of "victim blaming" when discussing the issue with lawmakers earlier this week.

The NASUWT teachers' union, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and the NAHT union for school leaders all said they did not know how widespread such recommendations were or whether they were becoming more common.

"This issue needs to be taken seriously and not downplayed or trivialised, which is why asking girls to wear certain clothes is not the right response," said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Dress codes of this type are "sensitive" and should be decided in consultation with pupils and parents, said Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the ASCL.

She said schools worked hard to prevent inappropriate behaviour and including modesty shorts in uniforms would only be a part of their welfare strategy to protect pupils.

"It is important that what girls wear is never used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour by others," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Related stories:

Sexual abuse 'normalised' in UK schools as boys pester girls for 'nudes' 

Social media abuse drives girls off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - poll

Upskirting to cyber-flashing: lawmakers face calls to punish digital sex abuse

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.