A recent review by Ofsted has shown that many children and young people are not reporting incidents of sexual harassment and unwanted advances in school and colleges, with 90 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys saying they have received unwanted explicit pictures or videos. We asked Gabriella Russo, a former youth and children’s worker, who has taught workshops on abuse prevention, for her take on this disturbing aspect of teen culture
Does the news piece surprise you?
Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s good news that this is now being brought to the attention of many more people and I am glad that the report has been undertaken and published, but in my experience working in schools and a wide variety of faith settings, this has been going on for a very long time.
What kind of reactions might young people have to the requests for nude pics?
As adults, we might hope that the appropriate reaction would be one of horror and a refusal to comply, but, as with everything that is connected to our emotions, there are so many complexities that influence the human response. It could depend on who is requesting the pics – if it’s a boy or girl that they fancy, they could well be flattered or excited that this person is attracted to them and wants to see them in the nude! Or they could be hugely disappointed that the person they have a crush on only views them sexually rather than as whole person. They could be embarrassed that it’s someone they know, and could be more comfortable being approached by a stranger. If they are struggling with self-esteem or poor body image, they may be flattered that someone has asked them, or it could increase their feelings of shame as they may be convinced that if they sent a nude pic the person asking could “realise how ugly they are” and reject them.
Some will feel pressured and bullied and unable to get help, others may love the fact that it’s secret (although we know that secrecy is rarely the case as pics get shared around), clandestine and rebellious – something that the boring grown-ups wouldn’t understand or approve of!
The one thing we can pretty much be sure of, the majority of teens won’t be shocked – as we know from the report, this kind of activity is happening regularly, and the way sexualised pictures have been normalised through films, social media and through the press makes this whole situation pretty mundane despite the dangers and the harmful effects it has.
Why is this not being reported?
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is simply the fact that it is so normalised. There is also a culture of silence around abuse in general which, although improved thanks to many brave people speaking out and thanks to movements such as #MeToo, means change on the ground is slow and there is so much stigma still attached.
There is also peer pressure – which is a hugely powerful force in the life of teenagers in general, but can be targeted specifically around this subject of sexual harassment too. I was speaking to a secondary school teacher about this whole situation. She told me that girls at her school have regularly stated that sexual harassment has become so normalised that they are actually less likely to report it. One student even told her that on their first day the other girls warned her that the boys would try to touch her but that she shouldn’t tell her parents. The snitch culture is really strong and is, unfortunately, applied across the board. It’s not acceptable to snitch on someone for stealing your pen and it’s not acceptable to snitch on someone for sexually harassing you, even though those two situations are not remotely the same and have vastly different consequences for those involved.
Additionally, boys aren’t taught how to handle relationships well. The peer pressure for them is that they are expected to be sexually active, in control and very confident in their approach to girls. They are not expected to be the ones who experience harassment, and if they are sent images or asked to send them there is much more of an expectation for them to want that and be proud of it. This makes reporting incidents really difficult for them too, and incredibly confusing on so many levels.
One of the big issues I have seen with girls I have worked with in Christian settings is how difficult it can be for them to understand their own sexuality. They are often confused about their feelings in relation to their faith – what if it’s attention they enjoy? Is that acceptable? And if it is, when does it cross a line and stop being OK? Then there is a part of purity culture that teaches that boys can’t control their urges and girls have to be the ones who create good boundaries, and so there may be a heightened (and incorrect) sense of guilt and shame for girls that they were unable to do this adequately, and especially if they have feelings of enjoyment about the attention they are receiving. They may fear being looked upon differently by their families and church communities, and so it seems easier to just keep quiet instead of being able to talk through what is happening in a safe and accepting space.
There is also a great deal of confusion around consent, largely because it is taught too late – often in Year 11 within the sex education curriculum in schools. That means that, by the time it is taught, it is already battling a well-established culture where the power and control is held by the boys. Girls can find it really difficult to know how to establish good boundaries, especially when it is a mate who is stepping over the line and they don’t want to get them into trouble.
And we know that young people are online a lot and social media is a big factor in influencing their understanding and opinions. In the last year in particular, they have had their places of escape taken away from them and their only outlet has often been the online world. There is so much I could write here, but what I will say is learning how to navigate the online world safely is incredibly important for the welfare, safety and mental well-being of our children and young people. Youth and children’s workers are in a prime position to help them and their parents or caregivers increase their knowledge and understanding.
And then there is the fact that for someone who has experienced abuse in any form, having to talk about it can be retraumatising and frightening, especially when the situation needs to be escalated in order to be dealt with. The lack of agency a person feels when things get taken out their hands can be too much for someone to deal with, and silence becomes preferable.
If you were to explore these issues in a youth group, how would you go about it?
I believe that the first and most important thing here is the culture of your youth group – is it a safe space? Is it somewhere that teens feel accepted and loved and cared for, no matter what they are going through? Does it have a culture of grace? Or is there a sense of needing to meet a certain standard to be accepted and loved? It is so important for teens to feel that there is someone they can talk to, a place where they can explore the difficult subjects, their confusing and sometimes frightening feelings and their tough questions safely and without judgement. As youth workers it is so important to create that space and that sense of belonging and acceptance, obviously within appropriate boundaries.
The other thing I would say is that these issues can be explored both in a focused way and in a wider context. So, spending time considering what healthy relationships and friendships look and feel like, what good boundaries are and how to uphold them are just as important as tackling head-on the subject of sexual harassment. If young people are secure in their understanding of healthy relationships, they will find it easier to spot when something isn’t right.
Addressing issues around self-esteem and helping to build their confidence in their value and worth – who they are as created and loved humans made in God’s image – is transformative and healing. Knowing their value counteracts the need to feel loved in ways that are damaging, and the more confident they are in this, the less likely they are to accept relationships and situations that are not healthy. There is also a huge need to help young people understand the realities of the online world and how to discern truth from the lies and the hype.
Starting these conversations as early as possible is really important – so get your children’s workers on board and collaborate with them. There are plenty of ways these subjects can be tackled age-appropriately – I spent almost five years with the NSPCC delivering abuse prevention assemblies and workshops to children aged four to eleven, and I am passionate about the fact that prevention, or at the very least early intervention, is better than cure.
It is also really important not to shy away from exploring the issues raised in the report head-on. The way you do that will depend on the format of your youth group, but group discussions (mixed or split into gender groups with feedback into the whole group at the end), inviting in speakers, showing talks, exploring the places young people can get help and advice – all of these are so important. How about asking the young people themselves how they would like to tackle the subject? Whatever you do, silence is not an option. Do your research, get familiar with the topic and issues, ask colleagues, peers and other professionals for help and advice or resources, consider getting a group of you together to receive training on the issues.
How might we start a conversation with someone who is a victim of this?
It very much depends on the relationship a youth worker or parent has with someone who is a victim. But there are two vitally important things keep in mind. The first is to keep that young person front and centre – their experience, their feelings, their needs are what matter. It’s also important to realise that you may have to make some unpopular decisions. In particular, when you are the youth worker (or any professional), there will be safeguarding protocols that you are obliged to follow in terms of reporting etc, so promising absolute confidentiality, for example, is not OK.
Honesty is important, let them know that you are aware of their situation and want to help and support them. Be prepared to listen – give them the time they need to say what they want to say, and actually hear them! Let them know that you believe them. Some situations can be so extreme, that a victim feels like they will never be believed, and in fact they may well have difficulty fully understanding that it really has happened to them. Allow them to stop and take a break if they need to – talking about a traumatic event can be exhausting.
Be clear about any next steps you may need to take – as far as possible gain consent to share what they have told you, but be prepared to make those unpopular decisions if necessary. In light of this, I would encourage all youth workers to put some time aside to prepare for these difficult conversations. While it is true that often these conversations are unplanned, it is worth making sure you are equipped with the basic knowledge you need – who should you report to? When do you need to tell someone else? When do you need to tell parents or carers? Discuss these with line managers and child protection leads in your churches or organisations so that you can be confident that you are able to do the right thing when a situation arises.
That all being said, the second vitally important thing to keep in mind is that this may be something you are not equipped to deal with. And that is OK! You can still support a victim, but some things are far better dealt with by a professional counsellor or a trauma therapist, so be prepared to seek appropriate outside help and support where necessary. Your initial conversation could be the key to getting them the help they need, but you don’t have to be the answer. In fact, you won’t be the answer if what is happening goes beyond your skill set and professional knowledge! Through my years in safeguarding, I have learned to never made decisions on my own or take on responsibility that isn’t mine or beyond my capacity because I want the very best outcome for the children and young people I have worked with.
Is it easier for youth workers to be involved than parents?
Not necessarily. Again it very much depends on the relationship that young person has with their youth worker and their parents. In my experience of working with victims of abuse, opening up to someone who has a bit of distance is often easier as it is less emotive, and the victim can focus on their needs rather than feeling like they have to consider how their parents or carers are feeling or responding. I would say that there is definitely a benefit to having someone who is not as emotionally involved as parents to be able to have a more balanced view of the situation as a whole, but the value of support from everyone who is a safe adult for that young person cannot be underestimated.
Are there resources which might help?
Firstly, look around you – check in with your networks as there will always be other youth workers or staff in your local schools who can help you with resources and their own experience of tackling the subject. And if you find that you’re all needing more support, pooling your resources and getting in some training for yourselves, or for the parents of your children and young people is always going to be beneficial.
There are also lots of resources online. Here are just a few:
Thinkuknow has a wealth of resources for children, young people, parents and professionals.
Childline’s ‘Remove a nude image’ is a fantastic resource where children and young people can report nude images of themselves that are on the internet and have them removed.
The Jigsaw Assembly is a hard-hitting video for eight to ten-year-olds that can be used in children’s groups.
‘The dangers of sexting’ from Warwickshire Police is excellent for youth groups.
GABRIELLA RUSSO was a youth and children’s worker in schools and churches for many years. She now uses her experiences to create and deliver tailored multi-agency and targeted safeguarding training for local authorities, schools, charities and people in the community: gabriellarusso.co.uk.