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Preventing sexual harassment and assault in schools

sexual assalut harrasment schools

Testimonies of sexual assault in schools are shocking, but are we doing enough? What can schools and the government do to address the situation and, more importantly, improve it? Stephanie Davies explores what can be done to address a shockingly shameful side to our education system.

A sexual harassment wake-up call

The shocking testimonies of thousands of school children, mostly girls, outlining the full extent of rape culture in schools seems to have caught the adult world off-guard.

Over the past weeks, we’ve been jolted awake to the harsh realities of a pervasive culture of sexual violence that permeates the education system. The website, Everyone’s Invited, was set up to allow young people to share their stories.

It has since become a social movement and a wake-up call, full of accounts of misogyny, sexual harassment, sexualised bullying, sexual assault and rape that reveal the scale of sexual violence in British schools.

The education system is not to blame for this urgent issue, but schools will end up having to deal with it in one way or another.

In response, the government has launched a review into sexual abuse in schools. This will involve government officials, social care authorities, Ofsted and the police. Under the direction of the Department for Education, Ofsted is launching a school safeguarding inquiry.

The aim of the review is to understand the scale of the problem and to ensure that children have proper access to support and reporting channels. 

Governments are doing little to tackle sexual abuse

I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. In 2018, the Government published a 44-page document on tackling sexual harassment in schools. It appears to have done little to address the issue.

One of the themes that journalists at Tortoise Media identified in the Everyone’s Invited testimonies, was the assumed inadequacy of sex education in schools. Their data highlighted 29 mentions of sex education and 265 mentions of the word “consent” – often raised about the absence of proper teaching about consent and respect for the boundaries of others. 

Comments on the site included: “What did we learn in sex ed class? How to put a condom on a banana. STIs are bad. Women/girls get pregnant. Have you been on a porn site? Woeful, schools must do better.”

As of last year, the curriculum was updated to include education about consent, coercion, grooming and respectful relationships, but that still doesn’t go far enough.

Viewing pornography

The culprit here is undoubtedly the internet, with its easy access to hardcore pornography. As uncomfortable as it is for parents to accept, most children will have viewed it by the time they finish primary school. And in teenage years, it’s rife. It’s a part of teenage life and the evidence suggests that it influences sexual behaviour.

The NSPCC, for example, warns that children who watch sexually explicit content are at greater risk of developing unrealistic attitudes about sex and consent. Pornography can lead to a negative attitude about relationships, more casual attitudes about sex and sexual relationships, an increase in “risky” sexual behaviour and unrealistic expectations of body image and performance. While some studies show that teens’ exposure to porn is no cause for alarm, there’s little research on the effect it has on younger children.

For this reason, education about what’s right in terms of sexual behaviour needs to start early and needs to come from a place of acceptance that young children will access pornography.

This, of course, is fraught with ethical and moral challenges. Adults worry that the mere mention of online porn to anyone under the age of 13 will send them scurrying to their tablets in search of the forbidden fruit. I have some bad news for you. They probably already have.

Preachy campaigns that tell young people what not to do never work

Attempts to stop children accessing pornography are futile. In 2010, the Coalition Government manifesto promised to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. In 2013, nationwide filters were introduced through internet service providers. Take-up was minimal.

The Digital Economy Act of 2017 required porn sites to verify the age of their visitors, with fines of up to £250,000 for any that failed to comply. However this requirement was dropped in 2019 due to technical difficulties and protests by advocates of privacy and free speech. Most recently, the Online Harms White Paper, published in December 2020, promises increased protection of children online. It’s unlikely to become law until 2022 at the earliest.

Preachy campaigns that tell young people what not to do never work, as successive anti-drug initiatives prove. The porn genie is out the bottle and tech-savvy children are unlikely to put it back in just because an adult tells them to.

Education is the right way to go but teachers are already overloaded

Controversially, I would argue that we should stop trying to focus on prohibition and start trying to educate younger children about the difference between reality when it comes to bodies, sex and relationships, and the fiction of what they’re likely to see in the sexualised culture they grow up in.

And this should be treated as a public health issue, above anything else.

Current policy is just firefighting. The groundwork needs to be laid before exposure. Children need a good foundation on which to build their future relationships.

If the mention of pornography is too much, we can take porn out of the equation completely and instead address issues of body image, consent and realistic relationships through the prism of popular culture.

There are exercises that can be done in class using Philosophy 4 Kids-style questioning. For example, excerpts from Love Island could be used to generate debate. Pupils could use images to formulate challenging questions such as: ‘Do Love Island contestants represent real people?’, ‘Are Love Islanders treated with respect?’, ‘Does Love Island objectify contestants?’.

Unfortunately, this means teachers may have to do some research and watch the show, but using popular culture is one of the best ways to open conversations. 

Education is undoubtedly the right way to go. However such a sensitive and important subject demands expertise. Teachers are already overloaded. Yes, the problem is best addressed in schools and not one school I have spoken to disagrees, but until we approach this from a public health perspective, it’s not going to change.

Stephanie Davies






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