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Written by Zara McDermott

Zara McDermott talks candidly about her experience of sexual harassment in school, tackling rape culture and why speaking out is key.

Content note: this article contains references to and descriptions of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment that readers may find upsetting.

Every woman knows the feeling: you’re walking along, minding your own business and suddenly you become aware of a male presence behind you. On a sunny afternoon in March 2018, I was crossing the park in my hometown in Essex, heading towards my parents’ house. The journey was one I’d made a million times before, test tren eq hgh cycle but I felt on edge. I was sure I was being followed.

Then the teenage boy behind me shouted something that made my blood run cold: “I’m going to fuck you.” He grabbed me, shoved me up against a fence and tried to force his hand down my leggings. Within seconds, other people in the park had noticed and started sprinting towards us. The boy took off in the opposite direction, yelling over his shoulder: “I’m not done with you.”

I’m almost certain that given the chance, that boy – who was never arrested or even identified by police – would have raped me. The stars aligned for me to get away mostly unscathed, but I still feel furious. I was also shocked by how young my attacker appeared. He couldn’t have been more than 15.

But on reflection, maybe it’s not so strange that I was sexually assaulted by a child. At my secondary school, which I left in 2015, it was a daily occurrence for boys to put their hands up girls’ skirts in class, grab our bums in the corridors and openly ‘rate’ our bodies out of 10 in class. Similarly, when I made my first BBC documentary in 2021, about my devastating experience of revenge porn, I was inundated with messages from teenage girls about the sexual harassment and abuse they’d encountered from male classmates.

In her new documentary, Zara talks to young people about the culture of sexual violence in schools

The UK’s education system often allows boys’ sexually entitled behaviour to continue unchecked, and our criminal justice system mostly fails to hold adult perpetrators of serious sexual assault to account (just 1.4% of rape cases recorded by police currently result in charges or a summons, let alone a conviction). Something needs to change.

So, for my next documentary, Zara Uncovers: Rape Culture, I went back to school. I wanted to talk with young people about the culture of sexism and sexual violence that exists in schools and colleges around the UK today – including the girls and women who are raising awareness of the problem. I also wanted to investigate where this behaviour stems from and what can be done to challenge it.

I met with Soma Sara, the founder of Everyone’s Invited – an online platform sharing anonymous testimonies of misogyny or sexual abuse at UK schools and universities. After Everyone’s Invited went viral this spring (it’s now named 2,700 educational institutions where rape culture is allegedly present), Ofsted launched an urgent review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. It found 79% of current female students said sexual assault happened “sometimes” or “a lot” between people their age. Sara has been key in pushing this problem up the political agenda.

Like Sara, many young women and girls are now firmly upholding their personal boundaries, which feels like a major shift; I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing the same when I was at school. But in other ways, girls today have it harder than my generation. Nothing drove that home for me more than meeting the family and friends of 12-year-old Semina Halliwell, who took her own life shortly after disclosing that she’d been raped by a boy of a similar age. Semina’s friends told me that extreme sexual harassment over Snapchat was a normal part of their lives by the time they were in Year 8. Sadly, I could relate to this. When I was a teenager, I was regularly pressured for nudes over BlackBerry Messenger. But online sexual harassment appears to have ramped up in recent years, and it’s now affecting children at an even younger age.

Semina’s story broke my heart, but what makes me angry is learning about the lack of accountability for porn websites. There’s an obvious link between porn and the sexual expectations and behaviour of young people, especially boys. Yet the global conglomerates that own sites like Pornhub refuse to bring in age-verification processes, and their algorithms seem designed to push viewers towards graphic, violent content.

The government needs to step up and start holding porn websites to account so children can’t access violent sexual content online in three clicks. The impact of unfiltered porn on boys is massive. When I spoke with a group of sixth-form lads, they were totally confused about how to approach girls and consent. It’s empowering that so many young women are now challenging boys’ negative behaviour, but we also have to teach boys what healthy sexual relationships look like.

What else needs to change? Well, teachers must be better supported in addressing harassment, assault and misogyny among students, and we need to seriously think about reforming sex education. It’s not just about what’s on the curriculum; it’s about who’s delivering the lessons. No teenager will listen to their 50-year-old maths teacher talking about Snapchat and consent. But bring in a 25-year-old who understands social media and can get on their level, and they might pay attention.

Some people think I don’t have the right to talk about issues like revenge porn and sexism in schools because I’m an influencer and model who was once on Love Island. But I get misogynistic comments online every single day. I’ve lived through it all, and I’m entitled to speak about my own experiences, just like anyone else. I’ve always wanted to help young people, and my social media following means I can reach people who maybe wouldn’t engage with these topics otherwise. It’s incredible to sit across from someone and say: “By sharing your story, you’re helping so many people.” That’s when I feel most passionate and purposeful.

Conversations about rape culture are never easy, but we have to keep talking to young people about these issues. If we let boys get away with sexually harassing or abusing girls at school, what’s to stop them from continuing – or escalating – that behaviour into adulthood? But if we can appropriately educate all young people about sex, consent and misogyny, I believe we can create a world where respect and healthy relationships are the norm. And that’s the world I want to live in.

Zara Uncovers: Rape Culture is on BBC iPlayer

As told to: Moya Crockett

Images: BBC

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