It’s that time of the year again, especially in the northern hemisphere, where the new school year commences, in the south it’s the start of semester 2, and conversations turn to the new academic year, education and safeguarding. This is not a prevention or a bystander intervention blog one, rather a policy and public engagement one.
Over the last couple of weeks there has been an increase in policy and bystander intervention blogs coming across my newsfeed from the UK (university inquiry, sexual harm in schools, sexting) and USA (community colleges and sexual assualt) regarding the rate of campus based sexual harm (and I use this term broadly as the stories ranged from primary school to university level) and how to respond to it. These stories highlight a number of core factors, including;
- that the problem is not improving (in the UK there is a feeling that the current university sexual harm prevention approaches are not working),
- that campus culture is too blame (the recent reports in the UK about clubs and societies as well as fraternities and sororities in the USA),
- that wider societal attitudes contribute to these factors (stories about unchanging attitudes to women, the impact of pornography and sexting behaviour across society in general – with increasing UK and USA criminalisation of as well as concerns around children and adolescents ),
- that the government needs to step it to resolve the issues (the development of a new inquiry in the UK); and
- that individual factors are at the centre of our health and criminal justice responses (a continued focus on the role of the victim in preventing sexual harm and the role of society in condemning it).
The presiding outcome to all of this is that it’s the same story that we have heard for a number of years in this field, as well as sexual harm in general, that something must be done (e.g., Cambridge university, USA & in general), a ringing of hands and some new policies (intervention initiative, step up & existing evidence based practice). If we want to impact upon attitudes to sexual harm, prevent sexual harm, encourage bystander intervention and have viable public health policy that gets used we have to ingrain these changes from the start, in childhood, we need a life course perspective on this not just a repair and move on model. There needs to be coherent sexual harm education and prevention approaches starting in primary school and then following children all the way through life to secondary school, university and into the workplace. However, our perceived morality around sex and sexuality can get in the way of the education policies that need to be implemented. In the UK, at least, there are some general guidelines that all schools, colleges and universities should attend to but these are open to interpretation and then you end up with a postcode lottery of sorts regarding the message that you receive (generally workplace initiatives are better formed and better implemented). Poorly planned policy leads to weak implementation. The arguements that can be used to counter increased sexual health and sexual harm education in schools and colleges include that this is not the role of the state and that parents are having these conversations with their children at home. In the reality neither of these arguments are true as the state should be providing pro-social modelling and some of the most vulnerable children (to being a victim or potential perpetrator of sexual harm) are not getting this pro-social modelling/conversations that children need at home; therefore, if they do not get these conversations at home or in education where are they getting them - from each other, from inappropriate sources, like pornography or other adult content (like TV, Movies and Music)? People will seek out answers in the most straightforward and accessible ways, the internet has helped as well as hindered with this, but these may not be the most appropriate ways. Pornography has become the reason for sexual harm in modern society again, like it was in the late 1970’s/80’s (see the work of Professor Keith Soothill), with the argument that watching pornography leads to an increased likelihood of committing sexual harm; in some cases yes but in all cases no. The real argument is that pornography gives a distorted view of sex, sexual relationships and the impact of sexual harm (actually as does mainstream TV, Movies and Music) which can have a lasting impact if engaged in without a filter (that is as an adult we know what is appropriate/inappropriate and what to dismiss) which children do not have, so that can accept it as given. What this all comes back to is the need to develop a clear, well thought out policy on understanding and responding to sexual harm that spans the life course, that is simple and transferable across institutions. What we need is a societal response that lays the ground work in early education that only needs attending to and maintaince in university, we should not be starting from scratch. We do not have a coherent response that the minute only a recognition that something needs to be done and that different institutions can do what they want; this is problematic we need to move towards a more integrated, thoughtful and better developed approach. If sexual harm is a public health issue we need to treat it like one.
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D