No one is born an abuser: Why and how schools need to take a more active role in teaching healthy relationships

A new blog from our Youth Board member and volunteer Tilly Bungard.

No one is destined to become an abuser from birth. No man is born with the desire to abuse women, and the beliefs to justify that abuse. These are attributes that are learnt.

Too many men are learning the beliefs and values that lead to women being victims of violence and abuse. 25% of women experience abuse in relationships at some point of their lives. 2 women a week are killed at the hand of a partner or ex-partner. Additionally, repeat domestic violence incidents constitute 76% of all such incidents. Somewhere our society and communities are failing to teach young men the values of equality and empathy that prevent the normalisation of violence towards women.

School is where we learn about great works of literature, or how plants and mammals reproduce. We explore history and are told that the present must not repeat the mistakes of the past; we learn how things are said in different languages and we develop skills for solving mathematical problems. These are all essential skills for surviving in the adult world, and children that fail to make the grade will find it difficult to enter the competitive career market. But there is something else that we learn in schools that is far more importance than establishing the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, or the formula for photosynthesis. Far more essential to life than these skills are the emotional and social skills that we develop in these formative years that determine who we are as people, and how we treat others.

At the moment, these skills are an afterthought. The teaching of non-academic life lessons to kids is traditionally left up to parents, but there can be no guarantee that parents don’t hold the same beliefs that lead to violence against women. Despite significant support for schools to take a more active role in this area of teaching, a push to make PSHE lessons mandatory was recently rejected by the government.

In practice, more worth is placed on solving of math or science problems over the solving of recurring real life dilemmas. By the age of 15 students who learn Latin are able to dissect the meaning of a language that is now obsolete in every day experience, but are not taught how the language we use to describe each other every day contributes to a culture of sexism and victim blaming. School is where we learn how historical events have contributed to the society we live in, but why doesn’t it teach us how our actions toward each other contribute to who we become and how we develop as people.

The issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools are now being highlighted by a a government inquiry. The inquiry found that 29% of girls aged 16-18 experienced unwanted touching at school, and 71% heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily. There is a direct correlation between these statistics and the statistics I highlighted earlier in this article: 2 women a week. Unwanted physical contact and verbal sexual bullying in schools are the predecessors to domestic abuse and violence, which occurs predominantly in couples between the ages of 16-25.

More priority needs to be given to the development of boys in school, to ensure that they respect girls and will grow up to be men who respect women. More priority needs to be given to making sure that the development of young girls is not hindered by being told they are worthless, and that they should ‘cover up’, so that they don’t grow to be women who blame themselves when they fall victim to sexual assault.

So the question then is how do we go about changing these attitudes? Firstly, there needs to be a much wider program of teaching in place in schools on healthy relationships and gender based violence. Secondly, non-profit organisations such as Tender can offer additional support to teachers and workshops for children of all ages. Teacher training is a high priority, as they are those with the most contact with children, and the highest possibility of interfering with this damaging culture.

Susie McDonald, chief executive of Tender, commented to the Women and Equalities Committee conducting the inquiry, that “many teachers are victim-blaming at the moment”, meaning that the blame is being placed on girls for being sexually harassed, as opposed to boys for perpetrating harassment. Subjects like this can be navigated by organisations such as Tender, which uses theatre workshops to open up conversations about healthy relationships in ways that can engage kids and teachers more easily and in a less intimidating way than through more conventional lessons and training courses.

The medium of theatre is particularly powerful in the context of this issue, as it allows students to rehearse situations where there might be a possibility of sexual harassment, or sexual/domestic violence, and explore different ways of negotiating those moments. Just as a past exam paper allows students to try different ways of tackling exams, theatre gives them the opportunity to rehearse real life situations. Multiple ways of dealing with situations and the outcomes of these actions can be explored in a safe and secure environment. The consequences of our actions can be acted out and watched on stage, allowing children to feel emotions such as empathy and compassion through playing a character suffering from abuse.

Working through issues in a physical way means that information is processed differently to learning it from a book, and conclusions can be reached organically by the kids themselves as opposed to being told them and having to memorise the correct answer. Additionally theatre workshops and the situations they explore can be altered easily, unlike a book of questions and pre-written answers. Theatre has scope to mold around issues such as race, sexuality, class and ability in a way that pre-designed lesson plans and downloadable internet resources do not. Learning about values and social issues is different from learning about academic subjects, and the teaching method use must reflect that.

Sex and relationship education should be made compulsory in schools. In addition, the way that it is taught needs to be revised. When we talk about sex and relationships we are not talking about something that is clear, ‘black and white’, and solvable. We are not talking about something that can be learnt by memory, a formula, a fact. We are talking about something that needs to be understood, ingrained and practiced. Just like a mathematical formula must be practiced in a problem before it is completely understood, questions of healthy relationships and sexual consent must be acted out in scenarios, with different solutions explored and discussed. We cannot just dictate what a healthy relationship looks like, we must allow children to explore the dynamics of relationships and come to those conclusions themselves. Tender provide exactly the kind of education young people need on this complex and emotional subject, engaging young people with compassion and care.

Discipline needs to be replaced by education in the way that schools handle instances of sexual harassment. Discipline and rules in schools do not substitute learning ethical and moral codes of conduct. Banning phones as a way to prevent sexting and photo sharing will not prevent sexism. Separating boys and girls will not prevent sexual harassment. Worse still, disciplinary measures are frequently aimed at the victims of sexism, banning short skirts, make up, or even form fitting trousers for girls. Instead schools need to tackle the sexual violence that girls encounter at its roots. Education in schools needs to change to stamp out sexism by attacking its causes, not its consequences.

Through improved sexual education, a shift in the way we value non-academic learning, and the wider use of the arts as an educational tool, we can tackle the casual sexism in schools that leads to the gender based violence that affects so many women today.

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