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7 April 2021

Why the porn industry must be called to answer on rape culture in schools

Aggressive sexual culture isn’t created in a bubble, so why do we expect schools to tackle it as such?  

By Louise Perry

UK schools are in the midst of a #MeToo moment. On a platform called Everyone’s Invited, thousands of young people – almost all of them girls – have anonymously shared their experiences of sexual abuse, often committed by their peers and  involving rape. The alleged perpetrators are not named, but their schools initially were, and many of the early testimonies described crimes committed by boys at elite private schools, although the scope has since widened to include state schools, which seem to be just as badly affected. Official inquiries have been launched, schools have reported some of their pupils to the police, and head teachers have promised a robust response.

I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the heads, particularly at schools that were identified before the site took the decision to stop publishing their names. In a few cases, it seems that staff were made aware of serious incidents and either turned a blind eye or bungled the investigation, and here there is clearly a need for policy change. But the vast majority of these alleged crimes took place outside of school hours and beyond school premises, and it is only now that staff are being made aware of them.

It seems that school-age young people are experiencing the kind of aggressive sexual culture that has been found on university campuses for decades. Almost all of the Everyone’s Invited testimonies describe either “date rape” or assaults at parties, often involving drugs and alcohol. Schools are, thus, mostly being criticised not so much for their disciplinary procedures as for their cultures, with the atmosphere at some institutions described by Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Select Committee, as akin to “Lord of the Flies”.

Head teachers are therefore tasked with implementing sweeping culture change, and many commentators propose they do so by introducing mandatory consent workshops, much like those already delivered at some universities. This policy proposal has been popular among feminists for many years, and has grown more so in the weeks since the death of Sarah Everard. In my old job at a rape crisis centre, I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”

The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.

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[see also: The limits of “consent culture”]

Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.

But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.

Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.

The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.

How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”

[see also: How OnlyFans became the porn industry’s great lockdown winner – and at what cost]