Last week, I felt disgusted after watching a series of American sex films featuring teenagers. No, I haven’t been trawling sexting websites or watching porn. These were awareness-raising adverts, educational in intent.
A series of short videos, featuring a collection of mainly young female school-leavers nervously about to open envelopes and emails: would they or wouldn’t they get a university offer? They go on to read aloud fictitious college admissions letters: “Congratulations. You have been accepted to study at the University of… No doubt you will have exciting new experiences, including losing your virginity to a rapist. Here’s a hint: he won’t be a stranger.”
What? Each of the Unacceptable Acceptance Letters films has a different monstrous scenario, read out matter-of-factly, as though it were the norm: “You’ll be raped in your first semester and as a result will attempt to take your own life in the next.”
That young people – on the brink of what should be an exhilarating adventure – are being pumped full of such sensationalist schlock makes me feel sick to the stomach.
Nightmarish image of school life
Sadly, such sensationalist alarmism is not confined to American anti-rape activism. In the UK this week, we have Conservative MP Maria Miller and her House of Commons women and equalities committee, who have launched a parliamentary inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools: “In school corridors and playgrounds, sexually charged behaviour drives young people’s physical interactions and permeates through to their 24-hour-a-day life online.”
Shocking, but I just don’t buy it. This scenario – that sexual harassment is rife in schools, that school corridors and playgrounds are bursting with sexual tormentors prowling in search of helpless prey, while teachers look the other way – is as fictitious as those Unacceptable Acceptance Letters.
“Look at the evidence!” I hear some of you shouting. Well, for all you evidence-junkies, let’s look at what Maria Miller’s nightmarish image of school-life is based on. The research, conducted by the charity Fixers and presented in a report entitled The Trouble With…Sex in Schools, was gathered from the views of 300 young people aged between 16-25.
Firstly, this is hardly school age, so many are remembering anecdotes from school days. What is more, we are told that these views were elicited with the help of older Fixers, who supported “conversations with other young people, providing context and peer-led discussions facilitated appropriately.” Hmm. Is this really objective data, elicited without interference?
Meanwhile, one much-quoted stat from the report says: “One in three teenagers feels unsafe walking to and from school”. But what does that prove? Perhaps they feel unsafe because they have been exposed to scary propaganda.
Twenty-seven per cent said they had felt pressured into “sexting, sexual activity, drinking alcohol or taking drugs while in or around school”. But such a broad set of behaviours hardly merits the ensuing panic about sexual misdemeanors per se. And being pressured is always ambiguous. For example, it can be an excuse for bad or embarrassing actions: “My mates made me do it”.
And the report is informed by a cultural climate in which there is an expansive and elastic definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and violence in the first place. Is giving a compliment based on looks “unsafe” behaviour? Is persistently asking someone on a date harassment? If a boy pings a girl’s bra, it may be unpleasant or annoying, but is it assault? Is ill-defined lad culture really a dangerous threat?
The Fixers report complains that teachers too often “brush incidents under the carpet”, saying things like, “He probably just likes you,” or, “Don’t get upset. It’s just banter". But maybe teacher is right. What if it is just banter, or awkward flirting?
Sinister sex games?
Might political interference crank up a panic about perfectly normal – if sometimes unsophisticated – juvenile interpersonal relationships and all the challenges of hormonal adolescent? Sadly, in today’s febrile atmosphere, even young children are eyed suspiciously as would-be perpetrators or victims.
When I was five, the fashion was for us girls to wear our cardigans as capes and run away squealing from the boys chasing us with frogs from the local pond. Were our teachers, who laughed heartily at our antics, guilty of turning a blind eye to sinister sex games? No, they were sensible grown-ups who had a sense of proportion and knew we were not in danger. Depressing, then, that, in 2016, some primary schools discourage kiss-and-chase games, prohibit hugging, view the innocent interactions between children playing doctors and nurses through the distorted lens of abuse.
There is another danger: describing childish or immature relations between the sexes as harassment, while conflating minor transgressions with serious assaults, can open up pupils to being branded as sexual deviants. In 2013, Human Rights Watch published Raised on the Register: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S. It is a devastating read on the life-shattering consequences of minors being put on sex registers for what the report describes as “sometimes shockingly mild offences” such as: public nudity, indecent exposure (such as streaking across a college campus), touching another child’s genitalia over clothing, public urination, and kids caught “sending nude photos via text message” and therefore deemed “guilty of manufacturing and disseminating child pornography”.
If educators lose our ability to discriminate between behaviours of different orders of magnitude, we do our pupils a disservice.
Of course we need to protect school pupils. It is understandable to be concerned about a new sexualisation of children’s behaviour. But Ms Miller’s inquiry seems more likely to encourage pupils and teachers to see abuse everywhere than coolly assess contemporary challenges. One the Fixers’ respondents complains of “being bullied for being a virgin". Tell me about it. As a survivor of a Catholic upbringing, I remember it well. But I also remember those dark days of all things sexual being associated with fear (of pregnancy and sin).
Let’s not dress up such scaremongering in the language of safeguarding and pretend that we are helping the young. It will be a tragedy if we frighten pupils into believing all sexual relations are toxic and threatening. Instead, let’s give the space, freedom and support to negotiate what should be the fun, carefree and healthy relationships of youth.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire