Misogyny and objectification proliferate in high school. They begin there. They grow there. And they don’t end when we finally walk out of those black pointed gates.
I remember the stress of walking through a pathway where a group of boys would huddle assessing our physical characteristics. I remember the screenshots of group discussions where boys would stratify us hierarchically on the basis of our attractiveness. Those were the explicit occurrences of misogyny that we, females, experienced in an educational institution that promised equality and opportunity. But what was most surprising was that most of us, and even I, were complicit. We accepted the boys’ actions and often sought validation from them.
To be considered hot or attractive by the boys, who should have had no role in determining our self-worth, was an intrinsic, but publicly disguised goal. When we saw the rankings in screenshots or overheard conversations about us, we were secretly delighted if we had made the top 20. We didn’t consider the harm such crass objectification did to those who weren’t favorably placed or who had been told by those boys that they would never go near “that.” By adopting this attitude of indifference we handed our autonomy to the boys who felt entitled to objectify us.
My friend group discussed the misogyny ubiquitous in high schools, not just ours, but quite possibly all around Australia and the world, on numerous occasions. Several members believed the boys’ behavior was abhorrent, although we took no steps to change it. However, the overwhelming majority optimistically trusted “they’ll grow out of it soon,” and “they’re only doing this because they’re teenage boys; eventually they’ll become decent men.”
The issues with this rationale are clear. We know that misogynistic attitudes, even in one’s teenage years, likely result in misogyny later in life. Whether that be explicit, implicit, or even barely recognizable, it emerges, and it slowly damages the women those men come in contact with, and the overall equalization and empowerment of our gender. But even if those insolences are not present later in life, the damage they have already done to some of the girls they ranked is irrevocable. Too often girls did not feel like they were enough, deserving of love, worthy of a voice. The self-esteem implications were obvious, but the ramifications on learning and personal development were also prevalent.
Whether they didn’t express themselves in class for fear of judgment or didn’t participate in co-curricular activities for fear of loss of status, misogyny, especially at such a crucial developmental stage, is severely detrimental. This is psychologically explained by Objectification Theory, which posits that women, particularly those in Western democracies, experience objectification regularly and from a young age, resulting in depression, self-objectification, and reduced life outcomes.
Somewhat predictably, the primary demographic of young men who objectified us were the “cool” group. Through their socially assumed ascension above us ‘commoners,’ they behaved as though they were unaccountable for their actions. Interestingly and unfortunately though, it appeared as if objectifying young women was one of the only things they had. It gave them a sense of purpose, provided some power and control in their lives, and informed their sense of self. Though this is not characteristic of all chauvinistic individuals, in high schools, it is often the case, actively manifesting in skewed gendered power structures, which elevate one group at the expense of another. Consequently, our approach to addressing sexism in high school cannot be conventional.
But realistically, within the current behavioral response structures, what could our school executives do? Practically nothing. Sure if we reported it, they could have given the boys a strict warning and demanded they stop. However, when misogyny is not tangible – where there is no physical altercation or act – retribution is even more limited. And after a stern talking to, the boys would have begun again, probably giggling at the bastion of power they held, and further demeaning the girls who were courageous enough to stand up to them.
Instead, we must focus on holistically developing high school students into empathetic global citizens. The introduction of compulsory philosophy classes from Year Seven, where students discuss matters such as morality, consciousness, and existentialism, would be helpful. Although it is argued that some students will be apathetic in their participation, the organization and delivery of these philosophy classes in an engaging manner and from a young age can resolve this issue.
It is up to the education system to create an effectual process of socialization, which ensures children develop into considerate human beings. It must, of course, empower us academically. But it must also teach us to be kind. To be honorable. To value our fellow human beings. After all, that is the very basis on which our society is founded.