The age of innocence is over - it's time for compulsory sex education
If some censorious god destroyed every story, play or poem that described sexual desire, there wouldn’t be much left to read. From Sophocles to Zadie Smith, they’d all be gone. Self-conscious, self-obsessed, self-doubting, self-improving humankind has always had a troubled fascination with its own sexuality. It has certainly kept us entertained over the years. In that way nothing has changed.
But some things have changed — a lot. Who would have foreseen in the 1980s, when I became a teacher, today’s epidemic of sexual imagery shared between children, often while they are still in primary school? Who would have thought teachers would have to address the issue of pornography with boys or girls who can barely tie their own shoelaces? Who would think that most parents would, by 2017, think it normal to gift their 13-year-old son or daughter an infinite library of hardcore pornography, some of it showing scenes of unimaginable sadism? But we do exactly that — when we give them smartphones connected to the internet.
Of course, many children do not use their phones (or computers) in this way, but far too many do — especially boys. Almost 70% of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, although if you walk through a shopping mall on a wet Saturday, you would have been surprised to hear it is not 100%.
The widespread availability of pornographic images, many rooted in a misogynistic view of women more suited to the Stone Age than our own, needs a robust and frank response from all of us: schools, parents and, especially, given the shocking foot-dragging we saw last week with regard to compulsory sex education in schools, our politicians.
In the 1980s, schools struggled with “unspeakable” taboos of their own: drugs, eating disorders, sexual identity, mental health, self-harm and, worst of all, child abuse — all scandals to be hushed up, locked down and talked away. Each of these is now openly addressed, admittedly after years of suppression and deceit that has done none of us credit. I still remember the surprise I felt when some people told me that my school, King’s in Wimbledon, was “brave” to hold a national conference on the topic of mental health and resilience just a few years ago.
Our “True Grit” conference hadn’t struck me as courageous — but then nor had I realised just how many schools, even then, felt uncomfortable admitting to an issue that affected their own pupils. One independent school leader told me bluntly that I should write a press release to accompany the conference, making it clear that mental health issues affected children in state schools as well as in private schools! I refused, of course, not least because I was conscious that our colleagues in state schools had often been much more open about these matters than we had been.
Now we have a new taboo, and we mustn’t make the same mistake of hoping it will go away or solve itself. It is too simplistic to call it pornography — although this is part of it. It includes the practice of sending sexual images to each other, “sexting”, sometimes between quite young children, but usually between adolescents or young adults. It involves the brutalising imagery associated with some computer games, and the casual online availability of horrific videos, such as those showing beheadings or purporting to show rape. In some ways, it even involves the weirdly sculpted aesthetics of favoured models and trendsetters whose lives, passions, whims and inanities are the lifeblood of the three avenging Furies of the modern age: Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. No teenage girl would be less happy if all three were gone tomorrow — once they came through the cold turkey of withdrawal. After all, we learned this week that one in three children look at their phone every few minutes.
One of the ironies of the 21st-century fixation with personal appearance is that more and more children are now terrified of revealing themselves in arenas where they cannot alter or manufacture the “self” they present. Almost a third of 2,000 UK teenagers polled for a Be Real body-confidence campaign said they avoid activities such as PE because of fears about their appearance. Increasingly, the issue is one for boys as well as girls. One boy told the researchers he had left a school because he was bullied for being too fat. He said, “A lot of guys get their eyebrows done, including me, and I Photoshop every one of my profile pictures... it genuinely takes me 25 minutes to make one.”
So, what can we do? First of all, I hope the home secretary reviews the guidelines published last autumn, which ask the police to adopt a common-sense approach when told that youngsters are exchanging explicit images. Research by the NSPCC has found that 13% of 11- to 16-year-olds had taken topless pictures of themselves (one in four were girls) and 3% had taken naked images of themselves, mostly to share with others. Probably the reality is higher, not lower, and this has led the police to suggest, with the support of the NSPCC, a new approach.
Between 2013-15, more than 2,000 children were reported for crimes linked to sexting. After all, the Protection of Children Act, 1978, is crystal clear: it is an offence to possess or distribute indecent images of children. Only now it isn’t. Last June, the Guardian quoted Gareth Edwards, principal policy advisor of the National Police Chiefs Council; he wants to avoid “criminalising” children who sext. He told the paper that a consensual relationship between children when sexting “might not be safe but is not criminal”. In other words, children are learning that it is OK to share sexualised images of children — so long as they are of themselves and to other children.
I do of course understand that dragging 14-year-olds through the courts is quite probably the wrong approach, and I welcome the fact that schools must use discretion as to how they deal with a sexting issue — just as we would over theft, which is equally against the law. But I am concerned by the idea that adults appear to be saying, “It’s okay to send a picture of your genitals to that girl you like in the other class.”
Who can prove this is consensual? Who is to say the girl or boy receiving an explicit photograph is not left feeling in some way violated? The Women and Equalities Committee published a report in September saying that 29% of 16- to 18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. We are in cloud cuckoo land if we think every approach is consensual if it is between peers: whether physical or electronic, some forms of attention may be not just unwelcome, but intimidating and humiliating.
For me, the black and white criminality of sharing sexualised images of children must take priority over the impossibility of pursuing, or even wanting to pursue, every case. The same is true of many of our laws, including those bearing on drugs, seatbelts, phone use while driving and so on: the fact the law exists is a baseline of public disapproval, even if relatively few offences are pursued through the courts. The wording of the law forms the structure of our society, and even if it cannot always be upheld, parameters can still be clear. This well-meant blurring of the boundary is ill-advised, implying that child pornography is fine so long as it is between children. But we all know that there is no image on earth that can’t find itself in the hands of someone you have never even heard of.
Secondly, the government must listen to the growing call for sex and relationship education (SRE) to be made compulsory in our schools. On Friday, the BBC featured a report by the British Humanist Association that said SRE gets fewer mentions in Ofsted reports than any other topic. The issue of pornography came up in just one report out of 2,200 published in 2015-16.
To her credit, Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities committee, is pressing the government to require schools to provide SRE, but her good intentions are currently thwarted by the backwoodsmen. I can see that there was a time, years ago, when some sex education programmes were more advanced than the maturity or knowledge of the children they were intended for, but the internet has changed everything. We do our children a grave injustice if schools are not required by law to talk to them, soberly and compassionately, about the one topic they cannot avoid seeing wherever they look: the sexual character of their kind, and the good and bad tributaries this flows along.
There is no point lamenting the end of innocence, but there is an incontrovertible case for requiring every school — faith schools included — to address the real world our children inhabit. Currently, the law states only that sex education must be taught from a biological perspective; it is silent on the social and emotional aspects of sexual behaviour. Many schools, of course, address the issues carefully, but others remain lost in well-meant but dangerous self-delusion.
A recent poll of 2,000 people suggests overwhelming public support for compulsory SRE in schools. The children’s charity Plan International UK found eight out of ten people would back this. But even more persuasive for me was to read that a study by Barnados found that 75% of children aged 11-15 felt they would be safer if they were taught age-appropriate SRE at their schools.
What a world of hidden anxiety and fear is embedded in that one word: “safer”! We had better listen to what our own children are asking us to do. We have to state, at school and in public, what we think is normal and right, help every child to know society has clear lines, and do all we can to provide the safe spaces they deserve.