How can schools teach sexual consent if they can't even talk about it?

As universities are addressing sexual consent and lad culture, schools are falling behind on the same issues.

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In October of this year I began my first year at university. On my second day, between talks on fire safety, and academic responsibilities, I attended a sexual consent workshop, organised and advertised as compulsory by the college. I didn’t really know what to expect. Consent was a word that, truthfully, I had never heard of before my first week at university. It wasn’t something that was ever discussed at school. There were far more important things to think about: coursework deadlines, a UCAS application, should I or should I not drop Art for A Level? These were the concerns of my 18-year-old self.

Though I would continually write English essays on gender identity in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and in my own bedroom read articles about equal pay and everyday sexism, I would stutter when someone at school asked me "are you a feminist?". It was an environment where to speak out was to subject myself to humiliation, and so it was safer to stay quiet than to challenge what was going on around me. Fast forward three months, and I’m plunged into a university environment where words like "consent" and “feminist” prevail. So why did I have to go through 14 years of education to reach this stage?

Typing "lad culture" into a Google search engine, an automatic suggestion of "lad culture in higher education" appears. There tends to be little, if any, recognition in national media that "lad culture" is not isolated to higher education, but is also a dominant feature of secondary schools in the UK. "Lad culture on campus" is often discussed – and yet there seems to be a belief that this begins when the student enters university education, and there is a denial to accept that it is in schools where this culture is ultimately born and bred.

Where universities offer "Good Lad Workshops" in an attempt to "promote positive masculinity", schools miss out on such resources – the resources that they need the most. Durham University’s "It Happens Here" campaign, a version of the original campaign launched at Oxford University in 2013, includes on its blog a submission from a questionnaire that talks of “intimidation by lads” to be a feature of university life. This “intimidation” was something I experienced first-hand during my secondary education, which is why I found myself failing to speak out about the issues I internally struggled with. I would post, and then delete in seconds, a tweet I had written about sexism. I would walk in, only to walk out of, the sixth-form common room if I saw a group of boys sitting around on the chairs, and I would never challenge the boy who once told me: "You don’t exactly look like you’re clever". I stayed silent, because it was easier to say nothing, than to face potential ostracism and humiliation.

If schools are failing to address the sexism that exists in their corridors, then how are they able to promote sexual wellbeing? The answer: they’re struggling. Ettie Bailey-King – the outreach and communications officer for the Schools Consent Project, a lawyer-run initiative that goes into schools to discuss the legal and ethical importance of consent with students aged 11-18 – outlines why she believes schools neglect sexual education in their curriculum:

"Firstly, some schools are reluctant to provide sexual education since it is not a statutory requirement . There is no statutory sexual education in the UK and even in the suggestions that are being tabled, consent is an optional add-on. Secondly, there is a complex, legal aspect to consent, and schools just don’t have the legal knowledge. Thirdly, even if schools have the knowledge, they’re just really embarrassed."

What becomes apparent is the unwillingness in schools to talk about sex. Though the Schools Consent Project offers workshops for all secondary school ages, it is between the ages of 15-18 that they are most in demand. Though it is positive that there is such an outreach for these workshops for that age group, Bailey-King tells me she feels that to solely give them to adolescents between 15-18-year-olds is far too late. By the time a child reaches 18, she argues, the chances are that their ideas and attitudes towards sex are already ingrained.

So why isn't there a desire for children to have access to these workshops earlier on in their education? Because, for many adults, sex is a "mature" topic and something that should not be discussed with a young child. According to a survey released last year by the Sexual Education Forum, 55 per cent of young people did not know how to identify whether they were being sexually abused. It becomes clear that although we attempt to protect our children by not exposing them to "adult" issues, we are instead placing them in more danger.

Another reason schools are reluctant to address the issue is because they are afraid. If schools offer consent workshops, they may feel as though they are admitting they have a problem. To talk about sexual assault seems to be a confession that there is an issue of sexual assault in the school. So, for the sake of prospective parents, students and a school’s reputation, it’s safer not to mention the issue altogether. Asking the Schools Consent Project why, despite Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s attempts to integrate sexual education into the National Curriculum in 2015, this has yet to happen, I’m told their take on the issue is again because of reputation. "Government ministers were afraid of angering parents," the Schools Consent Project states.

Then there is the problem of deciding who will actually give these lessons. To ask teachers, used to lecturing children on the Cold War and T S Eliot to suddenly undergo PSHE lessons on sex is taking them out their comfort zone. Without the right resources, and an awareness of projects such as the Schools Consent Project, it would be difficult to know where to even begin. Everyone seems to be frightened: schools are afraid of their own reputation, teachers are afraid of standing in front of a group of teenagers discussing sexual assault, and parents likewise are afraid of broaching the topic. If we could only tackle this fear of talking about the issue, then we could do something to tackle the problem itself.

The only people not holding back seem to be the students themselves. Despite resistance among schools, politicians and parents, there is an demand among young people for better-quality sex education. "It’s the elephant in the room. Every school we go into, students say something along the lines of "we’ve been waiting for this", Bailey-King tells me. A survey done by the Sex Education Forum in 2015 outlines that 47.6 per cent of young people taking part did not learn about sexual education in school. Meanwhile, 65 per cent did not learn about sexual pleasure.

A briefing published in April 2016 on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)  by the Department for Education offers some hope regarding the government’s intentions. It outlines:

"All maintained secondary schools must provide sex and relationships education as part of the basic curriculum, and must meet the requirements of National Curriculum Science."

Yet this Sex and Relationship Education is what it describes itself as: “basic”. According to the Department for Education’s "Sex and Relationship Guidance", this programme will deal with relationships and the "nature of marriage and importance of family life", contraception, sexual orientation and abortion. While all these areas are incredibly important, there is still no emphasis on sexual abuse and consent, and, to a large extent, sexual education continues to be looked at from a relatively scientific perspective. I remember my own experiences of sexual education at school: a biology lesson where we were informed of the different methods of contraception, a PSHE lesson where we only learned how to put on a condom, and a class where we were warned about the different STIs you could receive. It was coldly factual and it made sex seem frightening: something that could either get you pregnant or give you a disease. And so I left school having no idea about some of the things children learn from the Schools Consent Project: sexual assault is not just about penetration, but any form of non-consensual sexual touching, that in the UK one in five women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, that sex was as much about pleasure as it was about pregnancy, and that there was this massive thing called consent.

So, if universities are embracing sexual consent workshops, and sufficient sexual education, then it’s time schools started doing the same.