UK Charity Women’s Aid have undertaken some research and compiled a report looking into young peoples’ understanding of healthy (and unhealthy) relationships, coercive control and abusive behaviour. It’s contained in their report, just issued: Influencers and Attitudes: How will the next generation understand domestic abuse?
They designed a questionnaire with research organisation ORB to collect mainly quantitative data about young people’s experiences of learning about relationships in PSHE and SRE (or Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) as they call it in the report). They asked two separate age-appropriate questionnaires to groups of 7-18 and 18-25 year olds to gain an insight across the different age spans. Some of the responses from the older age group may be ameliorated by changes in statutory guidance around PSHE and RSE and what the curriculum should provide in terms of healthy relationships – with sections on coercive control for example.
The findings are an important insight into what young people understand about relationships and boundaries, control and respect and their knowledge of how to manage relationships when something doesn’t feel right.
I’m going to discuss the headline findings here and explore them a bit – the report itself can be found at the Women’s Aid website HERE.
24% of 18-25 year olds can recall no PSHE on sexual harassment.
23% of this group disagreed – or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘you should always have consent from your partner to have sex when you’re in a relationship’.
35% of this group could recall no PSHE content or guidance on coercive and controlling behaviours.
Overall 70% of young people said that they would be likely to seek support if they were affected by domestic abuse, 50% of these were unsure where they would go for this and 11% said they did not know where to go for this support.
The report found that a majority of young people had healthy approaches to relationships, however there was found to be a direct correlation between those who consumed misogynistic or sexist social media content and the following beliefs:
- There should be a dominant person in a relationship (31%)
- Hurting someone in a relationship is acceptable (19%)
- Those who did not consume this content held these beliefs to 14% and 4% respectively.
- Worryingly, 35% of those questioned of all ages thought that someone buying you ‘lots of gifts and turning up everywhere you went’ was ‘romantic’ rat5her than seeing it as a stage in the coercive control behaviour pattern, known as ‘love bombing’.
Encouragingly the report did find that those 18-25 year olds that consumed more positive content on social media were much more aware of and positive towards relationship issues such as VAWG – Violence Against Women And Girls.
The following chart expresses awareness of various topics by key-stage. As you would hope / expect, the percentages of awareness increases as the young people move through the ages and stages of their education, highlighting the increased frequency and importance of PSHE through their educational development. The change between KS2 and KS3 (primary to secondary) jumps significantly as expected but then only a marginal amount of change between KS3 and KS5 – an age-span of up to 7 years which certainly is of concern.
Some of the age-specific findings from the research, where young people were asked to decide to what extent they agreed with a number of statements was revealing too. In KS3 – KS5 the following percentages agreed with the various statements expressed below.
- 87% agreed that ‘relationships are better if you’re able to compromise and understand your differences’
- 85% agreed that ‘it’s important to talk to your partner about whether you’re ready to have sex’
- 80% agreed that ‘the person you’re going out with does NOT have the right to stop you from seeing your friends and family when you want to’
- 43% agreed that ‘the most important thing is to make your partner happy, no matter what’
- 22% agreed that there should be ‘a more dominant person in the relationship’
- 21% believed that ‘men show their love through jealousy’
- 22% of participants thought that controlling behaviours related to ‘love-bombing’ were ‘caring or romantic’
The report goes on to discuss attitudes and opinions regarding genders and stereotypes of masculine and feminine traits or behaviours – such as being caring, emotional or protective.
56% of respondents in KS3-5 reported that ‘women are naturally more caring in relationships’ – whether the respondents thought this was through nature or nurture isn’t expressed, but it does show the power of stereotypes and how well they are perpetuated, regardless of their basis in fact or otherwise.
Other traits that were ‘significantly associated’ more with one gender or another were collate as follows:
Protector (42%) and Violent (32%) were significantly associated with boys whereas Emotional (40%) Caring (30%) and Shy (24%) were more associated with girls.
There were some differences between how the two genders viewed the above stereotypes – for example girls (36%) associated ‘violent’ with boys more than boys themselves (27%) and girls were more likely than boys to see women as ‘emotional’ (44% vs 36%) however the findings really do evidence the need for more work to counteract stereotypes across all parts of society at all Key Stages. (This mirrors the career stereotypes work featured in my book The Ladder which references an Education & Employers piece of research which found that stereotypes over gendered job expectations start as young as age 7 and if not addresses, become more-or-less fixed by the age of 17.
Concerningly, whilst 65% of respondents (67% of women and 62% of men) agreed that ‘you should always have consent from your partner to have sex when you are in a relationship’, almost a quarter of young people (23% of women and 25% of men) disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement.
Consent is becoming confused by young peoples’ consumption of (increasingly violent) p0rnography – which rarely, if ever, features consent – and so the finding in this research shows confusion over the fact that ‘consent given once does not mean consent given every time’.
The report then explores controlling elements in relationships:
“Over a third of the younger people surveyed agreed with the statement, ‘if your partner is being jealous, it shows that they care about you’ (35%) and that ‘it’s okay to check your partner’s outfits before they go to the gym to prevent unwanted attention’ (34%). Rather than expressing personal insecurities through controlling behaviour, RSE content needs to talk about healthy ways to express emotion and communicate between partners, as well as recognise the problematic behaviours themselves”.
Regarding unhealthy attitudes, men were significantly more likely to agree with harmful attitudinal statements compared with women, including: ‘there should always be one more dominant person in a relationship’ (35% of men, 19% of women); ‘you should always try and make your partner happy even if you do not feel comfortable doing so’ (43% of men, 24% of women); and ‘being jealous shows your partner cares about you’ (43% of men, 27% of women).
The report goes on to look at the types of content that young people access on their smartphones (62% KS2 and 96% of KS3 pupils have a smartphone) and the most-used App is TikTok with 36% using it daily, Snapchat had a daily use of 30% and Instagram is used by 26% of 7 to 18 year olds. By KS5, 60% of girls are using Tiktok daily with boys usage at 30% of all surveyed.
The research then considers the type of content viewed in relation to how it influences young people’s views of themselves, the opposite sex and other aspects of relationships. The report considers AT Content (where AT = Andrew Tate) to be any content which links narratives of sexism and misogyny to feminism, (men being ‘oppressed’ by feminism) and other ideas around relationships and simplistic explorations of how men and women ‘should’ behave. The findings in this area were strongly linked to reinforcing dated stereotypes, controlling behaviours and notions of dominance in relationships – most strikingly that ‘hurting someone physically is okay if you say sorry after hurting them’ was seen as acceptable by 19% of those who have viewed AT Content but only 4% by those not influenced by it. This – as the report highlights – means that AT Content consumers viewed physically hurting someone as 5 x more acceptable than others in the survey.
In the 18-25 age group, respondents shared that social media was helpful in helping them understand unhealthy, controlling and abusive relationships better. For example these comments regarding Twitter communities show how helpful social media CAN be in helping back up and support the efforts of PSHE / RSHE programmes at school or college.
Amongst young people surveyed, just under half (47%) reported a current interest in issues surrounding VAWG, with women significantly more likely to report interest (54%) than men (38%). Over half (51%) of the respondents who had an interest in issues surrounding VAWG, patriarchy, sexism and domestic abuse, reported that their interest increased during secondary school, with no gender variation. This indicates that secondary school is a key timeframe for organising interventions to influence young people and gain their interest in the issues surrounding RSE.
Conclusions and recommendations.
The conclusions from the Women’s Aid research aligns with the moves towards better PSHE / RSE / RSHE advocated by the statutory guidance from the DofE and includes:
- RSHE should be designed based on an understanding of gender inequality, with sensitivity to pre-existing experiences and beliefs.
- Gender inequality and the resulting power dynamics underpin domestic abuse and VAWG.
- Should be delivered by VAWG experts through a trauma-informed lense.
- Highlight that all abuse is underpinned by power imbalance and controlling behaviour.
- Delivered with an understanding of pre-existing beliefs and be capable of gently challenging and unpicking unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs.
- RSHE should begin early and be holistic, following a whole-school approach.
- Resourced needed to help parents to help them in navigating relationships with young people.
- Support for community groups which also helps them to guide young people towards healthier relationships.
- School support for primary settings to cover healthy relationships.
- Changing attitudes and challenging stereotypes goes beyond PSHE – the whole organisation needs to have a joined-up approach that ‘walks the walk’ in all areas.
- Policies and strategies to ensure young people understand what to do when things go wrong at school or outside school.
- Counter-messaging should be positive, centring on empowerment.
- Messages designed into the RSHE programme must be empowering and positive, driving positive interactions and relationships not only demonising unhealthy behaviour.
- Empower young people to ignore the disempowering nature of manufactured victimhood when discussing subjects like ‘feminism that’s gone too far’ and instead use the idea of developing skills and knowledge to develop themselves and their relationships.
- Work with outside specialists to help schools deliver professional and joined-up trauma-informed training.
- Young People should be taught to thinking critically to the extent that they can positively influence the algorithms on their social media.
- Teach critical thinking – ‘who is saying this and what do they want me to think?’ ‘Is this helpful to me?’
- Schools should encourage positive peer relations.
SO – what now?
We can help.
Two of our PSHE programmes can help your school or college to address the majority of the challenges laid out in the Women’s Aid research report – What Makes A (Hu)Man and Sarah’s Legacy: Coercive Control and Domestic Abuse.
These two programmes have specific designs which will support your staff and students in a number of ways:
What Makes A (Hu)Man can be delivered to mixed or single-sex groups and are suitable for Key stages 3, 4 and 5 as well as INSET and CPD sessions for staff and parent sessions..
- The programme begins by looking at stereotypes and how and why they persist.
- We consider empathy and judgement as a sliding scale and consider how influencers and media, films and literature can help us to move along the scale in one way or another.
- We then analyse some of the most prevalent content aimed at young men and boys and assess the validity of the sentiments, assess some of the healthy and unhealthy versions of masculinity and look at empowering young people to challenge the unhelpful versions of manhood.
- We look at Feminism and ask ‘has it gone too far?’ and assess how well the aims of feminism have been met (political, economic and social equality). Spoiler Alert: they haven’t!
These sessions take a light-hearted yet incisive approach to the topic and leave students with different viewpoints, a better understanding of the manipulative nature of divisive content and the harmful nature of control-based ‘relationship’ advice. Full days of carousel workshops are preferred and these can be finished with staff or parent sessions to maximise impact and value.
Sarah’s Legacy: Coercive Control and Domestic Abuse can also be delivered to mixed or single sex groups in Key Stage 3, 4 and 5. Wed can also deliver as CPD or parent sessions.
- This is a challenging programme based on the story of Sarah Gosling, my sister, who was love-bombed by a Ian Hope on Facebook. She left her husband and two young children in Norfolk to go and live with him in Newcastle. He soon became controlling and increasingly isolated Sarah, using domestic abuse, threats and violence. Sarah was fatally stabbed on 25th February 2012.
- Starting with an account of Sarah’s relationship with Hope and his eventual conviction for murder with a Life tariff, the talk opens into a Q&A.
- We then return to the statistics behind domestic abuse / violence and the reasons many of us remain unaware that 2 or 3 women a week in the UK are killed by a man who they know.
- Coercive Control underpins all abusive relationships and we end with a description of some of the tools and tricks controlling people use to exert power over their victim / survivor.
These sessions are naturally impactful but are delivered in a way that is sensitivity-tailored to the needs / age of the audience. As with What Makes A (Hu)Man, the sessions can be delivered to whole year groups on carousel, or smaller groups as needed or to suit your preferred delivery requirements.
References on all workshops are available – feedback can be found here on the website – if you would like to speak to specific teachers who we have worked with, please let me know.