Sunday, 25 August 2013

Campaign 4 Consent

Yesterday, I was asked to write about why I support "Campaign 4 Consent", this was my rather long and comprehensive response...

Eight years ago, I was raped.

It took me, perhaps surprisingly, quite a while to realise what had happened to me. And even then, I seemed to try giving him excuses – it was my fault because of how I was dressed, it was my fault because I went to his house alone, it was my fault because I should have known better.

The police were just as bad, they reinforced this view and added to it that I was English and everyone knows English girls are asking for it. My mother laughed and told me that I should be grateful that anyone showed any interest in me, because I’m hardly good looking.

This emphasis on physical attraction is harmful to everybody. It often leaves those who have experienced sexual assault doubting their experience (“it couldn’t have been rape – I’m not pretty enough”) and it reduces men to a violent stereotype who have no control over their own bodies. This just isn’t true. Rape is all about control, not attraction, and it is about a minority of men who knowingly exert that control.

The myths surrounding rape are widespread and lead to a culture of victim-blaming and dangerous misunderstanding. If we are going to end this disgusting abuse of power, we need to start by educating young people about the reality of sexual assault.

Despite my experience, or perhaps because of it, two years later I achieved my life’s ambition of becoming a teacher. I was fortunate on my course, as I specialised in counselling and pastoral care, getting a lot of input on how to support pupils in disclosure and their personal needs. But only 1/8th of the cohort did this course and there was absolutely no training on how to deliver sex and relationship education.

In my experience, this lack of training leads to a lack of confidence amongst teachers. Lessons on STIs become an embarrassing joke in the staffroom, as do those on breast cancer, prostate cancer and other such topics. We are increasingly asked to take on extra responsibilities, many of which we don’t understand and often ones where there is no textbook to read up on the night before.

We need access to training, whether that be in school CPD time, or external courses. Training on how to deliver this education in a safe, supportive environment, training on how to deal with awkward questions. We live in fear of disciplinary procedures due to one conversation gone wrong – we need the support of our unions and our headteachers in providing an honest and open classroom where pupils can ask their questions.

As teachers, we currently have the option to refuse delivery of sex education – the only teachers required to impart this area of the curriculum by law are biology teachers. Given that 1 in 4 women are said to experience sexual assault in their lifetime, I strongly believe that it is essential to retain this “option”, though all teachers should have access to adequate training and be encouraged to take it. I remember that in my first few years of teaching, every mention of rape, assault, even sex, could reduce me to tears or a panic attack. That didn’t make me any less of a teacher, it just meant that I needed to care for my needs too. Insisting that every teacher MUST undergo this training and must deliver consent education is harmful to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the professionals involved and would also undermine the basic principle of consent, safety and development that we are trying to instill.

Every year, I head pupils joking about rape, discussing articles in the media, boys saying, “I would have raped her” or girls telling each other, “it was her fault for dressing like a slut”… but the tides are changing and I’m hearing increasing numbers of young people shouting out about the injustice, or at the very least, questioning their own understanding.

It’s time to change, time to support that questioning and challenge our young people to engage with these issues. We need to teach them the reality of consent, that it is an enthusiastic yes rather than the absence of a no, that rape is about control not attraction, that it is ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator. We need to show them the options available to them, how to go about reporting, what counselling services are available and we need to liaise better with local and national bodies who can support us in our endeavour.

And if you want proof of the power of knowledge and a healthy relationship with yourself and those around you, I will leave you with one more thought. I was raped a second time, two weeks ago. This time, I know where to go, I am not blaming anyone but him and I am still standing strong and speaking out. A little knowledge can change lives.

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