How can we teach young people about sexual assault?
Weinstein, Spacey, Fallon… Amid so many public sexual assault claims, young people need to know what is and isn’t appropriate sexual behaviour.
In light of the recent widespread sexual assault scandals in the worlds of entertainment and politics, we look at how bad the problem is in schools, and what we can do to address it.
Awareness of sexual assault on schools and university campuses has become greater and greater over the last few years, and there have been moves to tackle the problem. Just earlier this year – and many years too late – compulsory age-appropriate sex-ed classes were introduced for all English schools (although parents can still choose to exempt their children from such). Many universities have run initiatives to help prevent assault and harassment, and made it easier for victims to contact support staff or student representatives within the university.
How bad is the problem?
Well, a 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee reveals that:
- Almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
- Nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
- 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year
And the troubling statistics do not stop there. Going slightly further back, 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools between 2011 and 2014. Within these figures, there were 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults and more than 600 rapes, according to the information from UK police forces. At the same time there’s evidence that sexist jokes, harrassment and abuse are part of a pervasive and accepted ‘lad culture‘ in many British schools.
While it would be easy to point to the progress in the wider discourse made in the last few years, recent harrowing statistics suggest that young people are still extremely vulnerable to sexual offences – especially from each other, as reported by the Guardian in October 2017:
- Figures reveal almost 30,000 reports of children sexually assaulting other youngsters, including 2,625 alleged attacks on school premises, have been made to police in the last four years
- The data released by 38 of the 43 forces in England and Wales, in response to freedom of information requests, showed reports of so-called “peer on peer” abuse rose from 4,603 in 2013 to 7,866 last year – an increase of 71%.
- But 74% reported to 36 forces between 1 April 2013 and 31 May 2017 resulted in no further action, according to the figures obtained by BBC’s Panorama.
- The investigation found that 2,625 reported sexual offences, including 225 alleged rapes, carried out by under-18s on other children happened on school premises, including primary school playgrounds, across 31 force areas.
- Figures from 30 forces showed reports of sexual offences by children aged 10 and under more than doubled from 204 in 2013-14 to 456 in 2016-17.
Despite the impression of universities as being generally more enlightened and progressive than the rest of society, they are nonetheless rife with reports of abuse and unwanted sexual advances, according to polling carried out by YouthSight, a specialist research group:
- As many as half of female students and a third of their male counterparts knew of a friend or relative who has experienced intrusive sexual behaviour, ranging from groping to rape.
- 31% of female students polled said they had been the victim of “inappropriate touching or groping” around one in 20 women had experienced more intimate but unwelcome advances, or had been pressured into sexual activity.
- Overall, 34% indicated they had experienced some form of assault or abuse.
- Meanwhile one in eight male students had also been subjected to groping or unwanted advances.
- 1% of male/female students said they had been raped at university.
- Significantly, 43% of the women who had experienced sexual assault or abuse at university did not report their ordeal, even to friends or family, suggesting that shame or embarrassment can be powerful responses – or even that many victims did not consider their assault severe enough to report or discuss with someone.
- 6 in 10 male victims said they had not told anyone.
So the problem is pretty bad. The damning statistics go on, and on and on. And anyone who thought sexual assault was a thing of the past, or not happening in their society, is wrong.
What can we do to change this?
Certainly, the February ruling on sex education being compulsory is a place to start; until then, it had only been compulsory in council-run schools. There’s a good argument for disallowing parents from removing their children from these classes; if SRE (sex and relationship education) is viewed in any way as optional or inessential, the odds of being able to effectively tackle these widespread issues are limited. If you can’t pull your kids out of maths or geography, you shouldn’t be able to pull them out of SRE. In fact, even having exemption as an option suggests that SRE – which includes lessons around consent, STIs and sexual health, pregnancy, safe sex and contraception – is less important than other subjects. Which it isn’t.
Furthermore, we as a society need to destigmatise discussions around sexual assault – which is finally beginning to happen as people speak out. Perhaps the most shocking statistic above is how many women didn’t want to report it. One upshot of the recent Me Too campaign on social media, which has seen millions of women – and men – share stories of sexual assault, is the sudden wider awareness of how many people have been a victim of sexual assault or harassment, at some point in their lives. Perhaps most concerning are the millions of people out there (especially but not exclusively men) who were unaware that their behaviour is unacceptable, or what constitutes harassment, rape or assault.
And that is where education comes in. From a young age, we can teach children what ‘consent’ is, using, for example, this brilliant and very simple metaphor about making someone a cup of tea. Long story short – only make someone a cup of tea if they say ‘yes’ when you ask if they want tea; if they say yes then don’t drink it, don’t force them to drink it. If they’re passed out and can’t say ‘yes, I’d like a cup of tea,’ don’t make the tea etc – but the video in the link above is worth a watch, for adults and young people alike.
Young people must learn that if someone wants to touch them, hug them or kiss them it is only acceptable to do this with their permission. And that not granting that permission is fine – no one is entitled to it. Likewise, that if they want to touch, kiss or hug someone, it’s only allowed if that person is happy with it. And if someone says ‘no’ or asks them to stop, then that is what they must do. These are simple lessons to teach children, that they can understand, and they lay the groundwork for young people to understand consent and what constitutes assault or harassment when they are older.
It should now be easier to teach than ever before: children currently of school age will be seeing endless examples of celebrities with a history of sexual abuse being caught and tried in an extremely public way, while anyone on social media can see the sexual abuse stories of millions of non-celebrity individuals. Now more than ever, there is extreme visibility and awareness around the problem of sexual misconduct through every part of society: if ever it could be taught effectively, it is now.
How can we teach it?
This is the practical question, and extremely important it is too. For this to be effective we need collaboration between school and university leadership, teachers, parents and student representatives – as well as other professionals. We need to accept how widespread the problem is, how common it is for people – especially women – to experience harassment and assault, and work from the ground up to improve the situation.
With pretty much every school subject, we expect it to be taught by someone who has studied the subject to at least some degree: it should be the same with SRE. That means it could be taught by counsellors or mental health professionals who have experience of dealing with individuals who suffered sexual assault, and can advise on where victims can seek support. It could involve police or legal experts, to explain in detail the issues around consent, reporting a crime, and what constitutes rape, assault or harassment. It could involve survivors, telling their stories and explaining the emotions that one can experience after such an ordeal.
The point is, it shouldn’t necessarily be left to parents or classroom teachers to explain everything. Certainly at the moment, they won’t necessarily be trained to deal with every question or situation, and some may not even feel comfortable teaching it. However, in the future, SRE should become more of a part of teacher training, and teachers should be trained to spot the signs of sexual abuse in schools.
Many universities have even been holding consent classes in recent years to educate undergraduates about the issues. However, some students have ended up walking out or protesting against them as ‘patronising,’ while others are thoroughly in favour. Perhaps the point is a slightly different one – we shouldn’t need these to exist because schools should be doing far, far more to educate students about consent. At the moment, it’s a positive step that universities run the classes in a mandatory or optional manner. In the future, it would be nice to think that by the time people arrived at university, they’d already understand why the existence of such classes is so important.
We have a long way to go in educating young people about appropriate sexual behaviour – but if there’s ever been an appropriate time to seriously try and start doing so, it is now.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.