It is not often that a teaching resource gets journalists hot under the collar. In fact the last time this happened was when the Sex Education Forum (SEF) dared to advise teachers what to do if a child asked them about pornography.
Well the SEF has done it again, this time suggesting that there are appropriate ways to start talking to younger children about consent. Several newspapers seized on the suggestion that children who refuse to kiss a relative are exercising their right to have their physical boundaries respected and before we knew it the media was swamped with indignant journalists accusing the SEF of losing the plot.
Amid the furore several pertinent facts have been overlooked. For a start, consent is a very real issue in the lives of children and young adults. The children’s commissioner’s 2013 report Sex Without Consent – I Suppose That Is Rape highlighted that young people may understand consent in theoretical terms but struggle in real-life situations.
While the majority of young people develop an understanding of the legal age of consent, far fewer know where to turn to for help should things go wrong. An SEF survey found that one in three didn’t know or were unsure where to get help if they were sexually assaulted. There was even less confidence about where to find a local sexual health clinic, and a significant number were unaware they could get medical treatment, including an HIV test and contraception, without their parents knowing.
The survey also found that three in 10 young people said they were not taught about consent at school. This lack of understanding and a difficulty with the vocabulary of consent has serious implications.
The 2013 NATSAL survey, published in the Lancet, found that a significant number of young people experience sexual assault: one in five women and one in 20 men in Britain have experienced attempted sex against their will. Most of these cases will have been committed by someone known to the victim. To remedy this requires what many in the press find unpalatable: talking to and challenging children and adults about their attitudes to relationships, gender, power and sex.
So how do you start children thinking about consent? An obvious shared point of reference, especially for children too young to be discussing sexual consent with, is the example of having to kiss a friend, relative or even a stranger when they don’t want to, and to emphasise that they have a right to have their physical boundaries respected.
Surely, it is not too much to ask that we create a culture of respect and consent for everyday physical contact? If we can’t, it will be a tall order for sexual situations.
And this was the point of departure for those journalists not wanting to engage with the real issues but to condemn the SEF for banning grandparents from cuddling and kissing their grandchildren (which was never suggested). In fact, because children learn by copying adults they are enthusiastic about kissing family members and those close to them. However, a responsive adult will notice occasions when a child is uneasy and this is an opportunity to let the child’s instincts be acknowledged.
We hope that teachers will agree that better sex and relationships education (SRE), which includes learning about consent, is part of the solution alongside input from the family. The new resource on teaching about consent will help schools lead the way by introducing the concept of consent as part of a planned programme of SRE. We need to help children understand that their body is their own, and if they don’t wish to have intimate physical contact with someone then their choice should be respected.
• Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. The new resource, The Consent Issue, is available at www.sexeducationforum.org.uk