Teaching Consent

The murder of Sarah Everard shocked a nation that was just beginning to emerge from a pandemic. The fact that her attacker was a Metropolitan Police Officer has served to both intensify public anger and diminish trust; the vital currency of effective policing. As a father of three young daughters, it troubles me that young women in the twenty-first century still experience gender based violence. Just yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss opined that, ‘I do think as women, generally, we are more fearful of going out and that is fundamentally wrong’. That is a desperately sad state of affairs. 

Earlier in the summer you may recall that the spotlight fell on schools. The ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website gathered over sixteen thousand personal testimonies submitted by current and former students at UK schools. These testimonies contained highly distressing accounts of behaviour that ranged from casual sexism to rape. Collectively, these accounts suggested a depressingly misogynistic culture within which girls and young women were both objectified and abused.

What became clear was that those perpetrating sexual assaults were not necessarily fully cognisant of their actions and they were often impervious to the devastation that they caused. There is no doubt that online pornography has had a corrosive impact insomuch as it depicts sexual acts that are non-consensual and devoid from the context of a loving relationship. Indeed, such freely available content teaches young people nothing about relationships, empathy or compassion. It portrays sex as nothing more than a transactional exchange. Toxic masculinity, misogyny and the ubiquity of online pornography all serve to provide a dehumanising and dangerous context for young people. 

Are we in denial?
A recent survey (The Guardian, 31st January, 2020) found that 75% of parents believed that their children would never view pornography. By contrast, a clear majority of these parents’ children stated that they had viewed adult content. The report also found that while parents thought their sons would watch pornography for sexual pleasure, many erroneously believed their daughters would primarily see pornography by accident.

Last summer, as the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ story broke, the glare of the media focused upon schools. It was suggested that schools had failed a generation of young people and that the acts perpetrated by young people outside school gates were almost exclusively due to a lack of guidance and appropriate education provision within schools. It was a pernicious narrative that failed to take account of the role of parenting, social media, online pornography and multifarious societal factors that all impact upon adolescent development. Schools should most certainly be part of the solution but the problem itself is global, endemic and extremely complex. 

Last week, I attended an address at the HMC Conference given by Chanel Contos, an impressive young Australian lady who is currently completing a degree at University College, London. Chanel attended a private school in Sydney and was herself the victim of a sexual assault. Aware of the prevalence of such incidents amongst her friends, she asked the question, ‘Do they even know they did this to us?’ She explains…

Hours later, I posted an Instagram poll asking “have you or has anyone close to you ever been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school in Sydney?”. In 24 hours, 200 people said yes. Over the same period of time, only 50 replied yes to “if you went to an all-boys school in Sydney, do you think any of your friends has ever sexually assaulted someone?” It was interesting to me how almost every girl knew someone who had experienced sexual assault or had themselves, but so few boys claimed to know anyone who’d ever been a victim or perpetrator.

In response, I launched a petition the next day calling for more holistic sexual consent education, from an earlier age. I also gave signatories of the petition the chance to upload a testimony. It’s been three weeks now, and with over 30,000 signatures, and almost 5,000 testimonies, Australia has been confronted with the harsh reality that we live in a rape culture. In a rape culture, attitudes about gender and sexuality create an environment where sexual assault and harassment is the norm. These types of attitudes are sexist, and enable gender-based violence against women to persist in its many forms. Every single person contributes to this rape culture – unless they actively don’t.”

Chanel’s actions preempted ‘Everyone’s Invited’ in the UK and served to awaken the legislature in New South Wales to the importance of teaching young people about consent. Last week, Chanel made some important points about the role that Schools can play in confronting this culture and providing young people with the best possible chance of growing up to be well-adjusted members of society. 

She pointed out that many of those who commit sexual assaults are entitled opportunists. Physical violence is rare but coercion and guilt are utilised by those seeking instant sexual gratification. Typically, perpetrators are unaware of the weight of their actions and such behaviour usually begins in adolescence. Entitled opportunists are the easiest form of abuser to prevent but only if Schools teach about consent and healthy sexual relationships successfully. Chanel argued that the independent school system, with its historic focus upon muscular Christianity, provided a context that, in the past, did little to challenge toxic masculinity. 

By contrast, Chanel argued that girls have all too often been socialised to be empathetic and accommodating. Arguably, female sexuality remains something of a taboo and we live in a society which is still prone to victim blaming. Often girls do not understand that sexual violence is a spectrum and they are not necessarily well-equipped to recognise male behaviour that is manipulative or coercive. Chanel argued that, more often than not, girls engage in ‘fawning’, a strategy employed to negotiate threatening situations. Differentials in terms of physical power mean that girls are likely to develop this response without necessarily recognising the trigger for such behaviour. Indeed, it is not uncommon for girls to be coerced into performing sexual acts at the expense of their own emotional and ethical boundaries. 

Chanel argues that we need to bridge the ‘empathy gap’ between the way in which we bring up boys and girls. We need to educate society about power dynamics, gendered norms and social expectations. Furthermore, she argues that children need to be held to account for small acts of sexual harassment. Failure to do so, creates a cultural context within which perpetrators feel empowered to commit acts of increasing severity. Finally, Chanel argued that feminism needs to be embedded across the curriculum and not taught discretely within PSHE. 

All responsible school leaders need to recognise that this is a societal problem that can only be addressed by a strong partnership between home and school. We need to consider the role of teachers, parents and reflect upon our own biases. We need to listen to what young people are telling us and confront troubling historic structural conditions within which masculinity has been defined. This is difficult work and there is no quick solution to a problem that is culturally embedded and globally present. In the UK, only 9% of sexual assaults are reported to teachers and only 3.6% of offences were reported to the police. 59% of offences involve the consumption of alcohol. 

Here at Rossall School, any allegations of this nature are reported directly to the police and Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board. Furthermore governors are notified and incidents are logged so that our protocols and procedures are able to be scrutinised by external agencies and inspectors. Our Peer-on-Peer Abuse Policy sets out our approach to such matters very clearly and it is well worth a read, alongside our Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy. Finally, please do read our Relationships and Sex Education Policy.

However, such incidents are very rare and, in the main, our approach is educational. We believe that we need to be proactive in terms of creating an environment wherein such acts are unthinkable. Our PSHE curriculum explicitly discusses issues relating to consent and this aspect of the course is constantly reviewed to ensure that it is as effective as possible. 

In terms of the quality of pastoral care provided by Rossall, we are consistently deemed to be rated ‘excellent’. However, there is no room for complacency and we recognise that we are not immune from the impact of evolving societal cultural norms. I am convinced that parents too have their role to play in ensuring that their children grow up to be respectful, and empathetic members of society. We need to work together and be prepared to have conversations that are both challenging and unsettling. Critical reflection leads to self-improvement and we need to be fully appreciative of the ubiquitous and unsettling influence of sexism, online pornography, and social media. Most importantly, we need to be unflinchingly honest when it comes to recognising the problem and the transformative role that we can all play (as teachers and parents) to ensure that our children inherit a society that is kinder and more equal than the one that we grew up in ourselves. 

It is never too early to start teaching children about consent and consent itself is not just pertinent to sexual relationships. It is up to us to frame a cultural context within which consent underpins all physical interactions between individuals. Similarly, if we are thoughtful in the language that we use at home, then we can help young people to challenge gender stereotypes. If we treat others with compassion and kindness then our children will grow up with the expectation that this is how they should treat people and that anything less constitutes a moral failure.

If our children hear us expressing empathy then they will more likely grow up with a sense that the feelings of others are as important as their own emotions. We need to empower our children to make good choices. They will more likely do this, if they value themselves and feel loved and valued by those around them. Finally, we do need to be open with our children and answer their questions honestly. Schools can only do so much, but as parents we need to ensure that our children do feel comfortable sharing their anxieties, hopes and fears with us. As parents, we cannot afford to ‘outsource’ sex and relationships education. We must recognise the importance of the partnership between home and school.

Finally, I hope that, as the year progresses, you will share your thoughts with us about this most important of issues. We recognise that we have plenty to learn from listening to the perspective of parents and pupils alike. We do so with a sense of humility and a desire to ensure that Rossall is a true beacon of excellence in terms of the strength of our educational offering in this regard.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School