By Emma Gilpin
This year’s Freshers’ Week saw a great deal of controversy surrounding the Sexual Consent Workshops that were being held in Oxford and at several other universities. After the Daily Mail published an article entitled “Oxbridge freshers are to get classes in sexual consent that teach them how not to rape their fellow undergrads”, many people were outraged and at universities such as York, students boycotted these talks, claiming that they did not wish to be “patronised”. It is of course easy to argue, as one York undergraduate did, that “if students really need lessons in how to say yes or no then they should not be at university.” Aside from the other issues raised by these claims, such as the fact that these consent talks are geared towards students of university age and are actually likely to provoke interesting, nuanced debates, there is the question of why these talks are needed. NUS figures have shown that 1 in 5 students experiences some form of sexual assault during their first week at university. So whilst these talks may seem patronising to some, this is not because they are unnecessary; it is because many students arrive at university with inadequate knowledge of safe and healthy sexual behavior and relationships.
Following this controversy, my friends and I have had some lengthy discussions of our own experiences of SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) in our UK schools. Our backgrounds are varying but most of us have had similarly lacking (occasionally comical, occasionally damaging) experiences of SRE. As the UK education system becomes increasingly focused on academic attainment and ensuring schools attain impressive numbers of A* grades, the crucial nurturing side to the system, which provides citizenship education and welfare provision, is being overlooked. Recently, numerous people have called for compulsory PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education to be added to the National Curriculum, for example Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, and Vera Baird, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria. They believe that SRE could protect children and young people by making them aware from a young age of what behavior is acceptable and appropriate. Currently, UK legislation states that SRE must only be taught in state secondary schools. This means that primary schools, academies and free schools are not legally required to provide SRE and for the secondary schools that are, the only topic that has to be covered is HIV, AIDs and STIs. STI prevention is of course a highly important aspect of good SRE, but it is only one of many that affect young people in our society every day.
This education is particularly crucial in 2016, as we are living in a society where 60% of children view online pornography by the age of 14; if schools do not provide sex and relationship education to children and young people, the internet will. Unfortunately, the sex education that is provided by online porn is far from adequate and is far more likely to have a damaging impact on young people than it is to guide them through healthy sexual experiences and relationships. Researchers at the University of Arkansas found that 88.2% of the most popular pornographic videos depicted physical aggression, directed at “overwhelmingly female” targets. Children and young people who grow up watching this content are surely more likely to believe that sexually aggressive behavior is normal. According to a survey commissioned by the NSPCC, over 50% of 16-21 year olds think online pornography affects what young people expect from sex. But whilst online porn is never going to disappear and children are never going to stop being curious, the impact that porn has on young people and children can be combatted if schools educate them about what sexual behaviors are normal, acceptable and healthy. If children were educated about sex and relationships in an open and caring environment they may even be less likely to turn to porn out of curiosity, or worries that they are less knowledgeable than their peers.
In England and Wales, 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 are sexually assaulted each year. Sexual violence is a problem that needs to be tackled and compulsory SRE in schools is an ideal starting point. Young people need and deserve to be taught how to treat each other with compassion and care, as well as how to deal with unwanted sexual behavior and advances. If the discussion isn’t had in a safe and open environment, the taboo that surrounds sex is likely to lead to the development of harmful ideas through “playground chat” and the sharing of online pornography, and young people may feel less able to come forward if they think they have been assaulted or harassed.
These statistics are harrowing and demonstrate the necessity of compulsory sex education; consent talks in Freshers’ Week are useful and important for starting a discussion but students ought to feel that it is a continuation of a discussion they have had before. If SRE is to be taught in schools, the curriculum needs to be altered and made more effective; the curriculum that exists currently has not been altered since 2000. The government needs to enable and insist on inclusive, informative and caring SRE in all UK schools which covers the issues of consent, sexting, pornography and what makes a relationship healthy or unhealthy, whilst providing the information and support that is desperately needed for members of the LGBTQ+ community when they are at school. It is what young people deserve; the government must change legislation and enforce comprehensive SRE in our country’s schools if it wishes to protect young people and children. A condom on a banana is simply not enough.
If you want to support this cause you can sign Laura Bates’ petition for Justine Greening, click here.
By Emma Gilpin
I’m Emma, a second year French and German student at Oriel college in Oxford. I’m my spare time I love reading, writing and having fun; I am passionate about women’s rights, education and cheese.