It's relatively easy to whip up some political outrage and anxiety about the exposure of young people to pornography and sexualised imagery and its potential impact on their behaviour. This is becoming particularly clear in a week when two Private Members' Bills on the subject of relationships and sex education are being debated in Parliament. It is clear the subject unites some unlikely political allies, who readily propose solutions that are about censoring damaging material, and punishing unacceptable behaviour. And of course part of the solution is undoubtedly to reduce access to this material, by putting pressure on Internet service providers, publishers, retailers, schools and parents.
But even the most optimistic campaigner would accept that protecting young people completely from potentially damaging material is impossible, certainly without restricting their ability to communicate and socialise to an unacceptable extent. Anyone with a smartphone and 3G can access the Internet independently of any parental controls. Even without this, images can be shared in text messages, young people show each other their phones, and adults who access this material share it with children, either negligently or all too delberately.
Meanwhile there is plenty of evidence that controlling and abusive behaviour is common in intimate relationships between teenagers and young adults. There is confusion about sexual consent, and how what sounds like a piece of jargon, but which actually should be the bare minimum threshold for sex, translates into reality. There is mounting evidence of pressure on girls to agree to sexual acts they may not be comfortable with. Controlling, obsessively jealous and abusive behaviours are mistaken for romance and signs of love. All at an age when friends are increasingly the centre of a young person's world, assuming overwhelming importance and influence, but not always providing a safety net or listening without judgement, any more than adults do for each other.
The Internet is here to stay and it is full of promise. It is also full of violence, pornography and often used to exploit and harass. Many adults have shown themselves unable to resist the myth that behaviours they would not contemplate in the "real world" are somehow acceptable if they are "only" virtual - as Women's Aid showed in the report Virtual World, Real Fear published in February this year. Yet the consensus and political will evaporate when it comes to empowering children and young people to navigate the minefield, spot the warning signs, discuss these issues openly and without fear with their peers, and make healthy and happy choices.
Perhaps we are more comfortable limiting rather than expanding the choices available to young people. Or we believe that somehow providing a forum to discuss these issues will encourage them to take risks - despite the evidence that the opposite is the case. Or we believe that parents should have the right to block their children's access to information - that in fact it's a matter of parental choice, not young people's choice.
At Women's Aid we believe that children have the right to information to support safe and respectful relationships, and the opportunity to discuss issues such as consent and controlling behaviour both with specialists and with peers, as much as they have a right to learn history or geography. The Internet is part of their lives, and they have a right to discuss and debate what they find there, to learn to evaluate it without denial of their experience. Just as having parents who are no good at maths shouldn't stand in the way of a child being supported to learn it, so society must take steps to ensure that having parents who are abusive or simply in denial, and being surrounded by images which objectify women, does not stop children learning to respect and value others, irrespective of gender.
Intimate partner violence is terrifyingly common among young people, and in society as a whole, with an average of two women a week killed by a partner or former partner in England and Wales. Yet it is denied, and victims are blamed and suffer an average of 35 violent incidents before seeking help. We are facing a tide of denial, ignorance and acceptance of behaviour which is simply unacceptable. The Education Select Committee is right now investigating this subject, and like so many inquiries and reports before it, is highly likely to recommend that SRE should be statutory in all schools from primary age. Let's help today's young people to be the first generation to say "enough's enough". We must have compulsory sex and relationships education in all schools, now.