Talking about sex, porn and abuse with year 10 and 11 children
One of the most common responses to CSE in the UK is the delivery of ‘awareness raising sessions’ with children in schools. Frequently this includes a specialist team, organisation or charity coming into school to deliver this work with groups of children ranging from a handful right up to assemblies filled with hundreds of students. I am clear in my message that sex and relationships, bodies and respect need to be talked about from the earliest age possible. Despite widespread agreement on this principle, there are still worries about removing the innocence of children and discussing ‘taboo’ topics. This article will discuss some key approaches to consider when you are delivering sessions to secondary school children, starting with some important evidence that suggests that what we are already delivering could be improved.
Research and Reports
The latest report from the Equality and Women Committee 2016 presented concerning findings about the sexual harassment, sexual violence and insidious sexism in our schools. When the board appealed for experts and practitioners to discuss the approaches to awareness raising sessions, the evidence mirrored the practice we see all over the UK. Awareness raising sessions, DVDs and resources were based on shock tactics, fear, shame and fault-finding. When we consider the films, clips, resources and workshops currently delivered to children and young people, this argument appears justified. Whether it is films that depict the rape of a child in multiple positions, a clip that tells children they will be put on the sex offenders register for taking images of themselves or a resource that teaches young people that if they just stopped some of their behaviours, they would be safe from perpetrators. The second point made by the report is that these sessions are being delivered to targeted groups of girls to ‘help the girls protect themselves from sexual violence’ but that the same sessions are not being delivered to the rest of the girls – or the boys at all. We are all responsible for the reduction of rape culture in our society, so why do we continue to target teenage girls? The final point which will be discussed in more detail later on in the article, is that the sessions have been shown to encourage victim blaming of peers due to building sessions in which children are asked ‘what could that young person have done differently?’ or ‘why did this happen to them?’ The report found that these types of discussions elicited victim blaming responses such as ‘well, it wouldn’t have happened to her if she didn’t…’ or ‘it was his own fault because he…’
And we can all agree, that this is not what we set out to do when we arrive to deliver sessions with young people. So, what can we do to improve this practice?
- Preparation is key
Whether we have been asked to deliver to 4 children in a small class room with their pastoral team on hand or whether we have been given 30 minutes to talk to 300 children in a huge assembly hall; we can make initial judgements and decisions in our preparation to ensure that the session is effective and, above all, safe. When it comes to safety, it is important that we consider the histories, experiences and emotional wellbeing of the young people we will be delivering to. Professionals don’t need reams of details but before they deliver the session, they must ask whether any children are known to be currently at risk of abuse, currently experiencing abuse or have a history of abuse. Statistically, in any room of children 1 in 5 of will be sexually abused by the age of 12 (NSPCC, 2012) – so when a professional is delivering a session on abuse, healthy relationships, consent and equality, they may well be teaching children who are suffering from trauma. By gaining the information about the abuse and trauma histories of the children in your audience, we can make informed decisions about whether our resources, worksheets or discussions will be safe and ethical for that group of children. Without this information, we risk re-traumatising, patronising or triggering children who have experienced abuse. In addition, it is important to develop the session environment to be voluntary to attend and free to leave at any time to promote self-care and autonomy in a sensitive topic. To achieve effective sessions, it is important that we also explore the needs of the children in the audience to ensure that our materials are relatable, culturally appropriate and understandable for all children. This means making sure that you ask questions about impairments, language barriers, learning disabilities and cultural differences of the children in your audience before you develop the session. If the school or youth organisation provide information relating to additional needs or differences; it is likely that standard resources will be unsuitable. It is not appropriate or effective to simply ‘slow down’ or ‘simplify’ existing resources or films when a child has additional barriers to understanding the topics. It is probably best to postpone the session until support from specialists has been secured, safe and effective resources have been gathered and evaluated and you have met with the professionals or parents to thoroughly discuss how you can make the sessions as accessible and valuable as possible. Without this level of preparation, sessions can be confusing, irrelevant, patronising, traumatic, dangerous and unethical.
- A Feminist Approach
I have recently built a new set of workshops for year 10 and 11 which are based on feminist principles: the workshops avoided terms such as ‘unhealthy relationships’ ‘abuse’ ‘sexting’ ‘risk taking’ and ‘online safety’. Instead, the workshops covered communication forms, human behaviours, grooming, emotions and feelings, respect and equality, gender roles, pornography, digital sexual violence and how to set and enforce boundaries in relationships, friendships and communication online and offline. All of these topics were framed within the dynamics of a patriarchal society, oppression and objectification of women and understanding the pressure that gender roles place upon girls and boys to treat each other in particular ways. I didn’t talk to them about ‘protecting themselves from sexual violence’ or ‘changing their risky behaviours to prevent their abuse’ – I created exciting and interactive exercises to explore why girls were expected to control the sexual desire of boys, why girls were being blamed when their images were being shared and how porn and popular media was skewing their ideas of real sex and real relationships. Delivering these workshops from this perspective led to insightful discussions, debates and questions from the young people who slowly began to criticise the mass media, porn culture and the insidious sexism that meant that whilst they were labelled a ‘slag’ for being exploited or sexually harassed, their perpetrators were ‘high-fived’ or seen as ‘boys just being boys’. The sessions worked to empower the students to question the status quo and to challenge the language they employ to describe themselves and other young people.
3. We’ve heard it all before, Miss!
One of the reasons I built the sessions differently was confirmed when I asked the young people what they already knew about ‘online safety’, ‘staying safe’, ‘sexting’ and ‘consent’ . The response was loud and clear: “We’ve heard it all before, Miss! It’s been hammered home over and over again. We just switch off and stop listening to you lot. We hear the messages but we do it anyway, this is our life.” This response was not the response of ‘problem children’ who simply couldn’t be reached – this was the response of a diverse group of young people who had been receiving the same kind of ‘awareness raising sessions’ for years – mainly consisting of fear mongering, shock tactics, stereotypical explanations of abuse and unrealistic, abstinence messages that had advised them not to talk to people on the internet, not to meet new people, not to give out their mobile numbers, not to take images of themselves, not to have sex before 16 years old and not to put their information on their social network profiles. After years of these ‘do not’ sessions, sat in front of us was a group of young people who had learned to switch off from us. The session began with rolled eyes and scepticism, a feeling that I could teach them nothing new and that I was about to spend 2 days patronising and boring them to death. This should deliver a strong message to us as professionals: we need to up our game and change our tack. Pronto! In a society where large proportions of children are watching porn by the age of ten (NSPCC, 2016) and where children are regularly receiving unwanted nudes and hundreds of friend requests from strangers – the time has come to realise that some of our messages are now outdated; not only outdated, but no longer culturally relevant to this generation. In a time where their entire lives, self-worth and popularity are based on friend lists, likes, retweets and comments on their photos and extreme porn is sent around for ‘laughs’ – it’s no longer adequate to advise them not to be on these sites or to stop sharing their information, our new aims have to be about sculpting children into critical and intelligent consumers of mass media, sexual imagery and the world of social media. We need to create activists and critics that will go on to challenge their peers and of course, themselves.
4. Grooming is so much more than sexual abuse
I decided to redesign our teaching approaches around the topic of ‘grooming’. Rather than framing grooming around sexual exploitation and meeting strangers from the internet, I developed and delivered exercises about all the different forms of grooming in the world, whom does what to whom, why they would do it, what are perpetrators attempting to achieve and the methods that different perpetrators employ to achieve trust, rapport, loyalty and secrecy. I pulled away from linear models of grooming and instead introduced young people to all different examples of grooming that occur over different time periods and communication methods. I gave thought-provoking examples which got them arguing – such as ‘is it grooming if a young woman builds a relationship and then marries a very old and poorly man with thousands of pounds in the bank, knowing she will inherit the fortune?’ Our debates quickly showed that students had a knowledge of grooming that ranged from zero through to highly stereotypical examples of grooming in which they found it very difficult to see women as groomers at all. Linking this struggle back to patriarchy and gender roles allowed them to understand that women have been positioned as safe, nurturing and caring – whereas men have been positioned as unsafe, sexual and powerful. Breaking down gender stereotypes instantly broadened their understanding of grooming and perpetrators.
5. Porn, sex and all the gory details
In the sessions, I trialled some interactive new session plans and debate exercises around the porn they have watched, the messages they have already absorbed – and importantly – the reframing of porn as a form of oppression of women for the enjoyment of men. This session got graphic quickly. I learned that young people had seen a lot of porn – whether they were tagged in it, sent it, searched for it, forced to watch it or heard about extreme porn that their mates had been watching – their knowledge of porn and extreme sex acts was staggering. I spent time unpacking the power imbalances in porn – the way the camera angle is always shot for the male viewer, the way the actresses are exploited and pressured into sex acts they didn’t want to do, the way that producers offer drugs and alcohol to nervous young actresses and the high rates of chlamydia within the industry. We debated whether we felt rough sex was acceptable or unacceptable and why the porn and glamour modelling industries have been found to target vulnerable underage girls in poverty. We talked about how many young people think extreme sex acts are the norm – the students engaged in loud and messy discussion in small groups who were swearing, gasping and challenging myths, biases and prejudice in their own thoughts. Not for the faint-hearted – but clearly vital to their burning curiosity about porn and sex. Without a doubt, this part of the session was the most successful and produced the most ‘penny-drop’ moments of the entire course, with young people remarking that they didn’t know about the use of drugs on set, the exploitation of women, the rife sexually transmitted diseases, the sexual injuries or the abuse. They didn’t realise that some porn scenes take over 40 takes to get right and possibly most importantly, they had no concept that porn actors and actresses were paid to look like they were enjoying sex acts that hurt or humiliated them. Since porn culture, sexualised imagery and objectification of women is seriously affecting boys and girls in our schools – it is imperative that any session that covers abuse, grooming or online sexual communication also covers the elephant in the room: porn culture.
6. Do we perpetuate victim blaming?
The report from the Equality and Women’s Committee links victim blaming to the responses professionals are providing to the sexual harassment, exploitation and assaults of girls in schools. The report argued that the examples of campaigns and resources that show a girl sending nudes and then having them shared all over her school encouraged and perpetuated victim blaming and slut shaming rather than focussing on the person who shared the images in revenge, in spite, for banter or for ‘rates’. Materials and questions were causing children to conclude that the girl shouldn’t have taken the images in the first place, that the young person shouldn’t have been on Facebook in the first place, that children were to blame for their sexual exploitation and abuse. Whilst I built the sessions to avoid this type of prejudice against victims, I found that young people were naturally moving towards victim-blaming conclusions whereby they convince themselves that the boy or girl in the case study made ‘poor decisions’, ‘were just stupid’ or ‘asked for it’ – and then loudly convincing themselves that it would never happen to them. This kind of self-preservation victim blaming is very common in children and adults – but it is taught and reinforced by professionals delivering sessions like these. I responded to these comments by ‘putting the shoe on the other foot’ and by refocussing the blame back on the person who chose to manipulate, threaten or expose the victim. I reinforced the message that, whilst we don’t advocate the sharing of nudes, they are never to blame if someone they trusted shared their images or videos.
We have to make a quick move away from authoritative awareness raising sessions that seek to ‘reduce risk of CSE’ by ‘increasing awareness of CSE’. We have no evidence that this is the case, yet. What we do know, is that boys and girls need feminism. What we do know, is that boys and girls watch a tonne of porn and are getting their sex ed from oppressive, filmed, fake sex. What we do know, is that young people are already taking photos and making videos of themselves and sharing them – threats of putting them on the sex offenders register are not working (surprise, surprise). It’s time to embrace feminist SRE and start talking to young people about the things they are already seeing, the things they are already doing and the things they are already talking about. Frank, open, sweary, real. No threats. No shame. No finger pointing. No blame culture.
Adults: We are the creators of taboo. We are the breakers of taboo.
Children: They are our next generation of adults.
Let’s teach them about real sex and real life in real terms.
Written by @JessicaE13Eaton