Imagine a country – a country with a population of, say, 63million people. Imagine that in that country, over 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted every year, and over two per week killed by a current or former partner. Imagine that in that country one in three girls age 16-18 report experiencing unwanted sexual touching at school and nearly a third of girls in relationships aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence. Imagine that within that society, in which one in four women will experience domestic violence, half of 16-18 year olds wouldn’t know where to go to get support if it happened.
Wouldn’t you imagine that a country like that would make sure to teach young people about the importance of relationships and consent in schools? Wouldn’t you think that issues like domestic violence would take high priority on the curriculum alongside academic subjects?
Then you might be surprised to hear that in the UK, where all the above statistics apply, there is no statutory requirement for schools to cover any of these issues, nor anything about sexual assault, sexual harassment or sexual violence. And while gardening looks set to join the national curriculum next year, our Education Secretary thinks sex and relationships education is a less effective a way to counter what he (deeply problematically) terms “risky behaviour” than concentrating on overall academic performance.
When the Everyday Sexism Project asked people to share their experiences of sex and relationships education, the responses came thick and fast. We asked whether issues like consent, rape and domestic violence ever been raised during SRE or PSHE…
“When we asked about it at school last year,” one student told us, “we were told not to be inappropriate and that we might upset people”. Another said: “Not a thing, I found out the meaning of rape by Googling it when I was about 13 from hearing the word thrown around.”
Many respondents were very clear about the impact this complete lack of information had on them in later life: “I literally did not even know I had the right to say no until I was in my mid-twenties. I had no idea I had any right to expect that “no” to be respected,” said one. Another wrote: “I learnt from experience. My first boyfriend who became my husband was abusive. If I’d have known more, earlier, I’d have avoided an awful lot of pain and misery.”
Other replies made it strikingly clear that the government’s insistence on leaving it to parents to educate their children on these issues is short-sighted, not least in the case of the 750,000 children who witness domestic violence every year, or those who may already be experiencing some form of sexual abuse.
“I was sexually abused from age seven,” one woman told us, “so conditioned to believe that if a man wanted it, that trumped my wishes.” Another said there was “Not a single mention” of these issues at school.” She went on: “I knew about hormones, STDs but when I was assaulted I didn’t know where to find support, never had any.” Another added: “Nothing about sexual harassment either. 15-year-old me thought I’d be in the wrong if I told someone when the boys at school groped me. Wish I’d realised that my reaction was completely justified.”
And even the staunchest of ‘no meddling in people’s lives’ Tories might pause for thought at the statistic that domestic violence currently costs UK business over £1.9 billion per year.
Then there were the reports of patchy and poor provision, from the all-girls school where “[we] had a police officer tell us not to get drunk because you will get raped,” to “A lesson where we were told women dressing provocatively was an invitation to rape.”
While some schools are undoubtedly providing much better information than this, others are providing none at all. It is far too important an issue to leave to chance. Making sex and relationships education a mandatory part of the curriculum including issues such as consent, respect and domestic violence would guarantee standardised materials and resources becoming available, improving quality, and hopefully preventing any more girls being told to “try to look ugly…pick your nose, pull your hair over your face” to “prevent rape”, as one 2008 school leaver reported.
It is ludicrous, in the age of online porn and smart phones, to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the desperate need our children have for clear, comprehensive information and support to help them make sense of the images and content they find at their fingertips.
One 13-year-old girl wrote to the Everyday Sexism Project in desperation, saying “I am so scared to have sex it makes me cry nearly every day… some of the boys at school keep sending us these videos of sex… and it looks so horrible and like it hurts… [it’s] so scary and painful and the woman is crying and getting hurt.” Without any other information to offset these messages, she believed that this was simply what sex was like.
Other young people spoke of boys in school discussions saying “rape is a compliment really” and “it’s not rape if you enjoy it”. One woman told me of her shock at seeing her 12-year old sister’s social networking profiles, where boys in her year left messages saying “Give me a blow job you slag” and “you have no idea how hard I would fuck the living shit out of you”. When she refused to send them explicit photographs of herself, they called her “a frigid little bitch”. Boys, too, are in desperate need of clear support to overcome the misleading messages they may be receiving online at a young age about their role in sexual relationships and how they should treat partners.
Against this backdrop, it has never been more important to ensure that in addition to any excellent guidance some parents might give at home, all pupils also have access to vital information from schools about forming relationships and treating one another with respect.
On Tuesday 11 June, MPs will have the opportunity to ensure this happens, by voting YES on Clause 20 of the Children and Families Bill, which will make relationship education a statutory part of the National Curriculum. You can ask your MP to vote for the amendment using the instructions here.
Imagine a country where one in five people think it’s acceptable for a man to hit or slap his wife or girlfriend for wearing sexy or revealing clothes in public. Imagine if you could teach them otherwise. Doesn’t it just seem to make sense?