Educating our sons
In the last few years the abuse of women and girls has been prominent in the news and on social media. From the ‘Me Too’ movement which started in 2016 but gained momentum with the Harvey Weinstein affair, to the highlighted significant increase in domestic violence in the current lockdown, to the Sarah Everard protests where at least one placard read ‘Educate your sons’. Well, it seems our sons have been getting the wrong kind of education.
Soma Sara is a 22-year-old young woman and founder of the Everyone’s Invited website set up in 2020 and where she shared her personal experience of what she describes as ‘rape culture’. In a few days there were over 10,000 posts, testimonies of abuse, harassment and assaults in schools and universities from pupils and ex-pupils. The majority of reports were from girls and young women but a few from boys and young men.
‘Rape culture’ is the normalising and trivialising of sexual violence, from inappropriate sexual language, misogyny and non-consensual touching through to assault and rape. Many of the posts were initially from posh private schools and mainly in London but reports quickly showed the problem to be country wide and equally prevalent in state schools. Heads have been accused of covering up the problem regarded by some as an ‘open secret’, and even some teachers have been accused of sexual harassment.
Most incidents of a more serious nature occur outside of school, at friends’ houses or at parties, and the stories make disturbing reading. Date rape is not an uncommon experience especially in universities. The vast majority of assaults are not reported for various reasons, embarrassment, not wanting to cause trouble, not being believed or simply accepting that these things happen. Inappropriate sexual behaviour towards others has even been observed and reported in primary schools.
How did we get here? Sex sells. It is a cynical and manipulative exploitation of a basic human need. Pre-teens are targeted and sexualised by cosmetic and clothing companies and dumbed down and mirror imaged on social media. The porn industry is a multi-billion-dollar concern and its most violent and degrading content is readily available to young boys on their smart phones. Gone are the seemingly innocuous images of the 1940s pin-up girls and gone are the porn mags on the top shelf of the local newsagents, embarrassingly purchased and packaged in concealing brown paper. Most likely young boys wouldn’t have been able to afford too many and would probably find it harder, with an eagle-eyed parent about, to keep it secret.
Parents who have or have had teenagers know that they are online almost constantly. A 2018 Ofcom report revealed that more than 450,000 children aged 12 to 15 spend between 6 and 8 hours a day online at weekends. A survey commissioned by BBC3 of over 1000 young people aged between 16 and 21 showed that one in four had seen online pornography by the age of 12. Gender differences were clear with one in five of the young women questioned saying they had never seen internet pornography, but only 4 percent of young men saying the same. A common response given in the survey was that young men expect young women to behave like porn stars and that porn also gave young men unrealistic ideas of women’s bodies. Often a young person sees online sexual images by accident or through natural curiosity looks it up for the first time, however, thanks to internet algorithms it’s not long before sexual content will just pop up without initiation and gradually get more explicit and violent as it goes on.
The online world is giving boys some very clear but misleading messages about women, sexual violence, feminism and sexism. Anti-feminist jokes, memes and videos on social media can be extremely unpleasant, and peer pressure from messages from online forums perpetuate dangerous assumptions, such as that women are lying about sexual assaults. The boundary between online and offline becomes increasingly blurred.
How are young men supposed to develop healthy, loving and consensual sexual relationships when women are objectified and abused? Trying to choke a girl while having sex, as described by one young woman on the Everyone’s Invited site, is shockingly not the way to do it. How far removed is a desensitised attitude to abusing women from the explosion in global domestic violence? Pornography on smart phones has been cited as a contributory cause of rape in countries like India, named the rape capital of the world though cultural attitudes towards women and girls are doubtless also responsible. Despite national poverty most young men there have or have access to smart phones where they can share often violent images.
Sex and relationship education is still not compulsory in all schools and plans to introduce it will give faith schools an opt-out. Hopefully it is not – or will not be – restricted to the mechanics of sex and contraception, but will include education on sexual attitudes to the ‘other’ and mutual consent. It would seem something is going horribly wrong. A report into the issue of sexual harassment and violence in schools, and overseen by Conservative MP Maria Miller was published in 2016 by the Women and Equalities Commission, but it appears nothing has been done since. Instead we are continuing to see peer abuse in schools with the authorities either ignoring the problem or trying to cover it up.
These issues reflect a systemic power structure whose hegemony filters down and becomes part of our culture almost as if we invented it ourselves. We live in a violent world and a society where everything is for use or sale including men and women. Instead of co-operation and empathy we have competition and exploitation and women and girls seem to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Gender stereotyping and sexist attitudes can start young, boys being seen as stronger and more technical, girls being the weaker and more caring sex. We’ve all heard the jokes about the mother-in-law and women drivers, and women’s aptitude for housework. It seems harmless but it’s a drip-by-drip reflection of the power men often have over women in capitalist society.
Until all power structures are dismantled both social and economic, until we live in a world as equals, where buying and selling is obsolete and respect for the ‘other’ is universal, these problems will not go away. Men and women have to work together but as long as there is distrust and disrespect between the sexes, as long as there is sexism and fear of the ‘other’, women may not always feel totally included in the struggle for socialism and as women make up over 50 percent of the working class that could mean no socialism for anybody.