sexual education

Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

A Call for Sexual Education in U.K. Schools

Double math class, pop quizzes, sexual harassment: three unpleasant experiences that many students have to go through at senior school, only two of which are necessary.

Nov 12, 2016

When we think of sexual harassment, school girls are not necessarily the demographic of victims that springs to mind. The safe cocoon of mandatory schooling surely leaves no room for such an insidious experience? Yet almost 60 percent of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 report experiencing sexual harassment at school or college, according to a report recently released by Girlguiding UK. As if vicious verbal insinuation wasn’t enough, 20 percent also reported unwanted touching. Statistically, in any given classroom, three girls will have been sexually assaulted and for some, this can start as young as seven.
Alexis Thomas was in eighth grade when her innocence was stolen by her fellow classmates, during what should have been a normal school day. She recalls, “I told the teacher that three boys were harassing me, and he did nothing. They followed me to the gym and sexually assaulted me. I was 13.”
It is easy, perhaps, to dismiss this as a singular occurrence, and yet the statistics tell a very different story. In the past three years alone there have been nearly 4,000 alleged cases of sexual assaults and more than 600 rape cases in schools in the U.K., according to information released under the Freedom of Information act. It is worth noting that girls are not the only victims: although the exact gender breakdown of reported sexual assaults is unknown, total rape statistics put male victims at around 12 percent.
Furthermore, as if these numbers weren’t harrowing enough, they most likely don’t even represent the true rate of abuse. Chief Constable Simon Bailey, lead for child protection on the National Police Chiefs’ Council, calls it the tip of the iceberg.
“It is good news that more victims have the confidence to come forward and report abuse,” said Bailey. “Although while I cannot prove this — I believe more child abuse is taking place. That includes children being raped on school premises.”
Perhaps part of the problem of underreporting comes from the fact that victims simply don’t feel that they will be believed. In the same Girlguiding report, more than half of 11- to 16-year-olds said that authority figures sometimes, or always, told them to ignore incidents of sexual harassment or to dismiss them as banter. But when the effects of repeated sexual harassment include a significantly higher likelihood of suicide and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who’s laughing?
Sexual health education is mandatory at secondary school under the current U.K. curriculum, but that does not include teaching pupils about relationships and sexual consent — an omission that is clearly having devastating consequences. For those who still believe that sexual violence is committed only by strangers, think again. One in three young women report experiencing sexual violence from a boyfriend, and at least a fifth of offences that were reported were carried out by children in so-called peer-on-peer abuse. Children and young adults are being educated about their bodies, but not on how to handle the responsibility that comes with this knowledge, and they are paying the price for it everyday.
So what is responsible for this culture shift? According to Jon Brown, head of Sexual Abuse Programmes charity NSPCC, the widespread exposure to sexually explicit material is damaging young people’s perceptions of healthy sexual relationships.
“We know that for some older [kids] accessing hardcore pornography is warping their view of what is acceptable behaviour. And the very young — those of primary school age or even younger — may be copying sexual activity they have witnessed," said Brown.
With little to no positive lessons on healthy sexual relationships, pornography is becoming the primary medium through which young people are learning about how to relate to each other. Is this really the education we want to give our children? For those that fear ruining the innocence of the young by including education about sex, the truth is, it’s already too late. Perpetrators do not hide in the shadows, as our archaic notion of rapists would have us believe, but instead walk among us. They may even sit next to your daughter in math class. Until we accept this, we will never truly be able to keep our children safe.
Ultimately better education is imperative to ensure the wellbeing and protection of children in our schools, and to counterbalance the corrosive messages that internet pornography perpetuates. Until schools and teachers start listening, girls will continue to grow up thinking that unwanted groping and perverse language is simply to be accepted; the consequences of this will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Add in better education, and you’ll take away harmful sexual attitudes. It’s not a difficult equation.
Liza Tait-Bailey is Social Media Editor. Email her at
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