We are in the kitchen. It is a couple of weeks before the end of term and my 13-year-old daughter has just come in from school. We are doing the usual parent-child thing – me asking about her day, as she raids the cupboards, and her giving non-committed replies of “Hmm-OK”. With nonchalance, she slips into the conversation that an old man stared at her creepily as she left the shops on her way home, and shouted some sort of sexualised remark as she walked past. To be fair, the fact she described him as an old man could reasonably put his age as anything between 27 and 83.
I would like to pretend I was shocked as she trivialised the discomfort she felt, accepting the interaction as almost a non-event. However, as I spend my days largely talking to teenagers about these issues, I am well aware that my daughter’s experience is neither special nor unique. For the vast majority of teenage girls this type of interaction is almost a rite of passage.
Following the revelations in the media of the Everyone’s Invited website campaign, the government instructed Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual harassment and violence in schools. The campaign had been initiated by UCL student Soma Sara, who wanted to create a safe space where students could anonymously post their experiences of sexual harassment. However, in the wake of the horrific murder of Sarah Everard, and the public debate that followed, the website was inundated with thousands of disclosures explicitly exposing the extent of peer-on-peer harassment and sexual violence across schools.
The cynic in me questions whether the government would have been under the same amount of pressure to react if the schools named in the disclosures hadn’t included the most prestigious and elite independent schools in the country.
As a result, I, like many of my colleagues who work in relationship and sex education (RSE) spent the summer term talking to teenagers of all ages, unpicking the issue with them, and supporting school staff in their efforts to make real and lasting change. Suddenly RSE feels like it is being made a priority.
For anyone who has recent experience of high school, the findings of the Ofsted review were hardly a revelation. We would be naive to assume the walls of education would be immune from the attitudes and behaviours that are evident throughout the rest of society, where grown men feel able to ogle and intimidate a young girl in her school uniform in a busy street, knowing he won’t be challenged or held accountable. Why should the school corridors be
Although the former education secretary Gavin Williamson wanted to ban mobile phones from schools and thinks implementing a zero-tolerance discipline approach is the answer, as is often the case the government is pointing schools in the wrong direction. If we are going to truly tackle the issue of sexual harassment in schools we need to consider the messages we are giving to young people and understand why they are reluctant to report.
Take sharing nudes for example. Unfortunately, the extent of education about issues like sexting often merely reminds pupils sharing nudes is illegal and that if they engage in such practices, they are breaking the law. Although this is true in sentiment, it can have drastic repercussions for young people who receive this message, as when things go wrong, they feel unable to report for fear of being shamed, blamed or criminalised themselves. Whether we are comfortable with these behaviours is neither here nor there. For me the point is what will help to keep teenagers safe.
The same can be said for sexual assault. You can’t effectively prevent sexual assaults if you don’t first acknowledge young people have a right to sex and prepare for it safely. If we recognise sex as a critical life skill that helps to foster relationships, builds intimacy, provides personal connection and a sense of self, we need to ask ourselves what are we doing as the safe adults in our children’s lives to help them prepare?
Sex Ed for Grown-ups: How to Talk to Children and Young People about Sex and Relationships by Jonny Hunt, RSE consultant, is published by Routledge (£18.99)