Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Inquiry into sexual violence in schools: my observations, and Pope Francis on the content of school sex education

The Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament recently announced an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools. At the time of the launch of the inquiry, much of the talk in the media coverage was about the need for enhanced sex education to address the issues raised, along with a renewal of the calls to make sex education a statutory requirement in the curriculum of all schools.

1. It is difficult, from the media coverage, to understand exactly the extent of the problem of sexual harassment and assault in schools, particularly incidents that are perpetrated by pupils on other pupils. Police data reported by the BBC after a Freedom of Information Request gave a headline figure of 4 000 alleged assaults and over 600 rape allegations in schools over a three year period, but suggested that only about one fifth of these incidents alleged an offence committed by a pupil. Maria Miller, the Women and Equalities minister was quoted by the BBC as saying that:
.... the evidence [the Women and  Equalities Committee] had heard exposed a "really concerning problem" of "widespread sexual harassment on a regular basis", particularly among young women.
The evidence compiled by the organisation Fixers, at the request of the Committee, in order to support the call for evidence by the Committee, indicated:
Some 18% [of young people in schools] reported being sexually harassed once or more than once and 34% did not feel safe walking to and from school. Some 12% stated they had been sexually assaulted.
Whilst recognising that sexual harassment experienced by young people represents a real issue to which schools should make an appropriate response, I am nevertheless put in mind of the way in which statistics with regard to bullying of LGBT pupils have been cited as justification for programmes that, in effect, give a preferential profile to that form of bullying in schools policy making when other triggers might well be behind many more instances of bullying in schools.  There will clearly be those who will use the data, with a political intent, to deliberately promote the notion of a particular type of statutory sex education curriculum in schools.

2. This report of comments by the General Secretary of the NAHT seems to me to have some potentially sinister implications:
Mr Hobby said: "We don't need you need to make PSHE statutory to make teachers do it, but to protect teachers when they do it, because otherwise they are vulnerable to accusations that they are pursuing a personal agenda.
"We've seen really difficult situations where parents who disagree with the philosophies that are being promoted are saying, 'You're doing this, you're brainwashing our children.'
"It's really helpful for professionals on the ground to be able to say, 'No, this is a duty, it's government regulation, and I am doing this as every school in the country is.'
"By not making statutory, the government is making teachers absorb the controversy when it really should be the government that's strong enough to absorb that."
Should the PSHE curriculum be used to promote "philosophies" that are not those that accord with the parents' wishes? And should the making of PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum be used to defend teachers in promoting such "philosophies"?  

3. It is interesting to read the Fixers report in full, so that you can make of it what it actually is rather than selectively using it to promote a particular notion of sex education. What is interesting to try and judge is whether, anywhere in the report, there is any consistent thread that there are sexual behaviours that can be considered morally wrong. I spotted a couple of points at which a hint of this occurred - but it seems to be something completely outside of the experience of the young people whose views were sought. A second interesting point is that a picture is portrayed in which the focus of concern is not "safe sex" and the like, but the personal and emotional consequences of the young people's sexual culture. It is almost as if the debate has moved on a step. I would also observe that the adoption of the language of "relationship", of "pleasure" from sex, of "consent" as if consent is the only moral determinant in the articulation of proposed actions by the young people already betrays an implicit acceptance of presuppositions that sit behind some of the problems identified by them.

4. In this context, Pope Francis' words on sex education in his recent Exhortation Amoris Laetitia are strikingly prescient (nn.280-286). I quote some parts of this section of the Exhortation below, but do read the whole section. Firstly, the paragraph in which Pope Francis discusses modesty - surely the principle that provides a response to the problem of the sharing of sexualised images highlighted by young people in the Fixers report and more generally:
A sexual education that fosters a healthy sense of modesty has immense value, however much some people nowadays consider modesty a relic of a bygone era. Modesty is a natural means whereby we defend our personal privacy and prevent ourselves from being turned into objects to be used. Without a sense of modesty, affection and sexuality can be reduced to an obsession with genitality and unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity for love, and with forms of sexual violence that lead to inhuman treatment or cause hurt to others.
Comparing to the Italian translation, which reflects the French in this paragraph, and conveys slightly different nuances, including a stronger sense of objectivity in the way in which modesty protects the interiority of the person:
.....È una difesa naturale della persona che protegge la propria interiorità ed evita di trasformarsi in un puro oggetto. Senza il pudore, possiamo ridurre l’affetto e la sessualità a ossessioni che ci concentrano solo sulla genitalità, su morbosità che deformano la nostra capacità di amare e su diverse forme di violenza sessuale che ci portano ad essere trattati in modo inumano o a danneggiare gli altri.  [... It is a natural defence of the person that protects ones personal interior being and avoids ones becoming a pure object. Without modesty, we can reduce affection and sexuality to obsessions that concentrate only on genitality, on unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity to love and on different forms of sexual violence that lead us to be treated in an inhuman way or to harm others].
And a second quotation:
Frequently, sex education deals primarily with "protection" through the practice of "safe sex". Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance. It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to marriage. They end up being blithely encouraged to use other persons as an means of fulfilling their needs or limitations. The important thing is to teach them sensitivity to different expressions of love, mutual concern and care, loving respect and deeply meaningful communication. All of these prepare them for an integral and generous gift of self that will be expressed, following a public commitment, in the gift of their bodies. Sexual union in marriage will thus appear as a sign of an all-inclusive commitment, enriched by everything that has preceded it.
And a third:
....Beyond the understandable difficulties which individuals may experience, the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation… An appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment”. Only by losing the fear of being different, can we be freed of self-centredness and self-absorption. Sex education should help young people to accept their own bodies and to avoid the pretension “to cancel out sexual difference because one no longer knows how to deal with it".
 Again the French and Italian convey a nuance at a key point that the English does not quite capture:...."pouvoir se reconnaître soi-même dans la rencontre avec celui qui est different" ...."poter riconoscere se stessi nell’incontro con l’altro diverso da sé" ...... to be able to know oneself in the encounter with the one/the other who is different than ourself. The difference being referred to is clearly that between the male sex and the female sex.

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