Children should have compulsory lessons in sex and relationships education at both primary and secondary school to combat the growing tide of online pornography they are subject to as they grow up, campaigners are urging.
Lessons should start with five to eight-years-olds being taught about how they should respect others, equality and privacy, and go on to focus on the social side of developing relationships and sexual consent in the secondary school.
The demands are contained in a massive petition being launched today by a range of organisations - including Mumsnet, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and the Everyday Sexism project. It aims to ensure the issue is kept at the forefront of the election campaign and secure pledges from all the major parties to making the lessons compulsory.
18-year-old Yas Necati, who has just left school, said the lessons she received at school were treated by the pupils as “a joke”.
“The curriculum seems to ignore the ‘R’ in SRE [sex and relationships education],” she said. “Learning about biology and STIs is important stuff but we can’t forget the social side of sex.”
“Young people are growing up bombarded with negative and conflicting messages about sex, relationships and gender roles,” say the petitioners. “From 'Blurred Lines' to lads’ mags, online pornography to sexting, the 'Lads Bible' to Page Three, our culture portrays women as dehumanised and sexualised and men as sexual aggressors, normalising domestic abuse and even abusive behaviour towards women and girls.”
“We have to make the connection between the conflicting messages this delivers to young people and the fact that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year,” said Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.
Without a commitment to compulsory sex and relationships education, they argue, horror stories like the Rotherham scandal with teenagers being “groomed” by older men, and high levels of sexual assaults in schools will be repeated, the campaigners argue.
Video: Sex education debate
Dr Fiona Elvines, of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre in south London, said her organisation had often been called into schools to give presentation after an incident had occurred.
“I remember in the first school it was after a little girl had been sexually assaulted on the bus by one of the boys,” she said. “There were words bandied around like ‘slag’, ‘slut’. The school didn’t really know what to do.”
The centre devotes sessions in schools it goes into to teaching about consent and respectful relationship as well as warning of the dangers of internet porn, sexting and gender stereotyping.
“There is a real need for this kind of work, but before something has happened,” she added. “Counselling about sexual violence after something has happened is too late.”
Holly Dustin, EVAW Coalition Director, added: “The case for compulsory SRE as part of PSHE is now overwhelming. It is a common sense measure in light of what we know about young people’s lives, the pressures they face and the prevalence of abuse of girls and women.
“In the past some parents have been concerned about the possible sharing of explicit material in school with their young children. We are calling for a strong focus on the relationships aspect of SRE when taught in school and, of course, for all SRE to be age appropriate. At ages five to eight, for example, these classes should be about respecting others, equality and privacy.”
The campaigners believe some headway has been made in the last few months with Labour’s Yvette Cooper pledging that it would make it compulsory while the Liberal Democrats have given a manifesto commitment to compulsory SRE - although the content of these lessons have not yet been specified. For the Conservatives new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has said she is willing to look at the issue - although it is not yet party policy.
Case study: SRE was "so old-fashioned"
Yas Nescati says most of her classmates believed the sex and relationships education they had at school was “a joke”.
“I just felt it was so old-fashioned,” she said. “We were watching VHS videos. Everybody saw it as a great joke. We would be taught all about the biological things but not anything to with the social side of relationships.”
The 18-year-old, who left her Enfield comprehensive this summer, has now joined the campaign to make SRE compulsory in schools.
“Having just finished school, I know first-hand just how useless our SRE currently is,” she said. “Learning about biology and STIs is important stuff but we can’t forget the social side of sex. The curriculum seems to completely ignore the ‘R’ is SRE, leaving information about relationships completely untouched.
“Meanwhile, sexual abuse is rising amongst young people and false ideas about sex from the media and online sources are becoming more available than ever.
“We need to challenge the sex negative culture we’ve created and we need schools to help us do this. Please don’t leave my generation uninformed. We deserve better.”