Lisa Hallgarten, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Brook, discusses the importance of creating positive culture change by addressing the root causes of sexual violence.
CW: This article describes a range of harmful sexual behaviours including sexual violence, domestic violence, and discrimination based on gender and sexuality.
Five years ago in February 2017 the Children and Social Work Act was passed, making Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) mandatory in all schools in England for the first time. It was a huge victory for Brook and other organisations that had spent decades lobbying for sex ed to get statutory status. The tipping point was the growing concern around the frequency and ‘normalisation’ of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, reported on by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in 2016.
Everyone seems to agree that education is key, yet very little government investment has been made in improving sex education.
Only £3.25m, a fraction of the government’s own best-estimated cost of £29m for implementing RSE, will have been spent by the end of this year despite teachers crying out for training and resources to support work around sexual harassment and violence.
At the same time, swathes of Parliamentary time has been spent debating and sometimes legislating the criminalisation of harmful behaviours. Parliamentarians have discussed upskirting, cyberflashing, intimate image abuse, making misogyny a hate crime, criminalising virginity testing and hymenoplasty, prosecuting deep fake porn, coercive control, domestic violence and more.
It is great that we have parliamentarians who are motivated to tackle these harmful behaviours. Criminalisation should send a strong message that it is totally unacceptable.
For survivors of sexual harassment and violence it may seem like a vital acknowledgement of the harm they have experienced and anyone lobbying for more laws and harsher sentences hopes that successful prosecutions will act as a deterrent.
However, having laws that don’t work effectively may be counterproductive. In 2020 just 1.6% of cases of rape were prosecuted (a downward trend dating from before the pandemic). Successful convictions for rape have been plummeting. A perpetrator of the most serious form of sexual violence might well believe they have a high chance of never being prosecuted let alone convicted.
Badly implemented laws are not a deterrent and at worst may even play a role in normalising sexual crimes, making them something that we shake our heads about rather than really punish.
In younger age groups, while everybody wants to see consistent and serious responses to sexual harassment, we may be in danger of criminalising young people (primarily young men) before we’ve even educated them. We must prioritise preventing these behaviours by taking on the culture of inequality, sexual entitlement, violence and misogyny (literally hatred of women) that underpins them.
That culture is reinforced through economic and political structures, religious and cultural practices. We have allowed gender stereotypes and expectations (that harm everyone) to be perpetuated through mainstream culture, even in our schools.
Everyone is responsible for challenging this. The government, parents, carers and families; law enforcement, peer groups, faith groups and youth groups; the media, the porn industry, the fashion industry, advertising. And yes…schools.
RSE has a vital role to play in challenging age-old assumptions and attitudes. It may not be a silver bullet, but it’s crucial to creating positive culture change, addressing the root causes of sexual violence: recognising and calling out gender stereotypes, misogyny homophobia, biphobia and transphobia; and promoting positive, safe relationships.
We welcome – and are supporting – the Department for Education’s plans to publish new guidance on addressing sexual harassment and violence in schools, but guidance alone is not sufficient. Time and funding must be allocated to RSE: backed up by visible culture change, modelled and promoted across the whole school.
Five years after landmark legislation was passed to make Relationships and Sex Education mandatory for all children in England let’s say it loud and clear. Excellent RSE is not an ‘optional extra’, a ‘nice to have’, an ‘if only we could fit it in to the school day’, or an ‘I wish we had a few million pounds to make this happen’.
We need to prioritise it. We need to teach it with conviction.
We need to make sure every child in every family and every school can access it regardless of culture, faith or background.
On future International Women’s Days, I hope we are no longer bemoaning the ubiquity of sexual harassment and violence in schools. I hope instead we are celebrating the normalisation of brilliant, inclusive, gender-aware RSE; and the nurturing of future generations who will make it their mission to end sexual violence.