Sexual harassment in schools: is education the answer?

I’ve noticed a spate of worrying articles coming out over the past year or two. It seems that sexual harassment is on the rise among young people – especially in schools. It’s becoming such a problem that earlier this year MPs launched an enquiry into it. This is something which is especially an issue for young girls, who are often the victims of it – pressured into sending sexual pictures or having sexual contact before they really want to.

The other day I read an interesting article about girls dealing with pornography-addicted boys (the Fight the New Drug website itself is excellent and well worth reading).

In the survey report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, participants reported that online sexual abuse and harassment were becoming a normal part of their everyday interactions. And while the behavior seemed so common, more than 80% said it was unacceptable for boyfriends to request naked images.

Sexual bullying and harassment are part of daily life for many girls growing up as a part of this digital generation. Young girls are speaking out more and more about how these practices have links with pornography—because it’s directly affecting them.

The numbers are, quite frankly, frightening. It seems that we have a real problem on our hands with easy access to pornography – especially for teenagers. Watching pornography, over time, rewires your brain. This is especially true for teenagers, where brains are still developing (I believe the technical term is ‘neuroplastic’). Looking back to my teenage years, I’m very glad I didn’t have access to the internet – porn wasn’t a part of my daily life in the way it is for many people now.

What’s the solution to all this?

Christine Blower, secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is quoted in the Guardian – from the article I linked to at the beginning:

“As today’s report highlights, the pressures young people face are not going away. It is therefore vital that PSHE and age-appropriate SRE [sex and relationships education] becomes mandatory in schools.”

So, the solution is: education. Hmmm. If the message of sites like Fight the New Drug etc could be broadcast to young people – it could make a difference.  If teenagers could be prevented from watching porn then it might help – but I think that particular horse has bolted. It may do some good, but I think we have a deeper issue which goes far beyond our schools and young people.

In days gone by, pre-sexual revolution, sex was seen as something which should occur within the confines of marriage. Although that ideal was not always kept, I think there was a general understanding that sex should be reserved for marriage, and that when it didn’t there was a clear breach of a conventional moral standard. Now, however, sex is virtually encouraged for just about everyone – whatever you like, just so long as it’s consensual and not harming anyone. So, sex has become simply another consumer product: you do it in  the way that you want, to make you happy. Your happiness and satisfaction is the most important thing – no need to worry about making another human being happy long-term. If a sexual partner doesn’t satisfy, move on to the next one.

I think this is reflected in the statistics about marriage and family breakdown, as collected by the Marriage Foundation: it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for people to be married before having children, for example. Couples who cohabit have a much higher rate of break-up. Why is this the case? I think it is partly due to a consumer attitude to sex and relationships: romantic partners are seen as being there to serve our own interests, to make us happy, rather than being seen as an act of mutual self-giving (something which the CofE marriage vows make clear).

The logical end of all this is can be seen in the so-called “ethical non-monogamous community”. Carl Trueman wrote an excellent piece on this a couple of weeks ago. It’s worth quoting at length:

There was once a time when sexual intercourse was thought to be full of rich social and emotional significance. Now, even our language betrays our impoverished and negative attitudes. That we speak of “having sex” and not of “making love”—that the latter phrase can even evoke sniggers—is significant. A man can have sex with a prostitute. He can only make love to a woman he knows and about whom he cares.

So is Gracie X “sex positive” in her attitude? Well, sexual intercourse used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. That has been taken away. Sex has been reduced thereby, as indeed has adulthood—the childish obsession of Gracie with herself is surely no accident. There was also a time when sexual intercourse was only considered legitimate between a man and woman committed to a lifelong partnership. It marked their exclusive relationship to each other. That too has been taken away. Sex is no longer the consummation of an exclusive bond. Now it is just a form of recreation. A bit like golf, but usually cheaper and generally without the plaid pants.

Fortunately, Gracie is an extremist, even by today’s standards. But she is the logical end term of our culture’s simplistic, pornographic, selfish, abusive, mechanistic, and, yes, negative view of sex. Sex’s sole significance is what it does for Gracie as an individual, and damn the consequences if that hurts anyone else. It is who she is, after all.

Sexual harassment in schools is simply the logical outworking of the message our society is sending out to young people: sex is all about you. It’s all about your pleasure, your desires, your fulfilment.

How can we change this? I’m not sure that there are easy answers.  Trying to change a society’s view of sex is a bit like trying to change the direction of an oil tanker. It takes miles and miles. There are a couple of things I can think of:

  • Trying to limit access to pornography. I’m not sure how this would best be achieved, but it seems undeniable that pornography is a huge part of the issue. If its impact could be reduced we’d be a lot further forward. There are many barriers to overcome – things have been tried and failed over the years – but with the right motivation I think we might get closer to a solution.
  • Promoting sex in the context of marriage. I think many young people are unaware of the benefits of marriage (which some people are cottoning onto – for example, this Guardian article earlier this year on how sex is more enjoyable within marriage). It’s not enough to simply say “thou shalt not” when it comes to moral behaviour – we have to promote a positive image of sex and relationships, and I think that is found ideally in marriage.

Rome was not built in a day, so they say,  and the sexual attitudes of a society do not change overnight. Nonetheless, I think we need to be realistic about the challenges that face us, burying our head in the sand will not help. Nevertheless, oil tankers do change direction – societies can change. We need to think about taking positive steps now to safeguard the future of our children.

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