Peer-to-peer sexual abuse: myth or time bomb?

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Frobisher 4-6 Gender Wars


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Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Child abuse professionals have long been concerned to protect the young from predatory adults, whether in the form of stranger danger or exploitation within the family. More recently, there has been a shift of focus to ‘peer-on-peer’ abuse. Maria Miller MP has launched a parliamentary inquiry into sexual violence and harassment in schools, claiming, ‘In school corridors and playgrounds, sexually charged behaviour drives young people’s physical interactions and permeates through to their 24-hour-a-day life online’. 60 children were permanently excluded for sexual misconduct in English schools in 2013/14, but we are told at least one in five teenagers have been physically abused by their boyfriends or girlfriends. Experts fear easy access to pornography means older children have a warped view of sex, with even primary school pupils copying sexual activity they have seen online. An investigation by The Times showed ‘sexting’ (exchanging explicit photos by phone) is widespread among teens. The NSPCC claims this exposes them to danger from sex offenders, and adds that ‘children as young as 11 are becoming victims of revenge porn’.

Some critics challenge this nightmarish vison of childhood, suggesting relatively harmless sexual curiosity and behaviour is being pathologised. If a boy pings a girl’s bra, it may be annoying, but is it assault? Maria Miller dismisses explanations like, ‘He probably just likes you,’ or, ‘It’s just banter’. Instead of looking the other way, ‘All claims should be taken seriously and handled sensitively’. 

Critics respond that we live in a cultural climate in which there is an expansive and elastic definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and violence. Might endless lessons, role-plays, drama and games to facilitate debate about consent, abuse and ‘good and bad secrets’ actually encourage pupils and teachers to see abuse everywhere? Is it healthy for children that many primary schools discourage kiss-and-chase games, prohibit hugging, and view children playing doctors and nurses through the lens of abuse? If we describe immature relations between the sexes as harassment, while conflating minor transgressions with serious assaults, is there a danger of criminalising innocent children as sexual deviants? What is the best way to give the young the space, freedom and support to explore their sexuality and negotiate what should be the fun, carefree and healthy relationships of growing up?