IMAGINE a life where you’re under constant surveillance, coerced into following rules and arbitrarily punished for breaking them. Where the threat of humiliation is used to ensure compliance. Where what you wear, what you eat and what you say are all monitored and restricted.
You might be imagining a serious case of domestic abuse. Or, if you’re a teenager, you might be thinking it sounds a lot like school.
Therein lies one of the tricky dimensions to the proposal by SNP MP Gavin Newlands that lessons about consent and domestic abuse be made a mandatory part of the curriculum. Another problem is that it’s easy to politicians – and columnists – to issue calls for this or that to be taught in schools, but another matter for schools to find timetable space, trained staff and resources to do it all.
Do we need mandatory sex and relationships education in Scottish schools? Undoubtedly. Should children learn about consent from the earliest possible age? Of course they should. But if we are to make a serious effort to tackle domestic abuse in all its life-blighting forms we will need to go much further than that, and ask some difficult questions about the messages young people might be taking from their experiences at home and at school.
Few would surely argue against the need to educate young children about boundaries and their bodies – it’s the most obvious way of empowering those who are sexually or physically abused to speak out about what is happening. Where things might get controversial is trying to establish exactly what rights children have to enforce their own boundaries. If we tell them they are allowed to decline any physical contact that makes them uncomfortable, it must follow that they have the right to decline a kiss from granny or a hug from an unfamiliar adult without anyone making a fuss. It means subscribing to the radical notion that they are human beings, who should be allowed to question and challenge, and not simply expected to do as they’re told.
This isn’t to say there should be no rules – of course young children need boundaries set by adults, and cannot be given a free choice on every aspect of their lives. But rules should not be imposed just for the sake or it, and once established they should be fairly and consistently enforced.
Does it matter what a child wears to school? Arguments in favour of uniforms cover everything from school spirit and cost to bullying prevention, but ultimately uniforms are of no importance to learning. Children set on bullying others will always find a scab to pick at, and the strict enforcement of uniform rules is a distraction from the important business of education. The policing of young women’s appearance, in particular, is fundamentally incompatible with efforts to raise awareness of what an abusive relationship looks, sounds and feels like. Humiliating enforcement techniques such as the measuring of skirts should be strictly prohibited.
School discipline may have moved on from the dunce’s cap and the tawse, but that doesn’t mean punishments are always fair and never have an element of shaming. The arbitrary enforcement of rules is one of the hallmarks of coercive control. It makes little sense to teach about it in Personal and Social Education if there’s a danger of it being mirrored in the selective punishment of pupil a teacher simply doesn’t like, or the humiliation of being sent to sit outside a headteacher’s office. Leaving aside the question of whether such approaches actually work to address disruptive behaviour in the long-term – as opposed to simply curtailing a particular instance of it – it is worth asking what impact they have on self-esteem, a deficit of which may be at the root of an unruly child’s problems.
In schools where rules are fair and punishments proportionate, there’s a chance to go much further and tackle head-on the gender inequality that underpins the widespread abuse of women within romantic relationships. This should be embedded in every part of the curriculum, whether it’s the analysis of gender roles in English and drama classes, examining pay gaps in modern studies or addressing the absence of “herstory” when studying history. It’s about working alongside the LGBT-focused Time for Inclusive Education campaign to ensure not only that every pupil learns about safe sex and healthy relationships but that these lessons are put in context. The question of what it is to be a young woman in a relationship cannot be divorced from that of what is it to be a young woman in the world.
Of course, there will be those who aren’t keen on embedding feminism in our education system. If it catches on, a Tory MP might create a blacklist of teachers whose lessons dare to query the idea that women are naturally submissive, hopelessly emotional and in need to men to support and protect them.
The blame for any domestic abuse lies with the abuser, but those perpetrators are products of the society in which we live, and they are able to keep abusing because of the structures and belief systems that hold women back from achieving their full potential. Any lessons about consent must be part of a whole-school approach that actively challenges rather than helps to perpetuate the sexist status quo.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.