OPINION: Parents must discuss healthy sexual relationships with their children

Woman daughter talking

Parents have never done enough to learn about the relationships their children are in, says Rachel Moore, especially as they are now so different from previous generations - Credit: Getty Images/Uppercut RF

Parents who know their son has committed a sexual assault should march him straight to the police, Norfolk’s chief constable Simon Bailey, said on radio this week.

Stating the obvious surely. What responsible parent wouldn’t if they knew their child had committed abhorrent deviant behaviour?

But that’s the nub of the horrendous Everyone’s Invited issue that’s unravelled this week. It was only a matter of time until someone spoke out about rape culture, sexual harassment, misogynism, intimidation and assault in schools.

In what is being described as the #metoo moment in education, more than 10,000 young people and rising have so far shared experiences at school, college and university of sexual harassment, groping at a Christmas party, rape cultures at schools, image-based abuse, revenge porn, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos - and deeply engrained sexism and misogyny.

The accounts are sickening. These are children and young people starting out in life, with normalising and trivialising horrendous attitudes and actions.

Everyone's Invited website founder Soma Sara rightly states the behaviour uncovered in schools creates a "gateway to more extreme criminal acts, such as rape and sexual assault”

It was all deeply uncomfortable reading. Boys pressuring girls into ‘sexting’ inappropriate photos that they share among their friends for a laugh. The perpetrators at the same school or in the same social groups.

Also uncomfortable is that behaviour patterns start, and end, at home.

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Parents don’t, and haven’t ever, do or done enough to talk about healthy sexual relationships with their children.

This should be the key message to take forward, urgently. Parents, take responsibility, talk and listen. Make sure zero tolerance of any of the above is your family policy.

Pushing ‘the chats’ into the ‘too awkward, too difficult’ pile, is an easy cop out but doing the right thing has never been more important.

How many parents of teenagers can say they have made the effort to research just how different young people’s relationships are today, the real exposure they have to all levels of online pornography that leads them to believing what they see on the screen is normal and acceptable behaviour?

Children’s behaviour is learned. What attitudes to women do boys pick up at home from their fathers, their grandfathers and their wider community?

Outrageous misogynist jokes and ‘banter’ from blokes in my generation and older – the inappropriate laughs – of course will be absorbed as acceptable behaviour by boys brought up with it, unchallenged, at home.

A 40-odd year-old dad might insist that objectifying women, wolf whistling and throwaway comments judging female appearances is merely innocent admiration and he means nothing by it, but every parent must be aware that whatever they say, however they say it, and whatever they do at home impacts on their children and shapes their behaviour and views.

Taking sons to the police station is the ultimate action, but if parents haven’t made real efforts to make sure their sons understand what appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is and had frank and open discussions about the healthy and unhealthy in relationships, they are just as guilty as their child.

The eruption of accounts of sexual abuse, intimidation and rape by other young people at schools, colleges and universities to the website is just the tip of an iceberg. This will be a long-running story.

It happens in schools but can never be a wholly education issue. Allegations of rape culture being endemic in any school, let alone top public schools, addressing this must be top of a school’s priorities.

Every young person and child must have the right to feel safe at school and protected by its staff and its whole ethos.

Any teachers turning blind eyes to predatory, inappropriate and abusive sexual behaviour have no place in education and no school, however high the fees and influential its alumni can be allowed to sweep any misogynist behaviour under the carpet.

Few people would have been surprised by the first reports at the country’s top private (mostly all-male) schools. Keeping sexes apart might make for great academic results but having little daily contact with the opposite sex means clueless young adults with warped views picked up from the internet and their equally closeted mates.

Bailey, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead on child protection, was spot on when he identified: "There's an erosion of an understanding of what normal sexual relationships look like," blaming the "volume of pornographic material that's being consumed".

How deeply embarrassing it is to address pornography glamourising and normalising abuse of women, appearances enhanced by plastic surgery to be anything but normal, and the expectations boys might take from watching these alone or in their groups, not to do it could be catastrophic.

And if it’s normalised at home, as dad’s ‘bantz’, what can we expect they will take into their own lives?

Our children’s growing up is so different to ours.

Navigating relationships in 2021 is nothing like the 1980s and 1990s.

They’re exposed to so much more than we were and interact in such different ways, it’s impossible to understand fully the pressures and the risks.

But it is a parent’s duty to find out, and address these issues with our children, male and female.

It’s about keeping them safe, showing them what real relationships are like and treating each other with respect.

Without it, a parent risks blighting their life.