In November 2013, the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) joined forces with the the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), in order to conduct a survey into the way teachers handle the subject of abuse with young people - were they confident in discussing the issue? Did they themselves know the signs to look out for? The results were something of a cause for concern.
- 43% of teaching staff surveyed admitted that they would not be confident in recognising signs that a pupil was experiencing some form of abuse.
- 33% said that they were unsure as to whether their school had a policy on abuse.
- 26% said that they had been approached by a young person about an abusive relationship at least once in the past two years.
So just how many young people in the UK are experiencing some form of abusive relationship?
In February 2013, a survey, also by the NSPCC set out to ask young people (18 and under) about their experiences of abuse in relationships. Of those who responded, 40% said that they had experienced some form of abuse within a relationship - be it sexual, physical or emotional. That's almost half, yet only 12% of those questioned said that they felt able to seek help. Many of the responses came from people under the age of sixteen.
So what do we do?
Well, thankfully, in 2011, the Home Office announced that they wanted violence against women and girls tackled in schools. There's also currently a great campaign - This Is Abuse - being used to highlight the signs of an unhealthy relationship. Actors from Hollyoaks and members of bands such as The Wanted have appeared in TV adverts and in print, discussing the importance of recognising all forms of abuse, particularly insidious, less overt forms, such as emotional manipulation. It's fantastic that this issue is being treated seriously, because abuse can utterly wreck lives and we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable in society - that includes our youngsters.
But could we do more?
It's my belief that we could. Although Violence Against Women is already a subject tackled in secondary schools, I still feel that too many young people aren't recognising the signs of abuse within a relationship. In a survey carried out by the group Zero Tolerance, a shocking 1 in 4 men aged between 14 and 21 said that they thought it was justifiable to hit a woman if she slept with someone else. 1 in 8 said they felt it was acceptable to hit a woman for "nagging too much." When it came to sexual abuse, 19% of young women and 34% of young men said that forcing your partner to have sex does not count as rape.
So a third of young men believe that sex is their right, regardless of whether their partner wants it or not. In my eyes, that's pretty conclusive evidence that more education is vital.
We need to teach youngsters that respect is paramount. A relationship will not survive without healthy, mutual respect and that means listening to one another's wants and needs - as well as accepting when they don't want something to happen. It's incredibly important that we teach young men and women that they deserve to be safe, happy and loved without feeling fear. They need to recognise what constitutes abusive behaviour - in all its forms. We need to give them the tools to help them see that emotional or psychological abuse, controlling or coercive behaviour, have no place in a positive relationship. We need to teach them that they can escape an abusive relationship and we need to ensure that they know where to turn for help.
Culture has a large role to play in this. It's easy to write off a song as "just music" or a book as "just a story," but think back to your own teenage years: At that age, you're like a sponge, soaking up new information all the time and learning what kind of person you want to be. Blurred Lines might only be a song, but it's a song that reduces women to a sexual object to be won, whether the woman in question has explicitly said "yes" or not. Think back to that statistic on young men not seeing enforced sex as rape and suddenly it's less a case of "just a song" and more a case of it being a song that contributes to an already prevalent culture of sexism and misogyny, with very real and very dangerous repercussions.
Even more dangerous than Blurred Lines, is the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Although EL James has claimed that she hopes young girls aren't reading it, they inevitably are. The story blurs the lines of what constitutes abuse on every page; we have a "hero" who stalks a woman. He claims ownership of her, giving her precious little freedom to do as she chooses. He coerces her into sex when she tells him she doesn't want it. He deliberately gets her drunk so that she'll agree to his demands. He isolates her from her friends. He turns up unannounced to keep tabs on her. He ignores her wishes repeatedly, caring only about what he wants out of the relationship. He uses emotional manipulation to explain away his behaviour and to ensure his naive young girlfriend (later wife) feels too guilt-ridden to leave him. He bruises her body without consent, then buys her expensive jewellery to make it all better. When she discovers that she's pregnant, he shouts, swears and becomes outwardly aggressive, laying the responsibility firmly at her door rather than taking any himself. ALL of this is abusive behaviour, but it's being packaged as a "love story." And, terrifyingly, women - including young girls - are lapping it up. Were it to have stopped at "just a book," perhaps we could overlook its effect. However, it long since surpassed "just a book" status. There's endless merchandise, there's a movie in the works and most worryingly of all, women - again, including young girls - are openly talking about wanting a man like Christian Grey.
That's not harmless. That's not "just a book." That's at best uninformed naivety and at worst wilful ignorance of what constitutes abuse. And for all the education schools are supposedly providing on the subjects of abuse awareness and positive relationships, a quick trip to Twitter is an incredibly depressing read. Firstly, you have EL James posting this:
Hardly funny, considering 2 women a week are killed at the hands of an abusive man, which, as documented above, is precisely what EL's beloved Christian is. We all know Christian's advice would constitute ignoring all of your girlfriend's wishes, coercing her into sex even when she says no and forcing her to cope with the mental pressure of thinking she has to "save" you.
Moving past EL James' ego-massaging, you have the fans of Christian Grey, waxing lyrical about their "ideal man." The following tweets were written by women and girls, some of whom reference being a teenager/being at school in their biographies:
This last one was from a girl cuddling a toy in her picture, describing herself as a Belieber. Can't be more than 16. EL James KNOWS young girls are not only reading this book, but saying they want a man like Christian.
I'm not saying we must ban all controversial music, or burn every single copy of Fifty Shades (although I actually did burn mine; I was so triggered by seeing something so similar to my own abusive relationship being sold as romance). But this proves to me that culture has a massive impact on young people - something most of us had probably figured out already - and that when something glamourises the very thing we're trying to get young people to recognise and speak out about, we have to in turn speak out against that.
I do believe that we need further education into what constitutes abuse in schools. I do believe that young people need to be more aware that abuse is incredibly common and takes many forms, not all of which are immediately noticeable. Teachers need some kind of resource that documents how easily we can mistake control, manipulation and emotional abuse for passion, love and need. If only there was a really popular book about an abusive arsehole who mistreats his girlfriend, but somehow, the world has seen it as a love story! Yes, I am suggesting that Fifty Shades could be used as an educational tool on what abuse is and how easy it is not to realise how bad the situation has gotten. It's pretty much the only good thing that could come out of the whole thing.
We may be making a start on educating young people about abuse and that's great, but the likes of EL James are setting us right back to square one. We really do need greater education about abuse in schools. One in four women will experience some form of abusive relationship in her lifetime. That's one too many. Let's start educating. Let's stamp it out once and for all.