From education to employment

Reducing the Risk of Sexual Harm: Episode 4 – The Challenge of Technology


This is the fourth in our series of six podcasts looking at how FE providers can take steps to reduce the risk of sexual harm in their organisations.  We discuss how technology has brought new risks, how online risks can manifest in real life, and ask how as leaders in FE you can understand more about the risks your learners face. 

Technology is so ubiquitous, so fast moving and so much the natural environment of people younger than ourselves that it is easy to become defeatist about our ability either to understand or to influence the nature and the impact it has for and on our learners.  Few of us in leadership positions have either the time or the inclination to spend hours exploring the seamier reaches of the internet and every concerned parent knows the futility of trying to grasp the technology life of any child much beyond the Peppa Pig stage. 

Anybody who has a phone has the ability to become a victim or a perpetrator of sexual harm without effort in seconds.  The web-site ‘Everyone’s Invited’ has logged more than 50,000 accounts of sexual harassment experienced by young people at educational establishments in the UK.  Bullying and harassment can follow a young person home from school or college and become part of home life as long as the phone is switched on

As a balance, though, it’s helpful to remember that the harms and the impact they have are the same as they always have been – it is the tools that have changed rather than the intent.  There have always been flashers, but instead of having to hang around in a cold park waiting for children coming home from school and running the risk of getting caught by the police, somebody so inclined can just send a picture of their penis to everybody around them who has forgotten to turn off the airdrop function on their phone and there is gathering evidence that the majority of young girls have been sent ‘dickpicks’ – although it is certain that most of them would not feel comfortable talking to their parents about it.  

There have always been voyeurs, but being a voyeur online is much less risky than being one in real life – somebody over the age of 40 might have been groomed by an adult, but not by one pretending to be a 12-year-old girl playing an online game and getting them to take their clothes off in ther own bedroom on camera.   

Accessing hardcore pornography is so easy now that most boys over the age of 12, and some below, think that strangulation during sex is normal behaviour.  A survey of 3,300 undergraduate students found that 4% had engaged in sex work in 2017, mainly online.  This may not be illegal, but is likely to have unanticipated consequences for the students, not just on their wellbeing, but on their future careers, which they will find impossible to undo.

As we discussed in our first podcast,  in a democracy laws are written when a society decides that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.  There are several pieces of legislation in development trying to address voyeurism, the use of unpermitted images, and stalking, but even if and when they are in place, it is highly unlikely either that there will be enough physical resources to pursue all cases, or that technology will not move on.  What laws can do is increase the barriers to offending by bringing in a real threat of consequences. 

Some of the most effective things you can do as a leader to tackle these technology-enhanced issues are down to earth and pragmatic.  Firstly, be open to listening and learning – talk to your learners and your staff, not just through electronic questionnaires and surveys, but in real life.  Build a network of contact points, not just a system of ‘representative’ (which are never representative) committees and focus groups which tend to be self-selecting.  Ask whether there are areas for which you could usefully set up basic training or advice – sex education, or phone safety (how to turn your air-drop off in public places, managing your personal information….), help for student sex-workers, classes on consent, or the law around sexual offending.

Above all, you can create a culture of transparency in which staff are trained in observation and the art of having difficult conversations, which encourages debate, and which engages your learners in learning defensible decision-making in a tough and troubled world. 

Reducing the Risk of Sexual Harm

This brand new series of podcasts, by TDI, will be published on FE News every Thursday. Find each episode on FE News!

Find the series rundown below:

Episode 1 – The Big Picture – 15th June

    Episode 2 – The Law – 22nd June

      Episode 3 – Compliance – 29th June

        Episode 4 – The Challenge of Technology – 6th July

          Episode 5 – Accountability – 13th July

            Episode 6 – Creating A Safer Community – 20th July

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