According to a Commons Women and Equalities Committee report, sexual harassment and abuse of girls are too often accepted as part of daily life. The report has warned that some pupils, including those in primary school, are being exposed to hardcore pornography, and that the images they see are affecting their views of sex and relationships.
Despite a trend of increased openness to a diversity of lifestyles; sex and relationship education (SRE) remains a topic that seems to be ‘behind the times’.
How we best deliver SRE to young people – and what we teach them – often provokes fierce debate amongst health and education specialists, politicians, parents/carers and community leaders, but we hear much less of the opinions of young people and what they want to know.
The scale of sexual harassment
The report outlines evidence that:
- Almost a third (29 percent) of 16- to 18-year-old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.
- Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of all 16- to 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 percent of girls and young women aged 13- to 21 said that in 2014 they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.
Unfortunately, this type of sexual harassment is commonly shrugged off as ‘banter’ and accepted as the norm in everyday life. It can be argued that generations of young girls are used to this type of everyday sexism and accept it as par for the course.
“Rape-culture” and “slut-shaming” is where sexual violence is normalised, and even condoned, in popular culture. Misogynistic language, the glamorisation of sexual violence and the cultural acceptance of victim blaming perpetuates this culture.
Quite often in the news, women are held accountable for acts of sexual harassment. More often than not, in cases of severe sexual harassment, the onus is placed on women and they are criticised for their lifestyle choices. Just last month India’s Tourism Minister warned women travelling to India to not wear dresses or skirts and that they should not walk about at night “for their own safety”; a common example of how women are blamed for sexual assault in the media and how the prevention rather than the cure is being addressed.
This can be seen in the report, which shows evidence of the alarming inconsistencies in which schools deal with sexual harassment and violence, which is mostly targeted at girls.
Sex and relationship education in school
Alongside this revelation, it was also found that SRE is often taught by embarrassed teachers, who have not received effective training; resulting in the information taught being “out of touch with many young people’s lives”.
Many may view SRE as a shameful and secretive topic; however, if teachers feel “embarrassed” or “ashamed” to talk about this subject, then how can they expect children to come forward and be open about their concerns?
In the report, young people also criticised the overly scientific approach to SRE, which ignored pleasure and desire. Men are often portrayed as predatory, and same-sex relationships and transgender people are often omitted from the subject altogether.
Are our prudish, British mannerisms, which more often than not dodge the awkward questions surrounding sex, harming young people?
If teachers do not feel comfortable enough to discuss SRE, then young girls cannot be expected to come forward to discuss sexual harassment and violence. The evidence suggests the way in which SRE is being taught to young people is not keeping up with the fast pace of today’s society. The rise of the digital era has brought with it accessible internet, social media and widespread pornography, which unfortunately, SRE is failing to protect young people from.
The dangers of pornography
The report has warned that increasing access to online pornography is fuelling sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, with previous research finding that almost 1 in 10 children first viewed pornography when they were under 10-years-old.
Maria Miller, MP and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said: “The guidance that is currently in place in schools pays no heed at all to the role of pornography, probably because it hasn’t been revised for 16 years, when there was no online pornography to be had.” (Javier Espinoza, para. 5)
It begs the question, how long can we continue to teach our children in such a feudal, outdated manner?
Clearly, pornography should not be taught, in detail, to all young people, but simply teaching children basic principles about treating each other with respect in terms of sex and relationships will help them build an understanding of what a normal, healthy relationship looks, and feels like.
The report’s recommendations include:
- The government should fund research to establish the most effective ways to support boys and young men to be part of the solution to the problem.
- Schools should collect data on reports of sexual harassment and violence, which will be collated nationally and published annually.
- The police should record incidence of sexual harassment and violence in schools.
- The government should assess the most effective ways to ensure that all school staff are well trained to deal with, and prevent, sexual harassment and sexual violence.
- The homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying funding model should be used to create a fund to support specialist sector organisations to use their expertise to help schools tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence. (Commons Select Committee, para. 21)
It could be argued that these recommendations focus on prevention rather than a cure, a common trait.
Far too few children and young people receive anything approaching adequate preparation for a safe and satisfying adult sexual life, in fact “nationally, 40 percent of young people between the ages of 11 and 18 thought that their SRE was either poor or very poor, whilst a further 33 percent thought it was average.”
Open discussion of sexual matters with trusted adults is usually absent at the very time is it most needed. This is compounded by the pervasive, confusing and conflicting messages received by children about sexuality and gender. In turn, these may contribute to creating and sustaining vulnerability to coercion, abuse and exploitation. Thus, it is imperative that all children receive effective and representative SRE in order to redress this balance.
 Women and Equalities Committee (2016) ‘’Widespread’ sexual harassment and violence in schools must be tackled’, <http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/news-parliament-2015/sexual-harassment-and-violence-in-schools-report-published-16-17/> [Accessed: 13 September 2016]
 Harry Cockburn (2016) ‘Foreign visitors should not wear skirts or short dresses, say India’s tourism minister’, <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/india-tourism-holidays-minister-mahesh-sharma-says-tourists-should-not-wear-dresses-or-skirts-a7215186.html> [Accessed: 13 September 2016]
 TES reporter (2016) ‘Sex education is often taught by embarrassed, poorly trained teachers, study finds’, <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/sex-education-often-taught-embarrassed-poorly-trained-teachers-study> [Accessed: 13 September 2016]
 Javier Espinoza (2016) ‘Teach children about the dangers of pornography, MPs say’, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/09/13/teach-children-about-the-dangers-of-pornography-mps-say/> [Accessed: 13 September 2016]
 UK Youth Parliament (2007) ‘SRE are you getting it?’, <http://www.ukyouthparliament.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/AreYouGettingIt.pdf> [Accessed: 13 September 2016]