A virus of "bitch bullying" is spreading through our schools – a phenomenon of insidious intimidation among girls in which long-term campaigns of damning gossip are waged and rumours are spread behind someone's back. Boys will lance the boil of a grievance by beating each other up. Girls operate in far more subtle and hurtful ways.
It's against this background that 29 girls will be returning to one London school tomorrow after serving suspensions for setting up a defamatory Facebook site. Called the Hate Society, the site was about a particular teacher at the Grey Coat Hospital school in Westminster, a CofE girls' comprehensive where the 29 are pupils. The teacher is now reported to be receiving counselling to recover from this ordeal by vitriol.
I spent 18 months leading "bitch workshops" in secondary schools and, even more sadly, several primary schools, invited by teachers who simply didn't know how to handle what was happening to them.
Unpopular teachers have always been the subject of scurrilous hate campaigns in the cloakrooms and lunch queues of our schools. But this is just an extension of the way girls treat each other, increasingly through recourse to technology like Facebook. Then again even just the look on your face – "evils" – can be deployed as a form of intimidation. "The best buzz is to look at someone, then look at someone else and start giggling," a 15-year old once told me. "It makes them feel this small."
Over time these tactics can undermine every last ounce of a teenage girl's fragile self-confidence and lead to a whole host of other problems – from depression and eating disorders to suicide attempts. Girls are clever. They know how to hit each other where it really hurts – over aspects of their appearance or sexual reputation, because these are the areas they feel most vulnerable about.
The trouble is that girls see bitching celebrated on television by admired celebrities and, for example, on Big Brother. They hear their mothers bitching about each other on the phone or at the school gate. Naturally they emulate both. Few are offered insights as to why they might do it.
We assume that feminism and gender politics are a thing of the past in these days of "equal opportunity", in which girls are doing so much better than boys educationally. But I was shocked by the absence of any basic understanding of how girls are still socialised in a very different way to boys.
Girls grow up with contradictory and confusing messages. They are expected to look good and be good. They want to look sexy and are as interested in, and as in need of, sexual experimentation as much as boys, but their reputation still hangs upon abstinence. "Good" girls don't. They are still expected to be kinder, more supportive and enabling of others. But we are human too, and with too much self-sacrifice resentment flourishes that cannot be expressed – because "good" girls don't get angry.
Girls are competitive. They need ambition, drive, even a ruthlessness if they are succeed in a career, but these essential attributes sit uneasily with notions of female self-effacement. So they pretend not to be doing any work and not to like maths. They haul back into line anyone who presumes to excel.
By bitch bullying, girls can express all their anger, insecurities and unhappiness at growing up, but in veiled ways. When you are unhappy, you feel much better if someone else hurts too. Envy also plays its part, for girls crave the goods that could shore up their deep insecurity but which they cannot afford. And all girls, or every age, seem scared of confrontation. When someone upsets us we cannot say so to their face or clear up any misunderstanding with an apology or an acceptance that we might have been over-sensitive. Instead we harbour resentments, often for years.
Girls need to know that they are not bad when they feel all these things. They are human beings with a range of negative as well as positive emotions, just like boys. But they also need to know that there is a big difference between being a strong bitch and a weak bitch.
A strong bitch is not afraid to say what she thinks, rather than what she feels she ought to say to be liked. She is not afraid to stand up for herself and ask for that pay rise because she knows she deserves it, and she is not afraid to stand up to injustice and abuse. A weak bitch puts other women down to feel stronger. It is lack of confidence and self-worth that has produced this explosion of bitch culture in our schools – and it is still feminism that can provide the solution.
Kate Figes's books include 'The Big Fat Bitch Book', published by Virago, and 'The Terrible Teens', published by Penguin