Last week Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, announced that the government intends to introduce statutory relationships and sex education into schools in England – a development that we wholeheartedly welcome.
An evidence base has been building over recent years that highlights worrying levels of sexual violence and harassment experienced by young people in school, and the impact that teenage relationship abuse , sharing of explicit images amongst young people and pornography have on young people’s wellbeing and sense of safety both within and outside of school. Research produced by staff in the International Centre has demonstrated that there are inadequate protective factors in place to safeguard young people from sexual violence within school, and that educating young people about healthy, respectful relationships and consent is key to prevention of sexual violence (Beckett, H., et al. 2013; Cody, C., 2015; Firmin, C., et al. 2016). To take one example, our research into sexual exploitation in groups and gangs showed worrying levels of sexual violence being perpetrated predominantly by young men against their female peers. In an interview one young man expressed that not all young women have equal rights to say ‘no’ to sexual activity.
“Depends what kind of name she has. If she has a name and someone tries to sleep with her and she won’t let them, and they know that she’s slept with loads of other people, they’ll force her into it. They would rape her, if you class that as rape, yeah…” (Beckett, et al., 2013, p. 22)
Unfortunately this kind of belief is not exclusive to gang environments. Another recent study found that while many young people understand consent in theory, they struggle to apply this to real-life situations.
We know from our research that young people want and need safe spaces in which to explore and challenge unhealthy attitudes to sex and relationships, and that by making RSE statutory we go some way to providing opportunities to learn about healthy relationships, sexuality and consent. We also recognise that the responsibility lies not only with schools. This development needs to be supported by wider societal change to challenge harmful attitudes to women and girls in particular, and to combat the silence and stigma of sexual violence that currently pervades.
As the minister has indicated, this is the beginning of a process. The International Centre will continue to take every opportunity to support the development of high quality and sensitive relationships and sex education in schools. We pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals who have campaigned for this change for many years and look forward to working together to ensure young people are better protected in future.
Beckett, H et al (2013) It’s wrong…but you get used to it’ A qualitative study of gang-associated sexual violence towards, and exploitation of, young people in England.
Cody, C. (2015) ‘They don’t talk about it enough’, report on the 2014 consultations with Youth Advisors for ‘Our Voices’
Firmin, C with Curtis, G. Fritz, D. Olaitan, P. Latchford, L. Lloyd, J and Larasi, I (2016) Towards a contextual response to peer-on-peer abuse: research and resources from MsUnderstood local site work 2013 -2016