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.” 

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.