Youth sexual harrassment: is sex ed the answer?

Content warning: Rape, sexual violence

Last year, the children’s charity Barnado’s requested an investigation into underage sexual harassment, leading figures to come forth revealing that police had recorded 9,290 allegations of child-on-child sexual offences in 2016 in England and Wales. This presents a rise of 78 per cent in the last four years and in 12 recorded areas, figures have more than doubled over this period.

There are some issues with these statistics, such as the exact nature of these offences remaining unknown, and therefore possibly ranging from sexting to rape. Additionally, it is possible that the increase in recorded crimes is due to greater awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, allowing greater victim confidence in reporting said incidents, as opposed to a change in behaviour. Legal discrepancies in issues surrounding sexual consent and child pornography also contribute to a slightly skewed perception of the figures, such as someone underage but sexually legal sending nude photos of themselves to their partner being prosecutable. Despite this, the figures remain deeply troubling.

Following these findings, Barnado’s have called for a national inquiry to examine the causes of the issue, and have suggested sex education be made compulsory in all schools in the UK. As it stands, only state schools have compulsory sex education lessons in the UK, whilst private and religious schools are under no legal obligation to do the same. Even in those compulsory lessons however, the teaching remains focused on a detached, biological dimension of sex, and avoids delving into emotional and social aspects. Recently in particular, financial cuts in the education sector have meant that the National PSHE Continued Professional Development scheme, which provided teacher training to appropriately deliver sex education, had its funding withdrawn. Cash cuts to sexual health clinics and access to free contraceptives due to a handover of responsibility to local authorities also contributes to a withdrawal of government incentives for policy reforms. The age of social media also adds a new layer to an already complex situation, one that never has had to be addressed in previous generations. Increased ease of communication via online platforms is a factor in facilitating the rise in recorded offences, as the nature of communication changes with the illusion that what is done online is consequence-free.

The lack of any encompassing approach to sex education leads young adults to turn to other sources of information, such as pornography and hyper-sexualised online content, creating unrealistic and potentially damaging expectations about the nature of sex. Rates of anxiety and depression are at an all-time high amongst teenage girls; whilst teenage pregnancies are down, they remain an issue, and rates of sexually transmitted infections have stayed significantly high. According to research led by the NSPCC, nearly one third of teenage girls have experienced sexual violence in their relationships. Perceptions of relationships and what consent means are worryingly askew and high proportions of youths in the LGBT community experience some form of bullying or discrimination by their peers. Suicide rates amongst LGBT teens remain higher than in any other section of society. Education is one possible solution; almost three in four young people are never taught about consent, and 95 per cent are not taught about non-heterosexual relationships.

Relationships and their encompassing circumstances are a lifelong learning curve which may be tough to discuss thoroughly in a one hour, non-compulsory class each year. Some argue that the mental and physical wellbeing of the younger generation would be much improved by a more in-depth approach. This could be one of the first steps to fewer abusive relationships, a better understanding of consent and therefore fewer instances of rape, an awareness of STIs and an open discourse surrounding LGBT relationships. Although it is a positive thing that such lessons already exist, perhaps taking it a step further could be beneficial.

Image: Tookapic

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