Children should be taught about the realities of pornography and online grooming before they reach puberty, when they will start accessing sexually explicit materials for themselves, the shadow women and equalities minister has said.
Pupils as young as five need to start new age-appropriate relationship education to keep them safe from abusive relationships, according to a report by Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, whose constituency was at the centre of a child sexual exploitation scandal.
Her Dare2Care report, launched in the House of Commons on Tuesday, cites a survey of more than 1,000 children aged 11 to 16, which found that at least half had been exposed to online porn and 94% of this group had seen it by the age of 14.
“The girls who I speak to say boys’ attitudes towards them change at about 11, and so we need to be there before that,” Champion said. “Unless you give them the context before they see porn, it’s too late.”
Current statutory guidance is for sex and relationship education to begin at key stage 3, covering ages 11 to 14.
Champion, who resigned and then decided to return to the frontbench during the Labour leadership crisis over the summer, said the government should not be too naive to tackle the effects on young teenagers of watching porn or being sexuality exploited via social media or online gaming.
“It is natural for children to be curious about sex, but without good statutory education, children do their own research through online pornography,” her report says. “Children are regarding porn as a lesson in how to have sex, without the context or the understanding to view it as a fantasy, promoted by an industry that normalises violence against women and girls.”
The report calls for new relationship education to “ensure children have the knowledge to contextualise or challenge what they are viewing online and in the media, and also provide the tools to rebuff harmful requests and behaviour from abusers”.
Champion, who interviewed dozens of young people for the report, said she had been disturbed by their stories of sexual exploitation and abuse. In one class in Rotherham, Champion said, one young boy asked: “If I have a girlfriend, do I need to strangle her when I have sex with her?”
“He just wanted a straight answer. Because there had been no real education about it, what do you do? You go online, they are finding porn, and that’s what people do in porn.”
Champion said younger pupils “don’t have the context to see that this is a fantasy” and believed it was “a manual”.
Younger girls who spoke to Champion for the report told her they believed it was obligatory to have anal sex or to be shared between a partner’s friends if they wanted a boyfriend to remain faithful, she said.
Justine Greening, the new education secretary, is understood to be receptive to the idea of reformed relationship and sex education, including new guidelines for the digital age.
“She has given us warm words about this, and there are lots of simple wins here on curriculum additions,” Champion said. “And it has to be for all children, across the board, because it doesn’t just happen in the state school sector.”
Champion said she would also like to see new preventive strategies become one of the main focuses of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, led by Prof Alexis Jay.
“Theresa May wanted to do something and agreed to this inquiry without realising what a Pandora’s box they were opening,” she said. “Had they set timelines, had they set other parameters, I don’t think we’d be in the mess we are in now. I’m grateful to her for launching it, but she has given a real poisoned chalice to the various chairs.”
Champion said it was clear that survivors wanted recognition from the inquiry, as well as recommendations for prevention for the future. “They want closure, and they want confirmation that they weren’t lying for 30 years and I think that is something we do owe to them,” she said. “But I have always found that you need to be honest and upfront at the beginning, and there should be very specific parameters.
“Without giving that clarity, everyone puts their own projections on what it’s going to be, and you can only fail to meet them. And all we ever hear are the problems, and we need to hear far more about how it is going and the timescale.”