Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Last night, the House of Lords let down our young women

TW - description of sexual bullying/violence

grabbing my breasts in the school corridors. Sitting opposite me in class and making obscene gestures and threatening comments (“I’m going to fuck you”; “Are you going to sit on my cock?”). Jumping on me in the playground and rubbing against me.

The above quote is taken from an interview with a young woman interviewed by Kat Banyard in The Equality Illusion. She’s describing the sexual bullying she experiences in school.

Recently, I looked at the Everyday Sexism website to get some testimonials from young women experiencing sexual bullying in school. I looked at just four pages before it all became too painful, and in that short space of time collected the following: 

One girl writes that when she was 12, boys would stand at the bottom of the stairs to look up girls’ skirts. When she and her friends reported it to the teacher, they refused to see the problem. Another girl reports that boys taunted her with sexual language, including ‘slut’, for over an hour in class. The teacher responded that ‘boys will be boys’ and the sexual bullying continued for another two years. One girl began to hate her body after boys put empty milk cartons under her breasts and asked for refills. A 12 year-old girl went to her head teacher to report boys who were inappropriately touching her. His response was – surprise surprise – ‘boys will be boys’. He also advised the girls to dress in a less ‘inappropriate fashion’ because boys ‘can’t control it’. Now 14, the girl has endured two more years of sexual bullying, with no help from her teachers.

Last night, the House of Lords had a chance to do something about this kind of sexual bullying in schools. They had the opportunity to vote in favour of bringing education on consent and respect into schools. And they chose not to

In the NSPCC and Bristol University research on Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, researchers found that a quarter of girls reported some form of physical violence and 1 in 9 girls reported severe physical violence. Three quarters of girls reported emotional violence and 1 in 3 girls reported sexual violence. Girls were more likely to experience repeated violence than boys and 75% of girls with a “much older” partner experienced physical or sexual violence. 

Research published by the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that 1 in 3 16-18 year olds have experienced unwanted sexual touching, and 1 in 4 said their teachers have never taught them that this is not ok. 

Those numbers, which I have written here before, make me feel physically sick. It makes me feel sick that one in three teenage girls are suffering violence at the hands of their male partners and peers.  

Yesterday, the Lords had a chance to do something about it. And they didn’t. They chose instead to do nothing. 

Education around consent and respect isn’t the only way to tackle violence against teen girls. But it is one way, and it is one very significant way. 

If we teach our young people about consent and respect in relationships, then (duh) they have a better chance of understanding the importance of consent and respect. It’s hardly rocket science. It’s how education works. If we teach young people that enthusiastic consent is a must for sex, if we teach young people that an absence of ‘no’ isn’t the presence of a ‘yes’, if we teach young people that they can have a voice to express what they do and don’t want out of sex, if we teach young people to respect bodily autonomy and integrity then we can help young people begin to discover how to negotiate their sexuality in a mutually consensual and respectful way. 

Of course, it’s not going to eliminate all violence and sexual bullying. But at least it’s a start, and it starts to give young people a context. 

But because of some squeamishness about talking to young people about sex, our political leaders have decided to leave young people out to dry. 

I’ve seen the argument made lots of times that it’s up to parents and guardians to teach their children about sex and consent and respect. Sure, in a perfect world this would be the case. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where some parents are abusers themselves, or don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about sex or don’t have the language to talk about it. 

That’s why we have an education system. We don’t trust parents to teach kids long division. We hope that parents will collaborate with teachers and support their kids through their long division homework. But we know that if parents don’t, children will still be given an opportunity to practise their sums. 

Sex education should not be any different. Parents can be encouraged to be a positive voice, but if they’re not then school fills in the gaps. School is a place to learn about being a grown up. It’s the perfect and most logical setting to talk to young people about consent, respect, bodily autonomy, integrity, sex. 

Otherwise, who fills in the gaps of knowledge and understanding? The internet, with p0rn that fetishizes violence and lack of consent and no condoms? From the time I’ve spent doing feminist activism with young women, p0rn isn’t helping them negotiate their sexuality. Instead, we hear story after story of p0rn being used to groom young women, or young women feeling coerced into sex they don't want to have because their partner has seen it in p0rn. Young women's voices are silenced. 

Young people will always have a very natural sexual curiosity. Refusing to teach them sex education isn’t going to change that no matter what the abstinence only crew say. Sex education that focuses on consent and respect helps them develop the tools they need to have mutually consensual and respectful relationships. It teaches them that aggressive sexual bullying is not ok. It teaches them that coercive behaviour is not ok. It teaches them that physically and sexually violence between partners is not ok. 

How can we in good conscience deny our young people that? 

The research by Bristol Uni and the NSPCC and the stories I quote above show us what happens when we deny young people education on consent and respect. And that’s not ok. It’s not good enough. 

How many girls need to be hit by their partner before we stop burying our heads in the sand and start teaching young people about consent and respect? How many young girls must endure sexual taunts, upskirt shots and groping before we recognise their lived experience and do something about it? How many young women will we let down because of an immature squeamishness about talking about sex?

And what about when they grow up? 

Proper sex education needs to be part of a wider solution to tackle male violence against girls. It’s not the only part, but it’s a starting point. It could make a real and important difference to the lives of young people. The fact that our political leaders continue to refuse to bring these conversations into schools is a disgrace. 

Last night the Lords let down Britain’s schoolgirls. They should hang their heads in shame.  

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