The RSE curriculum must address particular harms to girls

Magazines popular among teenage girls, such as Cosmopolitan and Teen Vogue, normalise practices such as anal sex, the idea of prostitution as ‘real work’, kink, BDSM and the harmful practice of breast binding. The easy accessibility of porn has turned extreme and abusive sexual practices into everyday viewing. The influence of pornography on boys and the coercion of girls to perform sex acts which are degrading, humiliating, or cause them pain and injury needs to be urgently addressed. 

A survey funded by the European Commission in 2015 found that more than four in 10 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 in England say they have been coerced into sex acts.

The survey found that: 

teenage girls in England reported the highest rates of sexual coercion, with about one in five (22%) saying they had suffered physical violence or intimidation from boyfriends, including slapping, punching, strangling and being beaten with an object. 

The research also found that: 

Almost four in 10 (39%) English boys aged 14-17 said they regularly watched pornography, and 18% strongly agreed with statements such as “It is sometimes acceptable for a man to hit a woman if she has been unfaithful”

A 2014 survey of 487 men (aged 18 – 29) found that:

the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image.

Doctors are reporting increased referrals of girls with catastrophic internal injuries resulting from anal sex. A Sexual Health research study published in the BMJ, of 16 – 18 year-olds, concluded: 

Young people’s narratives normalised coercive, painful and unsafe anal heterosex.

As anal sex has become normalised through pornography, young girls are pressured into pretending to enjoy it. Novelist Lisa Taddeo, in research for her new book, interviewed young women on the subject: 

Greta was one of the young women I interviewed. At 16, she felt that if she didn’t agree to it, she would lose the guy she’d been seeing. “It’s not even that I have to be OK with it,” she said. “It’s that I have to really want it. Because it’s cool to be a girl who loves it.”

A review of research on the impact of internet pornography found that consumption was linked to attitudinal changes, with women viewed as “sexual playthings eager to fulfil male sexual desires.” The authors found that:

adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed.

One in three teenage girls has experienced some form of sexual violence from a partner. A recent research study showed that 13 percent of sexually active girls ages 14 to 17 have been choked during sex. Choking, or strangulation, has been recast as ‘breath play’ and the ‘rough sex’ defence is increasingly used by men who kill their partners. 

Young people today are growing up in a culture where the most extreme porn may be viewed on smart phones in the school playground and the advent of ‘sexting’ has become an additional risk, particularly for girls. The 2015 survey cited above found: 

Among the 1,001 children surveyed in England, 44% of girls and 32% of boys had sent a sexual image or text to their boyfriend or girlfriend – the highest rate among the five countries. Just over 40% of girls who sent sexual images or texts said they had been shared by their boyfriend with other people. Just under half of girls and boys in England had received such messages, and 27% said they had sent them because they felt pressured by a partner to do so.

In 2017 the charity Barnados found that allegations of children committing sexual offences against other children had risen 78% in England and Wales over a period of four years. More than one in three girls at secondary school in the UK have experienced sexual harassment at school, according to a report in 2017 from UK Feminista and the NEU, ‘It’s Just Everywhere.’ 

24% of girls have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature. 66% of female sixth form pupils have experienced or witnessed sexist, misogynist language in school. A teacher said: 

“In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like. Girls have cried in class several times due to abuse of intimate photos.” 

A survey of over 1,000 girls aged 14-21 for the Plan International State of Girls’ Rights in the UK 2020 report found that girls “experience a shockingly high rate of sexual harassment from their school peers.” Further findings of this report include the following: 

Girls’ bodies are constantly scrutinized and stigmatised: Cultural pressure to look a certain way remains a key source of anxiety in girls’ lives. At the same time, a culture of stigma and silence around periods has turned menstruation into a hidden public health issue, putting girls’ physical, sexual and mental health at risk.

From the images they see in the media to harmful comments at school, girls are feeling pressured to conform to unrealistic beauty and body standards. This is exacerbated by the exponential number of images girls are exposed to today – both online and offline. 

Girls do not feel safe in public: The majority of girls living in both urban and rural areas reported being severely affected by continual street harassment. Girls said they don’t feel safe moving through the places they live on their own, and constantly have to adapt their behaviours to avoid being physically and verbally harassed.

In 2021 reports in the press revealed the ‘rape culture’ prevalent in the UK’s top private schools. One girl testified that rape had become ‘normalised’ at her school, where a dossier had been compiled of 170 testimonies of sexual abuse and harassment. A senior police officer said that he expected to receive similar reports from state schools and that this will be “the next big national child sexual abuse scandal.” He described a “culture of misogyny and sexual harassment” that had not been challenged in some schools. The Times published a report by Lucy Bannerman on the impact on girls in schools where they were treated by the boys “as “points”, rather than people.” The website Everyone’s Invited quickly gathered over 14,000 anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment in schools.

RSE teaching must be informed by feminist analysis if we are to reverse these trends and provide both girls and boys an alternative to the sex education they are receiving through online pornography and popular culture. RSE resources from outside agencies should be critically appraised on this basis. Some RSE material reinforces the message of pornography through catering to a dominant male sexuality, increasing the pressures and masking the risks for girls. ‘Inclusive’ resources often use ‘gender neutral’ language, removing the possibility of any sex-based critique, and dehumanise girls with terms such as ‘menstruators.’ The goal of inclusive relationships and sex education should not inadvertently result in the exclusion of girls and female sexuality. 

Education of boys is critical in addressing harmful attitudes towards women fuelled by porn. Girls need to be equipped to understand their right to their own boundaries and both sexes should be taught to recognise techniques of emotional manipulation and coercive control.

Plan International have made this plea to the government: 

In order to commit to tackling gender inequality in schools, Plan International UK is asking the government to better equip and inform teachers and modernise their resources to meet the specific needs of girls.

The specific needs of girls cannot be identified if the word ‘girl’ can no longer be defined. Some ‘inclusive’ RSE resources erase the female sex in language so that the specific needs and rights of girls are hidden and therefore cannot be taught and girls’ human rights cannot be upheld. Girls experience these harms because of their sex, not because of how they ‘identify.’ To reduce a girl to an identity that may be held by either sex and to say that this identity is more real than the fact of biological sex obscures the reality of the specific issues girls face as the female sex.

Stephanie Davies-Arai will be speaking at our webinar on Sat, 19 March 2022, from 10:30 – 13:00 GMT. Book your tickets here.