QotD: “Soma Sara: Extreme porn is rewiring boys’ brains to sanction rape culture”
The testimonials are devastating, yet they keep coming — 50,000 teenagers have posted on Everyone’s Invited since it was launched two summers ago.
Thirteen-year-old girls forced to smile as they are choked by a line of boys in the school lavatories, 15-year-olds watching nude pictures of themselves being shared at parties and projected on the walls, desperate tales of children too terrified to tell adults about the culture of harassment, assault and sexual humiliation that they are enduring in the playground. The authors remain anonymous but the sense of pain is overwhelming. The most recent starts: “I was 12 when I was raped. I had forgotten my homework . . .”
Soma Sara, 23, set up Everyone’s Invited after facing years of humiliation and degradation at the hands of boys while a schoolgirl and student in London. She has now written a book of the same name to make sense of the “torrent of tears” she has witnessed since her Instagram campaign highlighting sexual abuse went viral and schools were forced to conduct inquiries. The quietly spoken, poised graduate is not an obvious Generation Z influencer: she disappeared for months from the news after I interviewed her last year, tries to avoid social media in favour of novels and prefers cafés to clubs.
I meet her in Notting Hill, west London, reeling from her Everyone’s Invited book launch the night before when her old English teacher came to congratulate her. Sara writes beautifully about porn, pick-up culture and surviving the abuse that permeated her childhood and thrived in dark corners as adults obsessed about exam results and bedtimes.
“It’s been harrowing reading the testimonies,” she admits. “It’s psychological, it’s physical, like a friend telling you every few minutes about being raped. I underestimated how much of a toll it would take on my life. I was getting burnt out but it was so moving and emotional to see young people having the strength to share something so intimate and to be so heartbreakingly honest that I felt I had to keep going. I never imagined it would explode on this scale.”
What Sara did not expect was the backlash from mothers of sons, worried that their boys were being stigmatised and might be wrongly challenged over their actions. “I had to learn how to be empathetic enough to understand their fear. The instinctive thing to do is to try and absolve responsibility and protect their children. My book tries to explain that we are all responsible for this rape culture and need to work together to change it. I want to bridge the generational gap and help parents and teachers understand the modern sexual landscape, the rise of social media and online pornography and how it has dramatically changed the way the young live.”
The second of three sisters, Sara was raised by a single father, an American who works in sustainable energy. Her Chinese mother is a writer. The impetus for Everyone’s Invited partly came from Sara’s realisation that she did not want her much younger sister to face the same problems she had as a teenager. “I see even now with my little sister how society has got its tentacles wrapped round her so young. She is told she is pretty and pink and perfect, there is an expectation of behaviour because she is a girl.”
Meanwhile boys, she says, are increasingly being manipulated by toxic alpha-male influencers, promoting a masculinity “that is about domination and suppression and hurting and belittling women and competing and winning”. She is referring to men such as Andrew Tate, recently banned from Facebook and TikTok for his glorification of rape culture and abuse of women. “The older generation have no idea how toxic he is.”
Parents and teachers, she warns, should be worried. “We are in a moment when we need to be really reaching out and helping boys because they are vulnerable to radicalisation, essentially. This is hateful, anti-feminist ideology and boys deserve better, they should be able to talk openly about their mental health, to be emotional and share their vulnerability.
“The masculinity now being promoted is all very aggressive and febrile and about making money and taming women. You have to be this rock of a man who is dominating and objectifying and oppressing women rather than befriending them.” The gap between the generations, she feels, is wider than for years. “Young people genuinely are online all day. They’ll spend eight hours scrolling, it’s such a different way to live from their parents. Their on- and offline personas have become entangled.”
But it is porn that worries her most. “It’s the biggest mountain we have to tackle. Porn is the wallpaper that framed our lives.” One young author recently wrote about how when she was 12 she saw a woman being involved in a sex act with a frozen fish online. Sara says, “It’s far more extreme now, it’s about suppression and objectification and much of the time lacks consent. All young people have seen online porn. It’s transforming and rewiring boys’ brains to normalise sexual violence and sanction rape culture. How can a 30-minute PHSE class challenge that?” Her friends, now in their twenties, are questioning why they were allowed access to such extreme content. “It’s harmed many relationships and the distribution of power. A 14-year-old boy shouldn’t think it’s normal for a girl to cry when she’s having sex.”
Why can’t girls just say “no” when their male peers try to coerce them into abusive behaviour? “Boys would say you’re being a prude or selfish or frigid if you don’t do this. Girls don’t want to get a reputation for being boring or vanilla and adults weren’t telling us what was normal and acceptable. It would have been transformative for my age group if the older generation of women had said, ‘You deserve to prioritise your sexual pleasure too, you should be able to explore your sexuality in a safe way’.”
Instead, she says, talk about sex has remained taboo. “When you are very young and someone asks you to have anal sex it’s too awkward to ask an adult if that’s right, you probably haven’t even spoken to your parents or teachers about kissing. My generation felt so isolated with no one to talk to about these issues. It was peer-on-peer normalisation setting the standards and no adult said — that’s not OK, that’s not what we are doing in real life.”
Casual sex, she says, was the default. “Of course, there were some teens having normal long-term relationships but there was this huge pick-up thing and casual sex was normal.” Sara worries about the blurring between consensual and non-consensual sex. “Our testimonies show that boys will jump to do abusive stuff without asking because they think it is normal.’’
In her book, Soma examines the myriad pressures on her generation of women. “Social media has added another male gaze online with TikTok and Instagram and unrealistic standards of beauty, women getting Botox and liposuction. When you are young you want to feel admired. Getting likes feels empowering but it hasn’t given us any more control.”
Digital sex is real sex, Sara says, for a generation living online. “If you judge and shame young girls for sending nude pics you are creating an even more isolating system, the world is seen as hostile rather than helpful.
“We had so many testimonies of 11-year-olds being forced by older boys to share nudes and then suspended when the boys have shared them round. The abuse was seen as the girls’ fault, they were the sluts. But they are children and need protecting, not punishing.” Sara adds that as a teenager she also faced racism. “It’s like another layer of dehumanisation. Look at the porn categories: Latina, ebony, Asian babe. It’s fetishising racism.”
Sometimes parents and teachers say to boys: “Imagine if it’s your sister or mother, you wouldn’t behave that way, would you?” Sara particularly dislikes this form of explanation in sex lessons. “You shouldn’t need to say that girls are human beings — they don’t belong to anyone.”
Politicians, Sara feels, must take children’s concerns seriously. “They are more interested in what is woke among the young rather than what is actually affecting them and they aren’t acting as role models. Having 56 MPs in parliament who have been accused of assault and another who was done for watching porn at work sends out a message to my generation that this kind of behaviour is OK even when you reach the top.”
Her generation, she says, is not weak or “weirdly woke”. “Generation Z are facing huge stress and insecurity: house prices, a looming recession, inflation and then climate change, whether to have children, it feels quite bleak. The issues that are prioritised aren’t ones that matter most to us. When I go round schools, I see 16-year-olds who are so thoughtful and interesting about abuse online and power imbalances, yet the adults aren’t discussing it with them. Sex education should be as important as maths lessons.”
Sara says the pressure has eased slightly now she is in her twenties. “I think the death of Sarah Everard last year showed my generation that you aren’t safe at any age. It’s second nature for my girlfriends and me now to put our keys between our knuckles, walk fast down a street late at night, check our drinks, and say ‘Text me when you get home’. There is implied violence in all that. But I get less hassle now then as a teenager in school uniform.”
There must be a way of the sexes co-existing harmoniously in the 21st century. “I think we need to help boys and men and communicate with them and let them know how we feel and what reaction they are provoking.
“That’s why I have written Everyone’s Invited, to help men as well as women, boys and girls and parents, we all need to have this sex conversation together.”
QotD: “Sex work is rewarding, pupils told by education providers”
Providers of sex education in schools are teaching children that prostitution is a “rewarding job” and failed to advise a 14-year-old girl having sex with a 16-year-old boy that it was illegal.
Outside organisations teaching children about sex also promote “kinks” such as being locked in a cage, flogged, caned, beaten and slapped in the face, The Times has found.
One organisation encouraged pupils to demonstrate where they like to touch themselves sexually, in a practise criticised as “sex abuse” by campaigners.
Another provider, an LGBT+ youth charity called the Proud Trust, produces resources asking children aged seven to 11 whether they are “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
Last night campaigners said that “inclusiveness is overriding child safeguarding” and that the materials were “bordering on illegal”.
This week Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, revealed that she would review sex education being taught in schools after Miriam Cates, an MP, was contacted by a parent whose nine-year-old child came home “shaking” and “white as a sheet because they’d been taught in detail about rape”.
Relationship and sex education (RSE) became compulsory in English secondary schools in 2020, with many contracting out the teaching. Since then an industry has sprung up of providers who produce resources and go into schools to teach sex education and gender issues.
Staff do not need education or child development qualifications and there is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum.
One organisation, Bish, is an online guide to sex and relationships for children aged over 14. It is written by Justin Hancock, who teaches sex education in schools and provides teacher training on sex education.
The website features a question from a 14-year-old girl having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male. She states that she is worried about becoming pregnant because they are not using contraception and are using the “withdrawal” method. In his response Hancock, who describes himself as a freelance sex and relationships educator, said that “your risks of pregnancy are very, very low”, a statement described as “dangerously reckless” by campaigners. He also failed to mention that the relationship was illegal and advised using lubricant during anal sex.
In another post on the site, a reader wrote to say that she felt “dirty” after being coerced into having sex for money. Hancock replied: “There are many many people doing sex work who do enjoy what they do — even if they don’t necessarily enjoy the sex. It can be a really difficult job but many people find it rewarding — just like other jobs.
“This is especially true if sex workers mainly have good clients, which I don’t think you do. If you did want to continue, maybe you could get better clients?”
In a post about “kink”, Bish links to a blog that provides a list of sexual activities including using manacles and irons, whips, swinging and beating.
In a post about masturbation, parents are told: “If your kid is having trouble understanding this, or you want to explain how to touch themselves, you could get hold of some Play-Doh or plasticine and make a model of what someone’s genitals might look like. They could practice touching the models gently in a similar way to how they may touch their own.”
The Safe Schools Alliance said: “Telling children to practise masturbating on a plasticine model is child sexual abuse.”
Bish claims that more than 100,000 young people a month learn about sex from its website. The site was funded by Durex but the condom brand withdrew its sponsorship. It is not clear why. The website is now funded by donations from the public and schools pay Hancock for resource packs that he provides. Hancock says on his website that he has taught “a broad variety of RSE topics in state and independent schools”.
A full day of teaching costs £500 a day for local authority schools, £550 for academy schools and £600 for fee-paying schools.
Hancock says that his website “is not designed for classroom RSE teaching”, and that teachers should visit his training site for resources, which can be bought on his online shop.
In 2019 the government announced that schools would be given access to a £6 million RSE training and support package so that teachers in England could provide new classes on issues such as healthy relationships, safe sex and consent. Last month the website Vice reported that only £3.2 million had been taken up by schools.
A survey by the Sex Education Forum of children aged 16 and 17 last year found that 35 per cent rated the quality of their school’s RSE provision as “good” or “very good” — down six percentage points from the previous year. This was attributed to many of the basics not being covered.
The Proud Trust produced a range of resources called Alien Nation that asked primary schoolchildren aged seven to 11 whether they felt closest to “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
It also asks: “Which planet were you sent to as a baby” and “What would your ideal planet be like?”. Its website states that the resource was funded by Cheshire West and Chester council. The charity Educate & Celebrate, founded by Elly Barnes, a teacher, promoted a book called Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?, which tells the story of Kit, a 12-year-old girl who is being medically transitioned to live as a boy.
Resources on their website include lesson plans for children aged seven to 11 that suggest pupils “create a gender neutral character” that they can share with the rest of the class.
Teachers should encourage them to “refrain from saying he or she” and “introduce gender neutral pronouns and language, eg They, Zie and Mx”. The group says that its methods have been adopted by “hundreds of schools”.
Last month Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former director of public prosecutions, said that providers were preventing parents from viewing teaching resources, citing commercial confidentiality.
Tanya Carter, spokeswoman for Safe Schools Alliance and an early years practitioner, said: “We are very much in favour of sex education but it should be for the benefit of children — learning about rights, how to protect themselves, and how to get help if someone is abusing them. It should not be about promoting prostitution and abuse to already vulnerable children.
“We don’t think Bish or Justin Hancock should be anywhere near children because he clearly doesn’t understand child protection. It’s completely indefensible what he’s been promoting to children and some of it is verging on a criminal offence.”
Hancock declined to comment. The other providers did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Cheshire West and Chester council said: “The Alien Nation book aimed to support teachers and schools to explain gender identity and gender variance. Lesson plans were created by the Proud Trust to accompany the book, which could be used by schools if they wished.
“The council will always take on board comments and will share these with the Proud Trust in relation to the Alien Nation book. The support pack is not available on the council’s website.”
A mother was reported to social services after she objected to the way her children were being taught about sex and gender at school (Charlotte Wace writes).
The woman said that she wanted her six daughters, four of whom are foster children, “to know they have [a] right to safe spaces based on biological sex and equality in sport”. She wrote to the school after being told that two of the girls, aged 12 and 13, were due to have lessons on sex and gender, and asked to see material used in the lessons in advance.
It amounted to “indoctrination”, she claimed in her letter, and she asked the school to add “some scientific balance”.
She was summoned to a meeting with social workers, an educational adviser and the member of school staff who had alerted the authorities. It was decided that a social worker would speak to the mother. The social worker summarised that they, along with other social workers, held “no concerns” relating to the mother’s care of the children and that no further action was required.
The woman has started legal action against the teacher who made the complaint and is suing for defamation.
The school has declined to comment.
QotD: “‘Sex positive’ sex education is harming children”
Most parents approach children’s questions about sex with careful thought. We know that our period chat, puberty Q&A, our bleakly vital guidance on sexting and porn won’t just affect their present happiness and bodily ease, but future relationships too. We entrust schools to make up for our shortfalls or embarrassment, to further our conversations with sensitivity and fact.
We’d expect RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) lessons to be conducted by trained teachers, schooled in biology, alert to pornified and misleading internet content. We’d hope our kids learn not just where babies come from but that sexuality is diverse, that sex isn’t just about problems, like STIs and abortion, but a source of joy.
Instead your child may be taught by the School of Sexuality Education which asked kids to Google then draw masturbating animals. Or the Proud Trust, whose dice game asks 13-year-olds to speculate how various body parts and objects will pleasure their anus. Or Diversity Role Models, which promoted the message beloved of paedophiles: “Love has no age limit.”
Because any organisation can now teach RSHE, including activist groups with political agendas. Staff don’t need education or child development qualifications. There is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum. The Department for Education (DfE) says it is a school’s responsibility to oversee lesson content but many don’t have time, often entrusting outside speakers to address classes with no teacher present. And if parents demand to see teaching resources, groups often cite copyright law and refuse.
RSHE teaching, as Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and former biology teacher, noted in her Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, is “a wild west”. Indeed it is a deregulated, privatised, quintessentially Conservative mess.
The government’s response to criticism about inadequate sex education was to make it mandatory from September 2020 for both primary and secondary pupils. The DfE advocates a “programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils”. But instead of providing funds to recruit or train RSHE specialists, it left schools often to outsource lessons to groups, some newly formed to win these lucrative contracts. Since then many parents have voiced concerns. First at the inappropriately sexualised content of lessons for young children: 11-year-olds asked to work out from a list if they are straight, gay or bisexual; ten-year-olds told to discuss masturbation in pairs. Compelling pre-pubescent children to talk about explicit material with adults transgresses their natural shyness and is a safeguarding red flag.
Many groups brand themselves “sex positive”, a confusing term which doesn’t mean “relationships are great” but that no sexual practice is off-limits and the sex industry, specifically pornography, is wholly liberating. BISH Training’s website entry on “rough sex” dismisses the notion that online porn is responsible for a rise in choking, hair-pulling and spitting as “annoying”. Although 60 British women have died of strangulation during sex, BISH simply tells young people to go slow “at first”.
Reading RSHE groups’ online material, and most is hidden from public scrutiny, none addresses the fact that boys and girls are fed different sexual scripts from increasingly violent mainstream porn. Those being choked, violently penetrated in multiple orifices are rarely male. Yet there is no feminist critique or much focus on female pleasure.
Such teaching is supposed to uphold the 2010 Equality Act in which sex is a protected characteristic, yet much of it blurs biology. The Sex Education Forum divides us into “menstruaters” and “non-menstruaters”. Just Like Us states that sex can be changed. Amaze suggests boys who wear nail varnish and girls who like weightlifting could be trans.
Researching my report on the Tavistock child gender service, I spoke with parents of girls on the autistic spectrum who’d always felt like misfits but after listening to outside speakers at school assemblies or RSHE classes now believed they were boys. Gender ideology, with no basis in science or fact, is being pushed in schools, as Cates says, “with religious fervour”.
In its carelessness and cheap-skatery, the government has enabled teaching that is well out of step with public opinion. More In Common polling of 5,000 people found that while 64 per cent of us are happy for schools to teach that some children have two dads or mums, only 31 per cent believe primary schools should teach about trans identity. Parents know it is confusing, unscientific and predicated upon gender stereotypes.
The government’s present hands-off policy also leaves schools vulnerable when challenged by homophobic religious groups, as in Birmingham when extreme Islamists stirred up parents to oppose teaching about gay parents. Head teachers then said they’d have welcomed more prescriptive government guidance so parents could hold elected politicians, not individual schools, to account.
At Thursday’s debate, the chastened schools minister Robin Walker noted that parents should have ready access to all RSHE teaching materials and said the equality and human rights commission is working out guidance on how gender identity should be taught in schools. Such lessons must include evidence of social contagion, the harms of puberty blockers, warning about irreversible treatment and the experience of a growing number of “detransitioners”.
But the government needs to go further, with a register of outside groups and close monitoring of misleading materials. It should also teach critical thinking, so children can evaluate the porn-suffused culture in which they live. There’s no point parents putting such care into how we teach children about sex if the government gives none at all.
QotD: “Six-year-olds tell of abuse by classmates”
More than 40 cases of sexual abuse among primary-school children have been reported to a prominent website after Ofsted warned that abuse was “bleeding down” from older children.
The website Everyone’s Invited has collected testimonies of sexual abuse from pupils at schools and universities since June 2020, but after the sexual abduction and death of Sarah Everard, 33, in south London in March, thousands of women and girls submitted their stories.
As a result of the testimonies posted to the site, the Metropolitan Police has started investigating some individual schools and Scotland Yard began a national investigation.
A helpline was launched for victims and Ofsted began a review into safeguarding and abuse in schools, which concluded this week.
After reviewing more than 2,000 testimonies on the site, The Times has found that more than 40 relate to incidents among children of primary school age, including some as young as six.
Two came from an exclusive chain of schools where pupils include the children of prominent people. While the schools teach children aged two to 18, both testimonies related to ages eight to 11.
One girl wrote in a submission to the site that harassment of girls by boys was rife at her primary school and that it took both verbal and physical forms. She said that boys would make highly unacceptable sexual remarks about girls, sometimes to their faces. She alleged that a ten-year-old boy had told her that he intended to rape a particular girl when she was asleep.
Although she was pretty sure that the boy was not serious, she said, she had been very shocked.
Another girl claimed that it was commonplace for boys to give girls scores for attractiveness, to grope them and to make extremely disrespectful remarks about them in their presence.
A pupil from a different primary school, in Kent, alleged that when she was nine a group of boys pushed her over and chanted “rape” at her.
She described the incident as involving them taking hold of her and pushing her around the group. The children were required to write letters of apology after she told a teacher but were not suspended from the school, she wrote.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said the regulator had not done such extensive research into primary schools and that their main concerns were still for older children.
She added: “But they are very definitely the same issues bleeding down into schools, into primary schools from the top down where we had clear concerns about the same kinds of issues that older children were reporting cropping up.”
Ofsted’s report found evidence that children at primary schools had access to pornography or were sharing inappropriate images and videos online.
It reads: “In one all-through school, leaders have identified a trend of cases in the primary school that are linked to social media. There is a no-phone policy in this school, so incidents are likely taking place outside school. Incidents cited include viewing pornography, requests to look up pornography websites and viewing inappropriate images on social media. There was an example from another school of children in years 6 and 7 sending nudes.”
In response to Ofsted’s findings the Department for Education said that it would strengthen guidance for sex education — a curriculum that has long been criticised for being outdated and irrelevant (Nicola Woolcock writes).
Updated lessons, covering porn, sexting and consent, were due to be introduced in England last September after months of consultation but were pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Relationships education was due to become compulsory in England’s state primary schools at the start of the academic year, as was relationships and sex education in secondary schools.
Schools were allowed to delay this until this year’s summer term.
The new curriculum caused upset in some areas when it was proposed, and some schools have experienced protests about its LGBT content. Schools are expected to discuss the lessons with parents but can overrule opposition.
The PSHE Association, which supports teachers taking relationships and sex education lessons, said that the Department for Education must make clear that regular teaching was needed. It said: “We don’t expect pupils to learn algebra or about the Norman Conquest via the odd assembly or awareness day, so why should we expect this when it comes to consent and respectful relationship behaviour?”
It said PSHE education had a proven role in academic attainment: “Safe, healthy and content students are in a better place to learn.”
QotD: “The trouble with being a teenage boy today”
While some girls feel they are expected to look and behave like porn stars, with hairless, glistening bodies, a few boys are turning to plastic surgery because they worry their penises aren’t large enough. A friend who is a north London GP and mother of two boys says, “I’m getting requests from teenage boys for penis enlargement. That’s surely a result of too much porn.”
Almost every expert, parent, teacher and teenager I talk to feels that it’s the rise of online porn that underlies the current problems – for boys and girls. Only 25 per cent of parents think their 16-year-old sons have watched porn. Yet a survey by the NSPCC showed that two thirds of 15 to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online, and nearly a third of 11 to 12-year-olds, with the majority being violent and non-consensual.
“Pornography is everywhere,” says Mohammed, now in the sixth form of an all-boys school in Yorkshire and a champion debater. “You can’t avoid it. It’s just a click away while you are doing your homework and it makes you feel inadequate. That’s why my generation needs alcohol or drugs to do this kind of stuff. I envy my friends who’ve been in a steady relationship since they were young, and my parents, who had an arranged marriage.”
Our children have become subject to the whims of a vast $97 billion profit-seeking industry that has no concern whatsoever for their emotional or sexual health, according to Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection. He has been demanding a national debate about the potentially devastating impact of online porn ever since I first interviewed him a decade ago. The sense of young male entitlement, he says, “sometimes feels medieval. Boys get some of their sex education from porn, which once might have been a picture of a naked woman spread across a page,” but now involves images of gagging, rape, anal sex and domination. “More and more children are watching hardcore porn and it soon becomes normalised,” says Bailey, who is heading the police service response to investigating the Everyone’s Invited allegations. “You can’t rely on families or schools alone to tackle this. The tech industry needs to take responsibility. No one under 18 should be able to see this stuff.”
Dr Caroline Douglas-Pennant, a counselling psychologist working in west London, who has four daughters, believes boys need new boundaries. “Boys think about sex a lot of the time, but it’s vital they understand that their sexual needs are not more important than women’s and what may even have been tacitly acceptable in their parents’ generation is unacceptable now,” she says. Children receive sex education classes at school. “But a lot of boys and girls feel that adults and teachers are still letting them down. They are being tokenistic and just ticking the boxes with their relationship and consent classes without helping them address the real problems. It’s the competitive, pressurised, misogynist culture we need to tackle.”
Porn, she agrees, has exacerbated the situation. “It gives the message women are constantly available and enjoy aggressive sex. Boys at 17 are driven by testosterone. They need to be shown how to control it. Dads are extremely important role models for loving and respectful relationships for their boys and we need to encourage them to think about their position in the conversation and be curious about why they may feel defensive or attacked.”
QotD: Teachers ‘struggle to deal with classroom sexual abuse’
Teachers say they do not feel equipped to deal with peer-on-peer sexual abuse because they have had no training.
More than 1,500 UK teachers replied to a questionnaire from BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and teachers’ union the NASUWT.
More than half said they did not think adequate procedures were in place in their schools to deal with abuse.
Many are also unsure how to deliver elements of a new sex-and-relationships curriculum, which the government says third parties might now help with.
In England, the Department for Education has introduced a compulsory Sex and Relationships Education (RSE) curriculum in all schools, focusing on relationships in primary schools and sex and relationships in secondaries.
It has also asked Ofsted to review peer-on-peer safeguarding procedures.
Of the teachers surveyed, almost a third said they had witnessed peer-on-peer sexual harassment or abuse and almost one in 10 said they saw it on a weekly basis.
The debate about a culture of sexual abuse at schools has escalated in recent months after a website set up for victims to post their experiences anonymously gained more than 16,000 posts – some from children as young as nine.
The Everyone’s Invited website publishes anonymous allegations which refer mostly to sexual harassment carried out against young women by young men at their school or university.
The government has now launched a dedicated hotline with the NSPCC for young people who feel they have been harassed and abused.
Since the helpline launched at the beginning of April, it has received more than 350 calls, and 65 referrals have been made to agencies including social services and the police.
The new RSE curriculum in England was introduced in September 2020.
Andrew Fellows, associate head of policy at child-protection charity the NSPCC, says that while the new lessons are a positive development, schools have not been given the support and guidance to deliver the new curriculum effectively.
“Coercive control, sexual consent, healthy relationships, online safety, pornography – that’s all in there.
“But what schools haven’t been given is the guidance and the support to cover that and to deliver that in a way that works for their students,” he said.
Flora Cooper, head teacher of Crowmarsh Primary School in Oxfordshire, where staff have just started to teach the new RSE lessons, said: “In terms of external training, we’ve not had any.
“We actually haven’t seen much being offered in terms of training and it is absolutely in the training – that’s what is essential, which we don’t have.
“Until the teachers are confident with the delivery of the content, then I don’t think any of them will be confident and fully teaching the children the full curriculum. It feels as though we are on our own.”
Ofsted is currently conducting a review of safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse in state and independent schools and colleges.
It was ordered by the government after thousands of young people – mostly girls and young women – contacted the Everyone’s Invited website.
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “We’ve seen these enormously worrying and very shocking allegations that have come through the Everyone’s Invited site.
“One of the things that Ofsted will be looking at in this review is, are schools getting enough training and support? Do they need, for example, third parties to come in and train elements of that curriculum?”
QotD: “Why the porn industry must be called to answer on rape culture in schools”
I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”
The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.
Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.
But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.
Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.
The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.
How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”
QotD: “Hull school ‘sorry’ after pupils researched porn homework on web”
A head teacher says he is “sorry” if homework asking pupils to define types of hardcore pornography led them to undertake inappropriate web searches.
The work was given to children, aged 11 to 14, at Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, the Hull Daily Mail reported.
Principal Chay Bell stressed the assignment did not require internet research as the answers were in the material the pupils were sent.
Leon Dagon was “flabbergasted” when he saw his 13-year-old sister’s homework.
The work is part of pupils’ Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) learning, the school said.
The students were asked to “define” topics including hardcore pornography, soft pornography as well as female genital mutilation and breast ironing.
They were also asked questions about alcohol, drugs and smoking, as part of the homework.
Mr Dagon, who took to Facebook to share his concerns, said: “My little sister knows make-up and TikTok at the age of 13. She doesn’t know about hardcore porn, and then asking her to define it.
“The majority of children nowadays will now go on the internet to help them with their homework and if you type that kind of thing on the internet, God knows what’s going to pop up.”
Mr Bell said: “I am genuinely sorry if parents or students have unnecessarily researched any of these phrases and for any offence caused by this mistake.”
He said students “were not directed to research these topics themselves on the internet because all the answers to the questions posed are contained in the teacher-produced materials we shared”.
The work was in line with government guidance, but he added: “I have asked that no future PSHE materials contain any potentially sensitive content and will ensure all materials are fully age-appropriate.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said it was a matter for the school and had no further comment to make.
QotD: “For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management”
There are two contradictory trends identified in reports about young people’s sex lives. One is that they are virtually celibate, too busy playing Fortnite, watching porn, scrolling through Instagram or otherwise living screen-mediated lives to actually connect with another human being. The other is that “hook-up culture” and a plethora of Tinder-type swipe apps have made sex so accessible that everyone is bed-hopping in a nonstop, booze-fuelled bacchanal. The truth lies somewhere in between. School and university students are, in fact, having less vaginal intercourse than they were 25 years ago (the studies quoted in the press, though, don’t ask about oral or anal sex, both of which have become more common), but that’s partly because the context in which they indulge has shifted.
In a relationship, couples tend to have intercourse regularly; students who engage primarily in hook-ups, even those they consider “consistent”, do so only sporadically — an irony, given the dissolute presumptions about hook-up culture.
“Hook-up”, a word adolescents bandy about incessantly, is intentionally vague. In reality, about 35%-40% of student hook-ups include intercourse, which means 60% or more do not. Because of the ambiguity, however, students tend to radically overestimate what their classmates are up to (not to mention allow others to draw inflated conclusions about their own exploits). This can fuel feelings of inadequacy and Fomo, contributing to pressure to keep pace through undesired sex, coerciveness or aggression. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, which encompassed more than 20,000 students across America, close to three-quarters of both male and female students will hook up at least once by the time they are 18. The average number of partners? Seven to eight. Not exactly the fall of Rome. A full quarter never hook up during their time as a student and 40% hook up fewer than three times, though 20% of students do hook up 10 times or more.
Boys in my interviews were less likely than girls to express anger, betrayal, resentment or feelings of being “used” in hook-ups. That’s partly because hook-up culture aligns with the values of conventional masculinity: conquest over connection, sex as status seeking, partners as disposable. The Online College Social Life Survey found that 29%-53% of girls climaxed in their most recent hook-up, as opposed to 56%-81% of boys. In the words of one boy: “It sounds bad, but in a one-time thing, I don’t really care.”
For some male students, treating a sexual partner — especially one who was not suitably hot or selective — with roughness or disinterest and then bragging about it the next day became a form of image management, a pre-emptive strike against potential ridicule, the loss of social currency. So, when boys assured me that their friends and classmates would never sexually assault a girl (it was always those other boys), that felt like a very low bar: having sex that is technically “legal” is hardly the same as sex that is ethical, mutual, reciprocal or kind. “Casual sex can be great,” observed one student. “But you can forget to treat the other person as a human being.”
QotD: “It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment”
It’s no secret that today’s children are guinea pigs in a colossal porn experiment. Whereas (mostly) boys of previous generations might have passed around a filched copy of Playboy, today anyone with a broadband connection can instantly access anything you can imagine — and a whole lot of stuff you don’t want to imagine.
Some boys felt that their porn use had no effect on them, many of them asserting: “I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” That, as it happens, is the instinctive response people give to any suggestion of media influence — none of us wants to think we’re so impressionable, though we’re quick to recognise that others are. But decades of research show that what we consume becomes part of our psyches, unconsciously affecting how we feel, think and behave.
Porn use has been associated with boys’ real-life badgering of girls for nude pictures. Both boys and girls who consume porn at younger ages are more likely to become sexually active sooner than peers, to have more partners, to have higher rates of pregnancy, to view sexual aggression more positively and women more negatively, and to engage in the riskier and more atypical behaviours porn depicts.
Male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed and with their female partners’ bodies. There is even speculation that because of its convenience as well as low physical and emotional investment — porn never rejects you, never makes demands of you, never wants you to talk about your feelings — the rise in porn use is partially responsible for the lower rates of intercourse among millennials. That reduction of pleasure in partnered sex was what concerned most of my interviewees.
One student called Reza believed porn increased his awareness of real women’s physical imperfections. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he explained. “It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, well, actually, I would prefer …” And Kevin, a school pupil, said that after watching “all those skinny white women” (he’s Caucasian), he was having a hard time becoming aroused by his black girlfriend’s body.
Some boys fretted more over their own bodies’ contours than their partners’, especially (and perhaps not surprisingly) their penis size. A few boys were so concerned about size that they avoided sexual situations. “I had a girlfriend at 16,” said Mitchell, “and as we started being more sexual, I became very nervous about being … sufficient. I couldn’t perform during our first real sexual experience because that was so much on my mind. And once you feel like you can’t, you can’t. You’re done.” With time, and maybe a little maturity, he got past it. In retrospect, he said: “Comparing myself to porn was obviously ridiculous. But, you know, it’s also kind of understandable.”
Like every boy I spoke with, Mitchell claimed to know that, of course, porn wasn’t realistic. But that line between fact and fiction was not clear; after all, porn is depicting something, and what other point of reference do young people have? “If you’re a teenage guy and you don’t have much sexual experience, and you’ve been watching porn for the past six or seven years, you can develop almost a … fear, really,” said another university student. “A fear that you would not be able to perform up to those standards, though, of course, no one really can. But maybe the starkest contrast is your perception of the kind of feedback that you’re going to be getting from a girl. Like that they will be moaning and having orgasms all over the place. That’s obviously not the case.”
“I don’t consider the porn I watch to be representative of the person I am,” said Daniel, a lantern-jawed student with hipster glasses. “The whole category of ‘Unwilling’ [women who say no to sex, then change their mind when forced]. It’s very appealing to me, even though I know it’s wrong. And I do truly believe it’s wrong. I would never do it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it.”
In real life, Daniel was consciously trying to curb his use of the thoughtlessly sexist, homophobic language that had been common at secondary school. He also said he considered any form of sexual interaction to have “spiritual significance” and claimed to prize intimacy over “raw sex”.
But that’s not what got him off. Real sex with his school girlfriend wasn’t stimulating enough. “I felt like I was never really satisfied,” he said. “There was always more to try. Like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good, she’s letting me do a lot, but we haven’t done this yet, we haven’t done this, done this, done this.’ ”
As another boy put it: “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship. The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know? That natural organic process has just been f***** by porn.”