My six-year-old was getting dressed for school recently when she asked to put on cycling shorts under her uniform. I wanted to know why she needed them.
“All the girls wear them now, mummy. It’s because the boys laugh at us when we’re doing cartwheels and handstands at playtime.” It was the first time she had mentioned this but we found the shorts and she said she felt ‘more comfortable’ for wearing them.
It felt like something of a strange coincidence, therefore, to discover that this was the same day as MPs published a report on sexual harassment and violence in schools.
The study, from the Women and Equalities Commons Select Committee, found that groping, catcalling and bullying are a part of daily life for young women, and further, that they were often told by teachers that they should dismiss this as banter or a compliment.
Being teased by the opposite sex, and managing your responses, has always been a natural part of adolescence as has learning to negotiate those early adult emotions and relationships. But as MPs heard in their evidence-gathering, even primary-aged children are now being exposed to hardcore pornography which is warping their view of what sex and relationships should look like.
Calls for appropriate PSHE and sex education in schools, and discussion on issues such as consent and the effects of pornography, are growing by the day. Figures published by the Department for Education last month, for example, reveal a 32% drop in teaching time given to PSHE in English secondary schools between 2011 and 2015. This should be warning enough to the government that a re-think is needed on making PSHE statutory.
Earlier this month, three mothers – Lorin LaFave, the founder of the Breck Foundation; Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, the founder of the DSM Foundation; and Sacha Langton-Gilks, the lead campaigner for the Headsmart campaign – who all lost teenage sons in tragic circumstances took the campaign for statutory PSHE to Downing Street.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, has written to the British government to consider making PSHE statutory to meet its children’s rights obligations.
And Shappi Korsandi, the comedian and president of the British Humanist Association, and mother of two, said in a recent interview: “The emotions around sex need to be talked about in a safe place and I can’t think of a safer place than school. We need to let our guard down and be less prudish. You’re not ruining a childhood by talking about sex and relationships.”
It must be less prudish, and more honest. My own sex education, in a Catholic high school in the late 1970s, comprised looking at slides of aborted foetuses. The idea, presumably, was to terrify us into not having sex. The nun who taught us RE said French kissing made girls pregnant. It was laughable to hear such nonsense, even at the age of 13, and I expect my own child’s education to be handled in a more mature and enlightened way.
As I waved my daughter goodbye at the school gate, I hoped that her experiences and those of her friends might genuinely be little more than gentle teasing of little girls by little boys.
But if primary-aged girls are already feeling uncomfortable by the attention of boys and the need to protect themselves with extra layers of clothing, then perhaps we need to acknowledge that sexual harassment can start early.