Guest post: 'Why we need compulsory sex and relationships education'
Between 2011 and 2013, nearly 3,000 alleged sexual offences in schools were recorded by police. Here, Holly Dustin from End Violence Against Women and Dr. Fiona Elvines from Rape Crisis argue that compulsory sex and relationships education is an important step in tackling this issue - and urge us to demand change.
End Violence Against Women and Rape Crisis South London
Posted on: Thu 25-Sep-14 18:21:10
(98 comments )
Three years ago, Rape Crisis South London was contacted by a form tutor at a local school. She told us that a 13-year-old girl at her school had been sexually assaulted on a school bus by one of the boys in the year above her. A worrying culture of blame had spread - the girl was being called a slag and a liar, she had stopped coming to school and none of the teachers knew what to do.
This incident was the start of Rape Crisis' work preventing sexual abuse in schools across south London. and since then, we have heard some heart-breaking stories from teachers and students. This includes the girl who disclosed, after a session on ‘sexting’, how she was being blackmailed by an older man into sending increasingly sexual explicit pictures of herself. He was threatening to send them to her parents unless she escalated what she was doing in the pictures. She was terrified, but didn't know how to get out of it. In another session, a group of 14-year-old boys said that they had sex with ‘wrong un's’ – girls they think are unattractive – to gain points with the boys, making sure they got a picture to prove it happened. Even a primary school told us how two seven-year-old boys had digitally penetrated a young girl in one of the toilets. Pornography repeatedly comes up as an issue, with boys saying they feel public pressure to use and like it, but privately feel really uncomfortable with the sexism and racism they see threaded through it.
Sadly, these are not isolated incidents. For many girls and young women, abuse and harassment by boyfriends, friends, male family members and men on the street are part of their daily experience. Thousands of young people have shared their experiences of harassment and assault on the Everyday Sexism Project website, including many who experience ‘groping’ and harassment on a regular basis at school or on their way to school. A 2010 YouGov survey for the End Violence Against Women Coalition revealed that almost one in three 16-18 year old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and that sexual name calling such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ is routine. More recently, a Freedom of Information Request made by the Independent revealed that nearly 3,000 alleged sexual offences in schools, including 320 rapes, were recorded by police between 2011 and 2013. Over half were committed by other children.
Both teachers and children tell us that doing this work after someone has been hurt is too late; that society's squeamishness around talking to young people about sex, and challenging sexist attitudes and behaviours, is having devastating consequences.
Ongoing scandals like the recent revelations in Rotherham reveal a desperate need to address attitudes towards women and girls, and the normalisation of abuse. We must alter the culture in which young people are bombarded with messages that women are sex objects and men are sexual aggressors, from ‘Blurred Lines’ to online pornography to Page 3. This is the context in which 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year and 400,000 sexually assaulted.
Three years on from that first call from a school seeking help, Rape Crisis South London now deliver a six week programme to schools across the area on sexual violence, consent and respect, pornography, gender stereotyping and the age-old sexual double standard, where boys are applauded for being sexual whereas girls are ridiculed. We know that this needs to be part of a ‘whole school approach’ to tackling all forms of violence against women and girls, too, so we also train teachers to give them support in their difficult work - as well as holding parent workshops where we talk to parents about the particularly gendered pressures around sex and sexual performance that face young women and men today.
Whilst these workshops are a huge success, both teachers and children tell us that doing this work after someone has been hurt is too late; that society's squeamishness around talking to young people about sex, and challenging sexist attitudes and behaviours, is having devastating consequences.
The absence of compulsory sex and relationships education that tackles sexual consent, gender stereotyping and the harms of pornography is letting young people down. That’s why the Everyday Sexism Project and the End Violence Against Women Coalition - supported by Mumsnet, Yvette Cooper MP, Jo Swinson MP, Caroline Lucas MP, and many others - have launched a campaign calling on David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and all party leaders to commit to making sex and relationships compulsory as part of PSHE. This must include ongoing training for teachers, and support for children who disclose that they are being abused or worry that their own behaviour may be abusive.
A couple of years ago, a Mumsnet survey showed that 92% of members think Sex and Relationships Education should be a compulsory subject in secondary schools. Mumsnetters know that this is too important to leave to chance. Let's tell David Cameron and co, too.
By Holly Dustin and Dr. Fiona Elvines
Thanks for this. Certainly agree on the whole and welcome school and other input to my DC's understanding of relationship and sex ed. Only thing is I know that currently parents can opt out of this for their own children. Unsure of whether this should continue or not ....
Yes we need this! It needs to start in primary though; not necessarily about sex, but about respect for others and self-respect for your own body, as well as building trusting relationships where children can speak out against any unwelcome behaviour.
We need to talk about all of this, including sex, and from primary age, too.
Sex and gender issues should be covered.
I skim read an article in the paper this week about a woman who runs a charity for girls (and boys) with regards to arranged marriages.
One thing that did shock me was when she said that its often the brothers of girls who beat them/abuse them into the marriages - and these are second, even third generation brits, in whom you would assume this barbaric/medievil practice would have died out. It is because of their view of females.
But then, their parents would probably bleat that they don't want their kids receiving sex education at school 'for religious/cultural reasons'.
Constant pushing of sex/sexuality in the media/advertising/music industry is also pretty shocking too. I grew up in the seventies and the odd flash of flabby bare boobs in The Sweeney and sexist basque-clad Benny Hill dancers isn't a patch on the sexualisation that is pushed as desireable or the norm these days.
"these are second, even third generation brits, in whom you would assume this barbaric/medievil practice would have died out"
there are plenty of british men whose families have lived in britain for centuries who are violent towards their partners/wives
Great post. Absolutely support this and it has to be compulsory. No exceptions for 'religious' or 'cultural' reasons. We all live in this society together and every young person has the right to receive help and guidance to have a happy, healthy sex life which is based on consent. We just simply cannot trust all parents to deliver this
I totally agree with the media pushing sex but I think that parents of these shocking children are to blame.
Now instead of talking to their children and raising them properly they are too busy to take the responsibility and are calling for schools to do it.
For my generation it was too much free time and free sex "Much too much, much too young"
I know my dc wouldn't be involved in anything like this because I didn't allow unsupervised access to the internet.
They didn't have phones with access to take to school, its asking for trouble. It's much too much, but parents do it because they follow like sheep and don't want Johnny left out.
Thank the Lord none of my children will have to sit through these lessons, I think its disgusting. Remove the access not the childhood.
This country is in the most horrendous muddle abbot teenagers and sexuality. It is some years since this was relevant to me on a family level, but, in those days there was a certain magazine for young women over 18; only trouble was DD, about 12 – 14 at the time plus friends were reading it. Teens want to learn about sex, I have no problem with that, however the council in this magazine, and I suspect most of the other such like publications was always “permissive”, and this meant that parents who were trying to coach conservative (with a small c) values in these matters were having an uphill battle.
I have not had much direct experience of school / college sex education and I always avoided teaching it in that way. I did observer attach / peer review some of this type of teaching going on but my overall view of this was not very positive.
For my own part I was always available to any of my tutor group to discuss such things and I would say meet me in the canteen towards the end of lunch. The reason for this was it was a public space but out of ear shot of others. Rarely did an individual bring up sexual matters but when they did almost always it was about “are they normal”? It was good to be able to be reassuring and I hope be able to give a balanced view of matters.
A point which is often overlooked. The concept of teenagers was a cynical post- war commercial invention which has generated trouble in one form or another since its inception. For most of history there were children and adults, and in many ways we have enfeebled and infantilised the 13 – 17 year olds of today. When I was in this age range I sat on a church council, went fishing all night, was the sole employee on duty and had an allotment. Post 16, I spent most of my time with adults.
I have seen ten year olds be able to hold their own with adults on the bowling green.
Responsibilities and thus the preparation for adulthood commences at ten and gradually accumulates through to eighteen and beyond, e.g. some “adult “rights and responsibilities” do not commence at even 18.
There is no one answer to the sex education of the young, but I would strongly suggest it is one of manifold inputs and coaching.
I think why some parents want the right to withdraw their kids from these lessons is that the teaching tends to be based on the assumption that these kids will be sexually active at some time during their secondary education. If the lessons were more about respect and friendship and commitment I would be happier.Whilst it is illegal in this country to have sex under the age of 16, we are teaching our 12/13 year olds how to put on a condom.What sort of double message is that giving the kids. I don't have a solution sadly but I don't think the whole solution is sex ed. The problems have got far worse since many kids have unsupervised access to t.v/internet and are absorbing our sex obsessed culture. That is what needs to be tackled somehow but I am not sure how.
I agree with you totally, atm we are lucky that if this was made compulsory it wouldn't affect us, but I would kick up a right fuss for these reasons.
I want to socialise my own child not outsource it to others.
I will make sure she is informed and supported in an age appropriate way. For example she knew about periods before her schooled friends whose parents hadn't told them, because family history made it necessary.
I am confident that she will not be naïve about the horrors of the world and not exist in a bubble.
Parents should have the right to do this themselves.
Teaching a thirteen year old how to put on a condom is far better than having to teach them how to change a nappy. Yes moist kids will be sexually active during their secondary education, so let's teach them to make the right choices. Of course teach about relationships, but talk to them about everything else too, and I do mean everything.
morethan. Whilst I agree with less screen time, teens have always found ways around things, these lessons are important and teaching our children how to make the right choices is not taking their childhood.
I know my child will not be putting condoms on anybody when she is secondary school age.
I know that she will understand about peer pressure and respect. good friendships, be able to communicate, be honest and trustworthy.
I intend to talk to her about everything but all in good time not before I think some aspects to be too young and inapplicable.
If she learns something at school that she doesn't use until university ie condom skills, why is that a bad thing? Same is true for learning about, say, voting, or paying tax!
what I find really bizarre is that nobody seems to want to talk about the fact that sexual activity for under 16 year olds is illegal and yet we are fighting for it to be compulsory that they know all about it in detail that will of course make them more curious. Of course they should know about reproduction and puberty and not have things happening to their bodies that they are unprepared for but underage sex is not healthy for our children for countless reasons both emotional and physical. Do they have compulsory classes on how to take Cocaine safely(because most of you will experiment with this so we want to make sure you do it safely) Are there lessons on shoplifting without being caught (as you may decide to have a go and we don't want you getting a record) It just seems ridiculous that there is now so much sex ed that kids feel they are the weirdos if they are not sexually active at a young age. When I was at secondary school, the kids who became sexually active were the ones viewed as odd and inappropriate and now that has completely changed. Why is that? It is still illegal and it is still not a good idea and yet it has become accepted, even by parents,which I find so depressing.
Excellent guest post imvho. As a teacher and mother I think it is vitally important to be honest with our children about such a fundamental aspect of their humanity. It is ridiculous that parents can still withdraw their children from sex and relationships education.
vdb I think you are mistakenly focussing on the sex aspect of the education, as someone who has taught PSHE for many years I can confirm that the emphasis is actually on relationships, gender equality, respect, consent - including the age of consent and how this is designed to protect children and young people from predators and peer pressure. The problem is that not enough of young people are being taught these valuable messages so THEY DON'T KNOW! It is also important to note that teenagers DO experiment with all sorts of adult activities and therefore need to know what their options and choices are. Just like we prepare children to use money effectively and learn about how to find a job etc. none of which they will need to do fully until they are adults, we need to be preparing children for adult pleasures and pressures and with the current system of 'opt out' of sex and relationships education we are not doing this effectively - with disastrous consequences for many young people and their families.
Thing is, teenagers are already curious. Telling them that all sexual activity is always totally wrong removes their ability to see some activities as way more wrong, and means they are unlikely to ask for help dealing with say sexual blackmail if they think they will get in trouble for responding to sexual chat in the first place.
I'd love to leave these areas out of a crowded school curriculum, but 99% of parents who think they have told their kids what they need to know haven't created an environment where the kids can ask for help when they get in trouble - and the parents will never find that out in most cases.
I mentor girls in south London and the level of ignorance is often shocking - bright girls doing A-levels shouldn't be getting pregnant becouse they don't know about emergency contraception, how do get it, or what an abortion is.
As long as the emphasis is on relationship education and not just on the mere mechanics of sex, I think this is a very necessary thing, sadly.
IMO learning about how their bodies work, how to be considered to others, how to respect themselves and others, how to stay safe should be taught from P1.
I truly don't understand any reluctance by parents to have schools talk about these things.
OMG @ 7 yo digitally penetrating a little girl - it is when I read these kind of things that I realise (again) how sheltered my upbringing was and that of my DCs is
I work with children, young people and families. In a relatively affluent areas with some pockets of deprivation.
Yy to shocking levels of ignorance.
Parents not having told their girls about their periods and panicking when their DD starts menstruating when they are 10, the poor girl convinced she is dying.
Teenaged girls looking at me like this when I suggest that sex should be fun and enjoyable for all parties involved.
Teens being pressured in to having penetrative sex because 'everybody is doing it' (when NOT everybody is doing it) or because 'you don't get pregnant the first time' or 'the first time'.
I could go on.
If every parent did a good job in talking to their children about sex/relationships this would not be necessary in school, but that's not the case as it stands.
There are studies (I will try to find later) that clearly demonstrate that girls who are fully armed with all the facts and who have had sex ed from a young age are more likely to lose their virginity later than those who have not had the information. It seems logical to me. vbd you were saying that it was odd and inappropriate to have had sex at a young age when you were at school, it was when I was at school too, however, I could guarantee that almost everyone of those girls came from homes where it wasn't talked about. (I say girls because I went to an all girls school). We need to discuss this, we need to educate children that under age sex is daft and that they don't have to, but until we talk about it nobody is learning anything.
I wonder if any studies have been done on the correlation between being withdrawn from sex ed classes and being sexually active at a young age. In my experience parents are generally reluctant to withdraw their kids from classes for fear of them being teased etc and the adult 'peer pressure' to conform. As a very general rule, the kids who are showing an interest in full on relationships at a young age are often those with less engaged parents who would not even bother to preview the teaching materials let alone withdraw their kids(talking primary age here). I realise alot of kids who are withdrawn from class are probably those with a religious background but would think that those kids would be less likely to be sexually active at a young age because of their families/cultural norms. I would also hope that their parents were telling them what they needed to know. HOWEVER, I accept that this is not always the case and also accept that these kids may be the ones taken advantage of as they may generally be less streetwise and more naive. I would still be interested in whether those withdrawn from saex ed have a high incidence of sexual activity or exploitation. My guess is that it would be lower than average!
Vbd, holland is often held up as the example, with low rates of teenage pregnancy and good sex Ed.
Dawndonnaagain.....just re-read you post....would be interested in those studies. What would interest me is studies around schools that do have sex ed and have kids removed from class rather than studies in schools where the sex ed is so rubbish that basically all the kids are uninformed. I think there might be different results.
I agree with your sentiments here, please see my opinions above.
However, the age of consent being set at 16 is a relatively recent statute of 1885 and in western countries today varies from 13 -18 and even is lower in the third world.
Historically girls were married much younger, e.g. Henry VII mother was married at 12 and gave birth to Henry at the age of 13, although it is noteworthy that marriages were not always consummated for some years.
Your note about sexual activity being illegal pre 16 only applies if it is with someone else or there is another person in the room, including parents. I.e. self sex is not illegal and will almost certainly be happening; remember a six or seven year old boy will have all the experiences of an adult in this regard with the exception of ejaculation.
Many parents do not give their offspring guidance on these matters in the pre-teen years and this is an opportunity lost, i.e. if you have taught them about such things as privacy, self-restraint, timeliness, hygiene and regard for others in the self sex pre-teen era then having the same conversations about more complex matters in teen years will be made that much easier.
There will often be a tension here, as an adolescent is sexually mature, in a biological sense, but is restrained by the law and other factors. It is this that society, and, in particular parents have to curate.
I’m afraid what is illegal and legal is not a consideration to the fore of many of the general public, e.g. drive down a motorway at 70 mph, how many people overate you? The vast majority. As for the 20 MPH limits on main roads in towns, even more “everyday criminals” can be found driving there.
Therefore in a practical sort of way laws can only be enforced if the majority of the population abide by them or you have some sort of device that will automatically catch those who have fallen from grace like a speed camera, however developing such a device that “catches a 15 year old when s/he is engaged in sexual activity with another is quite a difficult concept, or, maybe not; it is called guidance from a loving parent, supported by the likes of good teachers, youth leaders, God Parents etc.
Universal, compulsory sex and relationships education for all school children, starting from reception can only be a positive thing, even better if it is also taught in nurseries and pre-schools. Too many children are getting mixed messages, incorrect messages or no messages at all from their parents/wider community, that it, sadly, has to fall on schools to do this.
There is another similar thread about this in Campaigns, where having a specific professional, either from a health or social services background in every school who takes charge of the SRE curriculum, while also providing support for children who have difficulties around EBD (which are dealt with woefully badly, if valiantly, at the moment).
SRE isn't, as some would contend, all about teaching the mechanics of sex. It is, or should be more about teaching an understanding of consent, respect, the architecture of friendships and other relationships, what to do if things go wrong, or are going wrong in a young person's life. While the mechanics of sex, and the changes that puberty brings are important, they can be covered more than adequately in science lessons. SRE has to become fundamental to education, with no opt outs, even religious or very engaged parents get things wrong, or perhaps have disordered relationships, or are themselves abusive, and I say this as a mother who did want to opt out, as my DS has ASD and was deeply upset by some of the things he was told, I'm glad I didn't, it created topics for discussions, and we became closer because of it.
Saying that it shouldn't happen because some parents aren't engaged with their children's education is lazy and discriminatory against those children. ALL children need safeguarding, not just those who come from families that care.
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