‘Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape...’

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A report into young people’s understanding of consent and rape has uncovered some disturbing findings. It is one of three reports into sexual exploitation of young people, all of which have clear recommendations for schools. Pete Henshaw reports.

“If you’re doing that to someone random, it’s rape. But if you’re doing that with your girlfriend that’s not rape.” (16-year-old female)

“She obviously got raped in the toilet. Obviously getting drunk. I think that’s her own fault.” (19-year-old male)

“If you respected the girl’s decision and just said ‘yeah, I’m not going to do anything’, then they would not give you (any) lad points.” (14-year-old male)

 

Disturbing new research has revealed a significant lack of understanding among young people about rape and sexual consent.

The report – “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape” – has been published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England and contains a wealth of testimony from young people, including the comments above.

The foreword to the report states: “The impression given was that there was little sense among either the victims or the perpetrators that ‘no’ was an option and we wondered whether many young people even understood the concept of consent.”

The issue came to light as part of a wider investigation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner into child sexual exploitation (CSE) by gangs and groups and two further reports have been published presenting shocking evidence of the extent to which young people are being exploited and forced or coerced into sex.

All three reports come after a two-year investigation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and they make a wide-ranging series of recommendations, many of which involve schools and the education system.

Understanding of consent

A key finding of the report into attitudes on consent is of a clear and frequent blurring of the lines of what constitutes rape, with many victims often being blamed by young people for their own assault.

It says that while young people may understand what is meant by “giving consent to sex”, many have a “very limited sense of what getting consent might involve”. It says that 13 and 14-year-olds are less likely to recognise non-consensual sex than older age groups.

The study involved an online survey of young people aged 13 to 18 in England as well as in-depth research involving young people aged 14 to 20 from the South West, the North West and London.

The report is damning about sex and relationships education (SRE), concluding that young people “receive little useful help or guidance from either SRE or parents in how to negotiate sex and want safe spaces to have these conversations”. It adds: “With no consistent and required content for SRE in England, young people’s access to accurate information and spaces to explore the complexities of their lives and decision-making are limited.”

The report points out that the only mandatory aspects to sex education in schools are the “biological and technical”. However, it adds: “Two decades of research shows that this ‘plumbing and prevention’ approach is not what young people want or need.

Deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz said: “The extent of muddled thinking about what constitutes both consent and rape is deeply worrying. 

“The young people who participated in this research as well as so many others with whom we spoke throughout the two years of this inquiry, were crying out for meaningful, honest information about sex and relationships and opportunities in which to safely explore these crucial issues.”

Pornography

The report is also concerned about the extent to which young men educate themselves about sex using pornography and how it influences their perceptions of female peers.

The report states: “Pornography plays a significant role in young people’s lives, referred to by almost all young men who took part in the focus groups and interviews as a source of guidance about sex.”

One male year 11 student from London told researchers: “You get to see the way it’s done and the way people do it. You have a kind of idea of how you might be able to do it.”

“Sexting” is also a common feature of the young people’s testimonies. There is evidence of young men “pestering” young women to send sexual photographs, with those who do then perceived to be “inviting” any subsequent sexual harassment or coercion.

One male year 10 student from London said: “(If) she’s taking pictures of herself and then sending them to people, she has to expect the worst really.”

The report reveals as well the phenomenon of “man points” or “lad points” – the idea that young men award points within their peer groups for doing certain things, many of which involve sex and sexual activity.

The report says the trend has “crucial implications” because young men might fear losing status and authority if they respect a girl’s decision to say no.

SRE

The report outlines clear recommendations for schools and calls for “local action” to ensure opportunities for young people to explore the “meaning of consent in the context of SRE”. It says five aspects are core to all discussions:

  • That getting is as important as giving.

  • Applying ideas about consent to real-life situations.

  • The gendered double standard (rewarding young men for having sex but passing negative judgement on young women).

  • Positive/active communication that goes beyond expecting partners to “say no”.

  • Challenging victim blame.

Also, targeted sessions with younger teenagers should discuss the “boundaries between consent and coercion”, while SRE must address pornography and its influence on expectations of sex and attitudes to women and girls.

It adds that guidance on sexting should address “not only the behaviours of those who manipulate young women into sending images, but also those that share such images without consent”.

Sexual exploitation

Despite increased awareness regarding CSE, a second report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner – If only someone had listened – says that young people are still “slipping through the net”.

It looks at exploitation by gangs and groups and outlines “urgent steps” which it says must be taken, with the findings again including recommendations for schools.

It reveals that a total of 2,409 children aged under-18 were known to be victims of CSE by gangs and groups between August 2010 and October 2011. Another 16,500 were identified as being at-risk between April 2010 and March 2011.

It said that victims are too often “ignored or discounted” and that professionals are “failing to recognise victims”. It emphasises that an environment of confidence and trust is vital, in schools, homes and socially, if victims are to come forward.

The report adds: “It is important to create the conditions at school, at home and in wider society in which everyone is alert to the signs that a child or young person may be at risk or is a victim of CSE and that there is a climate of belief and respect for them that gives them the confidence to tell a trusted person about their experience.”

The report also references SRE, saying that this “must” be delivered by “trained practitioners in every educational setting for all children and young people”.

It adds: “This must be part of a holistic/whole-school approach to child protection that includes internet safety and all forms of bullying and harassment and the getting and giving of consent.”

The report includes best practice case studies as well as See Me, Hear Me, a framework to help guide and support professionals.

It comes alongside a third report – It’s wrong, but you get used to it – which looks specifically at sexual violence in gang-affected communities and has equally disturbing conclusions. 

It finds that for some young victims, “sexual violence – rape – is seen as a simple fact of everyday life, an inevitability from which there is no route out”.

Again it calls on schools to play a role in tackling the issue, not least by using whole-school approaches to address “all forms of sexual violence and exploitation, including sexualised bullying and coercive behaviour”.

Further information

The reports are available at www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk


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