The allegations levelled against some of Britain’s top private schools have been deeply troubling. Dulwich College turns boys into sexual abusers, one former pupil has claimed. A ‘dossier of rape culture’ has been compiled by ex students at Westminster School; Latymer Upper School has reported sex abuse allegations to the police. These are just a handful of examples: Everyone’s Invited – an online campaign which invites young people to post anonymous testimonies of sexual assault and harassment – has over 4100 testimonies from girls as young as nine.
For teachers like me who have taught sex education to 14 and 15 year old boys, these allegations are shocking but perhaps not surprising. Sex education has improved enormously since I was at school, when it was pretty much the equivalent of Coach Carr’s warning: ‘Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant… get chlamydia… and die. Now everyone take some rubbers.’ Conversations around issues such as consent are now commonplace. And there is far more focus on the social and emotional implications of sex rather than trying to scare off students with images of childbirth and disease-riddled genitalia.
But why are these awful stories which have emerged not much of a surprise? The answer perhaps comes in the fact that almost every pupil nowadays has a smartphone with unlimited data. Parents too often turn a blind eye to the reality of what this actually means: access to sexual content that they are not mature enough to understand. By the time teachers start discussing the dangers of pornography in Year 10, the damage is already done.
According to recent studies, half of 10 year olds own a smartphone. This is realistically a lot higher in private schools, where wealthy parents can afford to dish out devices with extensive data packages. Correspondingly, 51 per cent of 11 to 13 year olds reported that they had seen pornography at some point. This is likely to be higher given the awkwardness some students will feel around answering honestly.
The majority of 11 to 13 year olds say that the first time they watched pornography was accidental (60 per cent). From my experience, one of the main causes is graphic sexual content being sent around WhatsApp groups. WhatsApp technically has an age restriction of 16+, but this is completely futile, and many children under that age sign up anyway. According to Ofcom a third of 12 to 15 year olds use WhatsApp, but again this is likely to be higher at private schools.
The damaging effects of pornography on young people are well documented. Pornography is linked to sexual aggression, promiscuity, unrealistic sexual beliefs and values, relationship problems, body image issues and depression. There are numerous studies to suggest that pornography leads to sexist attitudes, sexual violence, objectification of women and normalisation of aggressive behaviours such as choking. Analysis of the most popular pornographic videos showed that 88 per cent of scenes contained physical aggression, with the perpetrators being overwhelmingly male.
Yet despite the evidence, many parents remain woefully naive. A recent study found that three quarters of parents thought their child would not have seen pornography. It may not be a pleasant or palatable thought for parents, but such denial is dangerous. I remember a parent of a Year 9 student (who was 14) making a complaint that I was teaching The Catcher In The Rye because of its sexual content, and another complaining about A Gathering Light because it features a teenage pregnancy – as if this was the most graphic content their sons were engaging with. If only.
Parental denial also inevitably means that schools are burdened with more responsibility. Of course comprehensive sex education is important, but as long as parents continue to hand out smartphones without thinking about the possible repercussions then teachers are fighting a losing battle. Schools can try their best, but the minute pupils walk out the school gates it’s a free-for-all because most teenagers have no boundaries over their phone use (the majority sleep with their phone beside their bed, for instance).
As soon as parents give their children a smartphone, they need to start having conversations so that teens and pre-teens are equipped to deal with the technological minefield that the internet has created. Sexting, revenge porn, the sexualisation of targeted music videos and advertising, the horrible illusion of apps like Snapchat which promise impermanence but in reality can be screen-shotted, saved and shared forever: these are all daily battles for students.
Many parents worry that having such discussions ‘too early’ might sexualise their children, or encourage them to seek out pornography, but there is little evidence this actually happens. The sad reality is that smartphones will sexualise your child whether intentionally or not, and quick-fix solutions like content filters on your home wifi aren’t going to cut it.
These allegations about 'rape culture' in some schools are terrifying. And they should be a wake up call for parents; technology is fundamentally changing the way children behave, and although it evolves a rapid pace, we still need to try to keep up.