As worrying media stories about sexual violence circulate, the spotlight is again on schools. Educators are being urged to give serious consideration to the ways in which young people are prepared for the world of intimate relationships and to question whether the right messages are landing with young people – all young people – but notably boys.
If only it were possible to address the distressing issues, highlighted since the tragic loss of Sarah Everard, through a few well designed PSHE lessons. Schools would love this to be the case. It’s not that schools are not part of the picture, but the issues raised are so much wider, more complex and stem from so many other facets of life, other than school. Schools have a role to play, absolutely. It is right that questions are being asked and I have every confidence that improvements can and will be made in the provision of PSHE-type education all around the country.
However, the many influences on young people, outside school, are unfortunately not helpful to the cause. All young people are exposed to far more sexually explicit material than generations before and this causes confusion about what is expected or acceptable in a real-life relationship. Pressures to behave in certain ways exist, for both boys and girls, and while individuals must assume personal agency for their own actions, engrained societal values and culture can exert powerful influences.
Engrained societal values and culture can exert powerful influences.
Adolescent boys, on average, spend significant amounts of screen time engaging with fairly violent content, whether that be in violent video game or rap and grime videos or PornHub with its hyper-masculised images and associated behaviours (Sigman 2019). It is important not to villainise all boys or to presume their intentions to be disrespectful or violent. However, a recognition of the influences that are acting on their developing sense of adulthood is a good starting point for understanding what might be needed to correct boys’ misconceptions – and help them to navigate their early relationships with respect and care.
Girls are accessing pornography too, in their search for answers about ‘what is normal’, furnishing themselves with exactly the opposite: stylised, emotionless, often male-dominated interactions that couldn’t be further from most of the sexual interactions of real-life, healthy relationships. This can lead to both boys and girls entering into their encounters with a distorted sense of what ‘should’ happen and it can lead to regretful behaviours on both sides.
The very difficult aspect of sexual interactions is that, by their very nature, they happen behind closed doors; most people are at least a little bit uncomfortable speaking openly about exactly what happens and how they feel about it. There is no other realm of young people’s lives that is so fundamental, universal and important, about which there is often so little discussion, reflection or advice available from close, trusted sources.
At South Hampstead, we have a comprehensive, age-appropriate programme of Relationships & Sex Education, through which we impart knowledge and understanding, for example: ‘which parts of my body are only for me to touch?’ (for very young pupils) or ‘how are sexually transmitted infections prevented?’ (for older pupils). But, more importantly, we encourage pupils to think carefully about their own feelings and interactions: to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, to recognise warning signs and to feel empowered to engage only in ways that are comfortable, pleasurable and in keeping with their own wishes and values. We can do this education and exploration at the whole-class level, but those discussions are still not individualised to the student – and nor should they be. However, young people do need a close, trusted older person in their lives to safely have those more personal conversations without judgement or recrimination. They need to be able to ask questions – really personal questions! If young people do not have a safe, trusted way to find information, they will naturally turn toward exactly the sources that will give them the messages we don’t want them to embed.
In light of recent events, we are having important conversations with our pupils and our colleagues in education, examining the crucial role we can play in further supporting young women to feel empowered to listen to their own voice about what they are comfortable with. We also aim to equip them with practical ways to counter any sense of pressure or inappropriate behaviour they may encounter. We would strongly encourage parents to do the same, with both their daughters and their sons. If we are going to challenge the asymmetrical power dynamic and unhealthy expectations that are modelled in so much of the media consumed by young people, it is going to take all of us to do it.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.