Today’s Daily Mail front page could make terrifying reading for any nervous parent. “Schools expel 15 sex bullies a day” screams the headline, underneath a teaser adding “Even primary pupils driven to assault by internet porn.”
As the story explains, 3,030 children were excluded temporarily or permanently for sexual misconduct in 2010/11, compared to 3,330 in 2009/10. This shouldn’t really be news, for two reasons. One is that these figures were actually published last July but it seems the Mail didn’t notice, and the other being that Panorama covered this issue three years ago, when we learned there were 3,500 such exclusions in 2006/7.
Sharp-minded readers will note that what these figures should be telling us is a steady but substantial downward trend - the number of exclusions for sexual misconduct has actually dropped by about 15 per cent in the past four years. This is in keeping with the trend for proven sexual offending by juveniles, which has declined from 2,088 in 2007/8 to 1,888 in 2010/11.
Still, over 3,000 instances of sexual assaults and attacks in schools would remain horrific, even if the trend is improving. What the Mail doesn’t mention is that “sexual misconduct” covers a wide range of behaviours, not all of which are bullying, assault, harassment or abuse. The list of criteria is “a mile long” according to one Mr Phil Whitworth, education out-of-school team manager for Lincolnshire. One might hope the Mail journalists might know this, since it came from their own paper last March.
The moral calamity on that occasion was boys, supposedly inspired by TV shows such as Jackass, “inflicting pain on their manhoods." I can quite understand why a 14 year old stapling his todger to the workbench for a dare might be unacceptably disruptive to a chemistry teacher, but sexual assault it ain’t. Nor is passing around mucky pictures for a giggle any kind of assault, nor is a classic cock and balls graffito on a library book. It is not a "sex attack" when a consensually amorous young couple get caught in flagrante behind the bike shed or when one five year old chases another out of the toilets with his willy in his hand shouting “I got a light sabre!” All such incidents and many more could be recorded as sexual misconduct and lead to a child being sent home early from school – sufficient to notch up another statistic for exclusion. Such incidents were also very much part of my school experience in the seventies and eighties and, one might hazard, for as long as there have been schools.
This is not to make light of genuinely sexually abusive and exploitative behaviour, which certainly does occur in schools, as everywhere, and should be treated with utmost seriousness. Victims need protection, and highly inappropriate sexual behaviour is often (though not always) an indicator of sexual abuse happening to the child elsewhere. But what proportion of the 3,000 recorded incidents are worthy of serious concern? It is genuinely impossible to say because there is no detailed breakdown of the statistics available. One would hope that teachers are more sensitive to genuinely abusive and bullying behaviour than they were in my day. In that respect, schools taking such incidents seriously and acting accordingly is actually a good thing. Conversely, there is certainly some anecdotal evidence that children, particularly very young primary kids, are being pegged as mini-sex offenders for behaviours that are natural expressions of infant curiosity.
Certainly some teachers are worried. Yesterday the NUT conference heard a motion condemning sexist stereotyping and raunch culture in schools, which sparked the current media flurry that includes this morning’s Mail. The motion itself contained familiar references to Playboy Bunny pencil cases, pole-dancing lessons and beauty pageants. Out of curiosity I just tried to buy a Playboy bunny pencil case online. There are three eBay sellers and two online novelty stores selling them in the UK, not a single high street retailer or supermarket appears to stock them. That aside, there can be little doubt that the access young people now have to pornography and sexualised media is without precedent in our history. There are very good reasons to be concerned about how hardcore pornography influences young people’s expectations and understanding of sexual relationships, and it is appropriate that the NUT conference, before turning its attention to raunch culture, had roundly condemned the omission of sex education from the national curriculum at a time when it is perhaps needed more than ever.
It is entirely possible that the prevalence of sexual bullying and sexual offending in schools is greater than it has ever been. However it must be noted that there is really no hard evidence for it whatsoever. When one hears Play School presenter-turned-Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin telling us there is an epidemic of violent online porn which is leading youngsters on a “seemingly unstoppable march into a moral wasteland” it should perhaps be taken with a bucket of salt.
Sexual bullying and sexual pressurisation can often be devastating to the developing minds and bodies of children and teenagers. Also damaging to their development can be stigmatisation and sensationalism which portrays young people and their lives as a debauched, decadent cesspit of moral turpitude. It is reasonable for parents to worry about the influence of a sexualised culture on their kids, but that goes well beyond the availability of hardcore porn. At the time I read the Mail’s story online this morning, the top story on their famous “sidebar of shame” was as follows:
“Rude girl Vanessa Hudgens dances around in a leopard-print mini-skirt in sneak peek of new F-word $$$ex music video.”