The trouble with sex education: consent and the quest for safety

It was in the wake of the hunt for Sarah Everard’s killer that I encountered a question that I still struggle to answer. One that I found rather challenging, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate straight away. “What are you doing to educate your sons not to rape?”

What will you do to teach your son not to rape?

At the moment, at 3 and 8 months, I’m not doing anything, but my first child, who is my only daughter, has already received a talk aimed at keeping her safe from predators. Beyond telling my boys something similar about their genitals, consent and a ban on the idea of keeping secrets, I hadn’t even considered anything extra. 

The very notion that my sons could be perpetrators of sexual violence had, of course, never entered my mind. I imagine no parents of those who commit these crimes ever considered they might back when they were quite so little. The idea itself offends my innate sense that of course, my sons could never do anything like that and, I suppose, evokes inner sensibilities that there are inherently evil and good people. My sons could never do anything as morally repugnant. Yet my daughter could easily become the victim of such a crime and so the onus is on her to keep herself safe. 

The idea that we should be focusing more on the perpetrators rather than the victims of sexual violence is not a new one, but it is one that is finding it hard to gain traction. With people often comparing keeping oneself safe from rape to locking one’s car and telling women to report predators, we continually put the onus on the victims. Lists of how to keep yourself safe from a wannabe rapist only mean that someone else will be attacked. From posters in women’s toilets suggesting pub goers “ask for Angela” to the suggestion that we let people know where we’re going and with whom all just assume that it’s a woman’s personal responsibility to stay safe. This victim blaming mentality only serves to place the responsibility for safety squarely on the shoulders of the victim. 

Will every woman and girl be a victim?

A new study by Dr Jessica Taylor revealed the true extent of sexual assault. Available on, the study “Understanding the Scale of Violence Committed Against Women in the UK Since Birth”. In a major survey, covering the experiences of over 22,000 women it was revealed that over 99.7% of the sample had been “repeatedly subjected to violence including assaults, harassment and rape”. Only a paltry 0.3% of the respondents “had only been subjected to one violent incident or less.” The website goes on to suggest that “it is likely that every woman and girl will be subjected to violence, abuse, rape or harassment”.

The question then becomes, of course, what are the reasons that men commit these crimes? Is it as simple as a fundamental misunderstanding of what is acceptable, in a rape culture? Will teaching our children about consent reduce the incidence of such heinous crimes?

I spoke to Nikki Moore, a psychology PhD student at the University of Bradford whose undergraduate dissertation won a British Psychology Society award for excellence in qualitative research. Her study, entitled “Things do not change, we change: exploring the representation of a male perpetrator in a fictional narrative” looked at the book ‘This Charming Man’ by Marianne Keyes.

Focusing on cure rather than prevention

Moore agreed that a natural response to trying to deal with male violence is to ascertain why it happens in the first place. However, what was clear from our conversation was that there simply isn’t much evidence on the subject at all. Moore explained that the focus on research was “the cure”; treating the victims, rather than working to prevent the offence in the first place.

What then, does she think to the evidence in favour of teaching consent? Having never been explicitly taught consent in a school myself, it feels like a simple adjustment, albeit one that seems too simplistic to have much of an impact on sexual violence. Is there evidence that those who commit these crimes have a fundamental misunderstanding that what they’re doing is wrong? Could it be as simple that what some rapists are missing is a general understanding that no means no? Or is it just part of a wider preventative educational programme? 

Currently the UK makes widespread use of “Growing up with Yasmine and Tom”, a programme that illustrates various examples of abusive situations as teaching examples, something Nikki highlights as problematic. She feels that a focus on respectful relationships throughout the school educational journey would be preferable, teaching children to understand consent as part of having loving and secure partnerships. 

Growing up with Yasmine and Tom illustration

Sexual violence in the playground

A lot of the focus is on preventing rape and violence towards women, but the sad fact is that sexual violence and harassment is already present in our schools. A 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee, entitled “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools” concluded “We have received evidence from teachers, parents, third sector organisations and young people suggesting that many schools are currently failing to adequately respond to and prevent incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the school environment. Many schools are also failing to support students experiencing these issues outside of school.”

A group of children in the playground

The University of Bedfordshires’ International Centre, responsible for researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking said “Education providers often lack the knowledge and confidence to deal with incidents of sexual violence, and are not currently responding to sexual violence as a whole-school issue at an institutional level. Instead, school responses depend on individual ‘champions’ on the issues, with many schools reluctant to talk about, or address, sexual violence in policies and teaching.”

“It’s just horse play”

The report also suggested that teachers react to sexual harassment by victim-blaming and putting various behaviours down as “horse play”, failing to take it seriously. Whilst this might seem shocking, recent revelations surrounding the actor John Barrowman show that this attitude is pervasive within society. 

A recent Guardian article on Barrowman and his fellow actor Noel Clarke seemed to shrug off the allegations against Barrowman as if regularly exposing one’s genitals – and even allegedly placing it on people’s shoulders was somehow acceptable because he is (a) homosexual and (b) was just larking around. I found myself wondering in which other workplaces this kind of behaviour would just be explained away as banter and japes, trying to reconcile what seems highly inappropriate and disgusting conduct with any workplaces I have occupied. 

Excused by his colleagues: “colleagues described the incidents as inappropriate pranks rather than anything amounting to sexually predatory behaviour”, Barrowman has apologised for his actions and likely will experience no further censure. 

Defining and acting on consent

While some studies have found that men and women define consent in the same way, they often indicate their own consent differently (Jozkowski et al, 2014). This study concludes “Such gender differences may help to explain some misunderstandings or misinterpretations of consent or agreement to engage in sexual activity”.

A comprehensive, 2018 study on Social Dimensions of Sexual Consent Among Cisgender Heterosexual College Students (Hirsh et al) involving interviews and focus groups however, concluded that the answer to preventing non-consensual sexual experiences was complex and “will likely require understanding and modifying the social structures that shape consent practices, rather than just legislation that mandates the promotion of affirmative consent.”

The problem, it seems, then is that we really don’t understand what drives sexual violence and we have really no idea how to prevent it. Having performed various research searches in preparation for this article, I was shocked to find that there was a serious lack of information on the fundamental causes of rape. There doesn’t seem to be a drive to really understand the reasons, from the perpetrators themselves, that men feel entitled to just take what they want from the women around them. 

Until we focus on the root causes for sexual violence, a sticking plaster of “teaching consent” is never going to be enough to stop our boys turning into the monsters we warn our daughters about.


Hirsch JS, Khan SR, Wamboldt A, Mellins CA. Social Dimensions of Sexual Consent Among Cisgender Heterosexual College Students: Insights From Ethnographic Research. J Adolesc Health. 2019 Jan;64(1):26-35. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.06.011. Epub 2018 Sep 20. PMID: 30245145.

Jozkowski KN, Peterson ZD, Sanders SA, Dennis B, Reece M. Gender differences in heterosexual college students’ conceptualizations and indicators of sexual consent: implications for contemporary sexual assault prevention education. J Sex Res. 2014;51(8):904-16. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2013.792326. Epub 2013 Aug 6. PMID: 23919322.

About Author

Leave a Reply