Are schools really expelling 15 "sex bullies" a day?

It is entirely reasonable for parents to worry about the influence of a sexualised culture on their kids, but there's a lot more to these statistics than the Mail's "moral calamity" reporting suggests.


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.” 

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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.