One of the most worrying articles I researched last week for The Sunday Times was about the sexual activities of teenage (and younger) boys and girls.
I talked to an organisation called TeenBoundaries, which is to run a project in schools nationwide advising teenagers on how to deal with the pervasiveness of sexualised imagery on TV and the internet and its effects on kids’ behaviour.
In one London private school the charity was called in to work with two boys who were doctoring images of girls on Facebook before getting their friends to comment on the photos. Remarks included “Nice rack” and “Whore, I would smash her”.
In Barking, east London, the charity is advising a school where a 12-year-old girl was filmed giving oral sex to a 14-year-old pupil. The mobile phone clip, made by the boy’s friends, circulated around classmates. The same school is trying to deal with complaints that 15-year-old boys are pinning girls down in the playground and groping them.
According to Claire Walker, policy director of Family Lives, the charity which TeenBoundaries is part of, every school visited was dealing with at least one act of “sexting” — when children film themselves taking part in sexual activity and send the clips to each other’s mobile phones or post them on the internet.
Walker said: “The evidence suggests that the average age at which British girls are having sex is going down. In 1990 it was 17; in 2000 it was 16. They are now doing the research for 2010 and the expectation is that it will be 15, below the legal age of consent.”
So why is such early sexualisation happening and what can be done about it?
Factors are thought to include the prevalence of online pornography — one in eight 14- to 16-year-olds has visited pornographic websites showing violent images, according to a recent parliamentary report. At the Portland Clinic in London, 26% of young people attending for psychological treatment are hooked on internet porn. The influence of rap and gangsta culture in the media and the use of mobile phones and social networking sites for spreading sexualised images are also seen as problematical.
Typical of the scenario Hodge says she comes across in schools is an incident described to her by a 14-year-old girl. “The girl said: ‘Three years ago, when I was in year seven, five 13-year-old boys kept calling me “fit” and they followed me at break times a lot. Then one lunchtime as I was walking to the girls toilets, the boys surrounded me and two of them pinned me up on the lockers, and pushed their hand down my pants and touched me.'”
Youngsters who believe such behaviour is normal run a huge risk. Hodge is being advised by a senior criminal defence lawyer who, having seen younger and younger boys appearing in court on rape charges, has offered his help for free.
So what can be done? Family Lives would like to see children as young as four being taught about sex at primary school. It also wants parents to start talking to their young children about loving relationships.
Will this help? I’d love to know what you think