Growing up too soon

Uh-oh, the education secretary has been in the news again recently – no, not about more tests in schools, but about teaching children as young as 11 about sexual consent. Is this a knee-jerk political reaction to the high profile sexual exploitation cases in the news recently? There’s a general election in a few weeks time after all. Or could it be that this time she actually has a point?

My first reaction was: isn’t 11 a bit young? Wouldn’t it make children scared, pressurised and put them off sex for life. In the late 1960s, we had a short session on sex with diagrams and arrows in the 6th form so those who left around 16 missed out. My daughter was 14 when they were taught at school about reproduction in biology class with rabbits and they were briefly shown a box of contraceptives. My son, was 14 or 15 when he was also taught in biology but with toads – not too illuminating. But up till relatively recently, sex was not talked or written about much, let alone child sexual abuse. However, as we found out from the Jimmy Savile case, it was was largely hidden away and people in the know turned a blind eye. Now hardly a day passes without another horrendous headline – high profile cases of celebs and reports of sexual exploitation on a huge scale such as in Rotherham. And recently there have been allegations of child abuse in the 70s and 80s by the Westminster establishment too. I heard on the tele last week that London taxi drivers, bar and hotel staff are being advised by police how to recognise signs of possible child sexual exploitation and they are setting up a hotline called Operation Makesafe. But do these highly publicised cases mean that child sexual abuse is rife or are these isolated cases, albeit on a huge scale? Are the powers-that-be over-reacting?

Perhaps not since there are other things going on as well. Last Monday I tuned into Woman’s Hour and they were talking about porn. Apparently, with the advent of the internet, children (mostly boys) as young as eleven, and sometimes even younger, are accessing porn not only on computers but on their phones and are sharing the images with their friends. There was a phone-in and a women who teaches sex and relationship education (SRE) to eleven to eighteen year olds said that it is commonplace nowadays for young girls to be talked to by boys in sexually explicit language. But this is not the worst that’s happening.

Apparently a lot of these images are violent and, as one caller said, this is becoming normalised. They added that once someone has seen these images, they are difficult to wipe from their mind. This was borne out by another caller, a counsellor with young people, who said that when she and her friends were experimenting with sex in their teens, many boys were unable to ‘perform’ without acting out extreme experiences they had seen on the internet. She said that she and her friends found these experiences ‘way out of their comfort zone’, but among girls these days there is a resignation that ‘that’s how it is’. She’s going to set up an internet site for girls called ‘It’s not my bag’ since she said there is no information out there for girls to counter the pressure they feel under to go along with boys’ demands. Of course, boys are affected too since obviously this kind of porn gives them totally warped expectations of a sexual relationship. As a psychologist on the programme said ‘getting sex education from internet porn miseducates children’ – you can say that again. A male caller commented that ‘porn is destructive to both sexes, since it objectifies both men and women and has nothing to do with real sexual intimacy which takes time… affection and love’. So shouldn’t sex education in schools take account of all of this and provide kids with an alternative narrative and equip them to say no to anything they don’t want to do?

Ok, a lot of people will say it’s up to parents to control what their children see on the internet and I’m sure that parents do their best. But is this realistic 24/7 with the internet, social media, smartphones and I don’t know what else around to access this stuff and communicate it to their mates? And could it be that many parents just don’t know the extent, content and scope of porn on the internet? Well, the psychologist on

Woman’s Hour said that nowadays there’s a huge generation gap about what’s out there regarding sex. So should schools also take on educating parents too?

SRE is already taught in secondary schools, but many people in education believe that it hasn’t caught up with what’s children have access to now. Certainly victims in the Rotherham case were scathing about sex education at school. Apparently SRE is compulsory in secondary schools – but only local authority-run schools. But hasn’t the government been busy taking schools out of local authority control, such as academies and free schools? And can’t some parents argue for their children to opt out of some parts of it? Should this be allowed? I asked granddaughter 1 (aged 15) about her experience of SRE at her school. They had a day of it in Year 9 (aged around 14) and she was not impressed. Hour-long sessions were given on subjects such as relationships, though nothing about gay relationships, the basics of sex and STDs but nothing around sexual consent. She thinks kids should have this kind of information in Year 7, and she knows what she’s talking about regarding pre-teens, teens and the internet.

The education secretary stressed that teaching sexual consent would be age appropriate, but there are those who still think that 11 is too young. Someone from Christian Concern said on the tele: ‘Eleven year olds are still children and they do not need to be introduced to something that’s violating, that’s violent and something they might never confront in their lives.’ So is it the case that ‘ignorance is bliss’? Knowing what we know now, can we take that risk? Do we have to acknowledge that this is what’s out there for children nowadays? Should it be ‘forewarned is forearmed’? Yes, there’s a lot to consider – but this time I think the education secretary might have a point.

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