The right to say wrong

By Tim Loughton MP

A few years ago I remember listening to the most alarming interview on Woman’s Hour (yes men can listen too) on the issue of young people and pornography. A 15 year old girl recounted how her teenage boyfriend bullied her into watching violent pornographic videos then act out what she had been forced to witness. She naturally felt used and abused and I am sure there must have been a collective cry of every listener along with me of ‘why on earth didn’t you tell him to bugger off or report him to someone’ before Jenni Murray did the honours.

The girl’s response was even more depressing. ‘I didn’t think I had the right to say no’ she simpered with an air of confused resignation. That a teenager should feel so powerless in this day and age seems incredible but it is this technological day and age that has made the ‘normalising’ of inappropriate or at least premature sexual activity so mainstream.

If you are not sexting intimate photographs of your body parts by the time you are studying for GCSEs then you are not normal. If you do not have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook who you would not actually recognise in the street but who you will confide in over some of your most personal thoughts then you are not normal. The only compensation is that apparently teenagers are drinking and smoking less as they spend more time online misbehaving with friends according to the Schools and Students Health Education Unit!

Should we be surprised that a substantial number of children are still susceptible to being groomed online by sexual predators despite all the high profile coverage of historic sexual abuse over recent years? Why are children in the care system still so disproportionately vulnerable to being exploited by abusers who inveigle themselves as a ‘shoulder to cry on’ when there has been so much furore over systematic abuse by networks of British Pakistani men in places as diverse as Rotherham and Oxfordshire or once revered celebrities revealed as paedophiles? And of course the comprehensive study by the Children’s Commissioner revealed routine sexual initiation of underage girls lured into the gang culture in many of our inner cities.

Little wonder that an increasing number of school age children are suffering from mental health problems and schools are turning to professional counsellors to rescue their students from what has been dubbed ‘social media anxiety.’ At its worst of course there have been cases of teenage girls self-harming and even taking their own lives faced with the humiliating prospect of an indiscrete sext from an ‘insatiated’ or shunned boyfriend.

So where are the parents, the foster parents or the schools in all this? It is an irony of the modern age that at a time when it has never been easier to communicate electronically between people, that the art of communication between parents and their children is too often left wanting. When it comes to talking about awkward things like sex then isn’t it easier to leave it to schools and in any case it’s all very confusing about the appropriate age to raise such an issue. After all a public health professor recently advocated parents talking to their children about sex from the age of 3 or they will grow up to think it’s a taboo subject at home. It’s just all so confusing.

The trouble with leaving it to school is that the quality of sex and relationship education remains woefully inadequate and a real postcode lottery. We are quite good at describing the mechanics of sex, but not very good at engaging young people at what makes for an appropriate and loving relationship and when it is the right time to say yes and not assume it as the default position when under pressure.

Too often it is left to Mrs Miggins the Geography teacher who has a free period on Thursday afternoons to take care of SRE this term regardless of the act that she has no experience or training in SRE and tomorrow will be teaching the same pupils about the rather less sensitive subjects of volcanoes and glaciers. With all the modern day pressures of child sexual exploitation, free and anonymous access to hard-core pornography and peer pressure to lay everything bare on social media, this simply isn’t good enough anymore.

Parents must man up and woman-up and talk frankly to their kids about what is harmful and what they should beware and report. The ‘Talk Pants’ campaign by the NSPCC gives a simple step by step guide of some rules children can follow and why they should seek help. Parents also need to be plugged in to what their children are being taught in schools and some evening teach-ins for them would not go a miss either. Schools need to get smarter about bringing in experts from outside organisations who can engage with young people who in turn can empathise with them and take notice. A couple of years ago I chaired a Commission on the value of professional youth workers in schools and surely many of those put out of a job by short-sighted local authorities could be redeployed here.

Above all we have a collective responsibility, which starts at home, to make sure that no child is forced into an unwelcome or abusive sexual relationship simply because they lacked the confidence or the knowledge that they had the right to say no.