Over the past few weeks there have been various reports on the BBC website indicating that sexual harassment has become ‘normalised’ among school-age children.
In a press release from June, it was reported that Ofsted’s inspectors had visited 32 state and private schools and colleges over an eight-week period. They spoke to more than 900 children and young people about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives and the lives of their peers.
The pupils informed Ofsted that such harassment is routine. Girls suffer disproportionately, complaining of sexist name-calling, online abuse, ‘upskirting’ (the taking of pictures beneath their clothing), unwanted touching in school corridors, and rape jokes on the school bus.
Boys share nude pictures on messaging platforms (such as WhatsApp and Snapchat) ‘like a collection game’, inspectors were told.
Some of the children interviewed also drew attention to the fact that sexual violence occurred in unsupervised spaces outside of school at parties and in parks.
Pupils in a number of schools reported that harmful sexual behaviour happens at house parties when adults are not present and that alcohol and drugs are often involved.
The report pointed out that many incidents never get reported. Those who have been harassed tend to accept it as part of their normal daily experience. They felt adults, including teachers, did not realise how extensive the harassment has become both inside and outside school.
In fact, it appeared that teachers and leaders failed to understand the problem and take the issue seriously. Furthermore, the children affected were hesitant to talk to adults about their experience. They were concerned about losing their reputation or being socially ostracised. They were anxious about what might happen if they reported an incident and the police became involved. The report also warned that some of the harassment was filtering down into primary schools.
Reactions by those in authority
Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said, ‘This review shocked me. It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.’
She identified it as a cultural issue where attitudes and behaviours become accepted and normalised. Furthermore, she recognised that schools and colleges could not solve the problems themselves – the issue was much bigger.
The Guardian’s education correspondent Sally Weale quoted the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson: ‘Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable. No young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.’
In the same article, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, was quoted as saying, ‘Sexual harassment and violence is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates. There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work, but they can’t solve it alone. We need government and other agencies to play their part too.’
Understanding the situation
Such reports of these various forms of sexual harassment in our schools make for chilling reading. Those in authority speak of being shocked and alarmed. They are calling for action. The problem must be ‘tackled not tolerated’. They regard this behaviour as unacceptable and wrong. Yet we have been told repeatedly over the years that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, rather it is a matter of individual freedom and personal choice.
Therefore, in one sense, we are not shocked. In the past fifty years we have seen a liberalising of our laws in the name of personal freedom. Divorce has been made much easier, marriage and family life have undergone huge changes. Sexual behaviour and attitudes bear precious little resemblance to what was regarded as normal and acceptable two or three generations ago.
Why should we be so shocked to see these changes filter down to our children’s and grandchildren’s generations? The chickens have come home to roost.
As I began writing this article, I read another post on the BBC website. It reported the ‘incredible’ number of adults in the UK watching pornography. Ofcom’s snapshot survey suggested that 50% of adults are watching pornography, the majority of viewers being men.
This pattern is increasingly regarded as normal and acceptable. Some who seemed to have no real objections to this trend suggested that more and more people were getting into this stuff because it helped them to be more comfortable with their sexuality.
If that is the attitude of half the adult population, what hope is there that their children will be any different? This pattern has been emerging over several decades.
Many years ago, Hosea used powerful imagery to describe the prevalence of sin in his day in the nation of Israel. ‘They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind’ (Hosea 8:7).
Every change that has liberalised our laws has consequences. It may take a generation or so, but the results are devastating if the pattern remains unchanged.
Isn’t this what we are now seeing in our nation? Earlier in the same prophecy, Hosea brings God’s assessment of the nation: ‘There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint’ (Hosea 4:1-2).
What we are seeing in our nation’s secondary schools is sinful attitudes and behaviour that threaten the wellbeing of those on the receiving end of harassment as well as the perpetrators.
There is a fearful absence of the fear of God in our land. Restraining the consequences of that absence will prove a very difficult task for anyone undertaking to change it. For our young people to regard sexual harassment as unavoidable and normal is a fearful state of affairs.
Those in authority want schools and colleges to be safe places. They are calling on schools, government, and other agencies to take action to solve these problems and create a safe educational environment for our children.
I hope they do take action, but I am not at all sure how they hope to change the culture that is expressed in these sinful patterns of behaviour. Until the heart is changed by the regenerating power of God, such attitudes and behaviour are going to persist.
We must, of course, pray for our nation and pray for this generation of children in particular. We must continue to pray that God will restrain the evil and wickedness we see all around us. One of the roles of government is to deal with those who practice evil (Roman 13:4).
The actions of schools, government, and other agencies is important, but fundamental to resolving the issue are the parents of this generation of children.
If some of those parents are themselves indulging in pornography and are indulging in forms of sexual harassment and abuse, it is very unlikely that they will restrain their children.
With so many broken relationships, there is no clear good example for our children to follow. Too many children are growing up in dysfunctional families where communication between parents and children has broken down.
Furthermore, if there is repeated unfaithfulness on the part of one or both of the parents, ongoing tensions and conflicts, unchecked child neglect and abuse, it will have a destructive effect on all concerned. Those who grow up in such an environment come to regard it as normal.
The vital role of parents
It is impossible in a brief article like this to speak to all the issues that have been raised. I can only highlight one or two things.
Christian parents reading these things need to take seriously what is happening. Some will already have taken their children out of the state system, providing home schooling or sending their children to Christian schools.
However, the question of sexual harassment still exists. Our children will meet it in the work place and in further education. Sadly, in some cases they may be confronted with it in the church they attend.
What should we do? How can we protect and equip our children to face these situations?
It was heartening to read the comments of Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. In a wide-ranging BBC interview, she spoke about conversations she has with her two teenage children about consent and inappropriate sexual behaviour. She added, ‘I think it’s about having honest, open conversations as a family, but also hopefully in school settings as well.’
Forewarned and forearmed
The Christian home must always be a place where there is freedom to talk openly and honestly. Two-way communication between parents and children is vital.
Would your children feel free to come home and talk to you? Would they feel too embarrassed, or, worse still, think you would not believe they were telling the truth? There needs to be a climate of love, trust, and confidence.
Suppose your distressed daughter arrives home from school one day and tells you she has been ‘touched up’ by a group of boys at school and that one of them has sent her nude pictures via social media.
Hopefully the possibility of this kind of occurrence has already been discussed in the family circle. If that is not the case, then the situation may be more difficult to deal with.
Whatever the case, parents will need to take the situation seriously and listen carefully. Wisdom will be required before deciding what action to take to ensure such behaviour is not repeated.
Parents need to be aware of what is happening in order to take steps to protect their children from unwanted sexual advances.
Ideally, these dangers need to be addressed and discussed before they become an issue. It is unrealistic for parents to think their children will never face such advances. Our children need to understand themselves as they and their peers become sexually aware.
Parents need to protect children from themselves and their own sins as well as the sins of others. Fathers and mothers need to be honest with their children as they grow up. Fathers need to talk to their sons about their sexuality and the need for self-control, for example. Mothers need to openly talk to their daughters.
Our children need to know how to handle unwanted advances and what verbal and other responses they might use. The book of Proverbs is full of wise counsel to help us know what to do and say.
Pastors and those working with children in the church can provide a vital supporting role to equip and protect our children. Every church should have in place a child protection policy. It may be possible to involve parents in dealing with these issues among the young people.
Pastors aware of these issues can deal with some of them in an appropriate manner in sermons. Not least, they should be pressing home to parents the importance of their role in teaching, protecting, and equipping their own children to face these issues and providing practical help and counsel where it is needed.
The matter of sexual harassment in our society, and particularly in our schools, is not going to be solved in the next few weeks and months. This article does not pretend to deal with all the issues or provide all the answers. Its aims are limited. It is written primarily to highlight what is happening and to alert parents to the present dangers to which our children are exposed.