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“Let’s make 2017 the year we finally take preventative action against sexual violence”

laura bates sex education.jpg

Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Everyday Sexism founder, Laura Bates, argues that it’s high time the UK government implements compulsory sex and relationships education into schools, and takes meaningful, preventative action to end sexual violence.


Imagine living in a country where almost one in three teenage girls reports experiencing unwanted sexual touching whilst at school. Imagine if an average of one rape per school day was being reported to the police as having occurred in UK schools. Imagine 71% of young people saying they hear sexist name-calling like ‘slut’ and ‘slag’ used towards girls at school several times a week.

Imagine those girls leave school to grow up in a world where one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten, in a country where 85,000 women are raped every year and 400,000 sexually assaulted, where they have a one in four chance of becoming a victim of domestic violence.

This is the country we live in.

We send young people out into the world armed to cope with common life situations. But when it comes to sex and relationships we leave them completely unprepared.

Now imagine a realistic, concrete solution that might simultaneously help tackle the enormous problem of sexual violence and harassment in schools and have a positive impact on the wider problem of rape and domestic violence in our society too.

That solution is comprehensive, compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE), including information on topics like consent, healthy relationships, gender stereotypes, online pornography and LGBT rights and relationships.

It would provide young people the tools to understand and navigate the issues they are already experiencing from a young age, but also arm them to go out into the wider world confident about their rights and responsibilities, thus providing a preventative impact as well. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it could make a massive difference.

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"The solution is comprehensive, compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE)."

Women’s groups, sexual violence experts, teachers, parents and pupils are all united in calling for compulsory SRE, yet it continues to be rejected and sidestepped by the government.

We send young people out into the world armed to cope with common life situations. We teach them to read maps so that they can navigate new places. They learn to count and subtract, so they can work out how much change they should receive in a shop. Language lessons help them to communicate in different countries. But when it comes to sex and relationships - an incredibly common life experience - we leave them completely unprepared.

I have met girls who don’t realise they have been raped because they think they have to have sex with someone if he is their boyfriend. 

Though some schools already teach some of these topics, it is only currently compulsory to teach the basic biology of sex. Issues about consent, healthy relationships or online pornography are not mandatory - and even if schools do choose to cover them, the available guidelines are over 15 years old, rendering them useless to meet the challenges of new technologies. So it’s unsurprising that when young people are surveyed about their experiences of SRE, 40% say theirs was poor or very poor and 43% didn’t receive any at all. Three quarters are never taught about consent and a shocking 95% didn’t learn anything about LGBT relationships.


Read more: Laura Bates takes heart from 2016


You only have to step foot in a UK school to begin to see the urgency of the situation.

On visits up and down the country to discuss these issues with young people, I have met girls who don’t realise they have been raped because they think they have to have sex with someone if he is their boyfriend. I’ve met young men who are confused and bewildered about how they are supposed to behave towards girlfriends because they’ve seen online porn that shows women being hurt and degraded and humiliated. I’ve seen LGBT pupils who feel confused and erased by messages that either condemn them or completely fail to include them in the picture at all.

sex ed

"It is unsurprising that we see the problem spilling out onto university campuses and beyond."

I’ve heard confused accounts of pressure and coercion, seen cases of so-called ‘sexting’ spiralling out of control, watched slut-shaming and sexual harassment happen in the corridors, and again and again received the same message: we don’t know what to do. Boys don’t know what to do when they’re urged to prove their lad points by sharing nude pictures of a girlfriend.

Girls don’t know what to do when they’re pressured to take and send images. ‘Consent’ is a blurry and misunderstood term. Rape is what happens when a girl wears a short skirt or gets drunk and meets a stranger in a dark alleyway. ‘It’s not rape if she enjoys it’. ‘It doesn’t count if she was asking for it’. ‘Rape is a compliment really’.

 It is unsurprising that we see the problem spilling out onto university campuses and beyond. 

When young people leave school embroiled in this kind of confusion, with no alternative information to offset confusing messages from other sources like online porn (which 60% have seen by the age of 14), it is unsurprising that we see the problem spilling out onto university campuses and beyond. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen students going out in 'casual rape' T-shirts and playing drinking games called ‘it’s not rape if’. We’ve seen ‘fresher’s violation’ club nights advertised with videos about rape and fresher’s week posters with jokes about raping a woman until she cries. Students have been taught necrophiliac songs and caught on camera chanting about sexual assault on public buses.

These cases are testament to a massive gap in the education students receive at school. They simply haven’t been taught even the most basic information about consent and healthy relationships.

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"Three quarters are never taught about consent and a shocking 95% didn’t learn about LGBT relationships."

Responding to a shocking report about sexual violence and harassment in schools released by the women and equalities committee last year, the government sidestepped many of the report’s major recommendations, including the suggestion that SRE should urgently be made compulsory in all schools. But it did say that “the case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery is actively under review”. It is vital that we continue to urge the government to consider taking action on SRE now. Almost 45,000 people have already signed a petition to Education Secretary Justine Greening and Prime Minister Theresa May. Find out how to take further action by getting involved with the #SREnow campaign.


Read more: The semantics of sexism: Why we need to change the way we talk


Progress on women’s rights is famously and frustratingly slow. It has been less than 100 years since the first women in the UK were granted the right to vote. Marital rape did not become a crime until 1991. When we look back at our failure to put consent on the curriculum and to protect girls from sexual violence in schools, it will seem like a similarly archaic and misogynistic failing.

But 2017 could be the year when we finally make SRE compulsory, safeguarding girls’ safety and taking real preventative action against sexual violence. Imagine that. 

Images: iStock, Rex Features

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