This week brought the news that there has been threefold rise in the reporting of sexual offences in schools over the last four years. According to the most excitable content creators, our schools are now plagued by five-year-old sex pests.
The figures come from a study by charity Plan UK, based on responses to FOIs from police forces in England and Wales. The way these stats were reported varied with agenda: The Mail Online ran with the headline "Revealed: How children aged FIVE are accused of 'sex crimes' at school" and worried about "schools becoming hyper-sensitive"; the Guardian angled towards blaming porn.
The stats are these: within the reporting period, there were 4711 reported sexual offences on school premises. Data showed there were 2751 recorded suspects, 357 of whom were teachers, 61 were school staff, 788 were pupils, 21 parent/relative/carer and 880 recorded as "unknown".
Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of alleged victims were girls or women and 94 percent of alleged offences were committed by men or boys.
Given the startling number of UK women who experience sexual assault, that the attitudes and behaviours underpinning this begin early is no surprise. Plan UK is very sensibly using the report to call for better sex and relationships education in schools.
"These alarming statistics show that we're failing young people when it comes to learning about healthy relationships and consent," said Plan International UK Head of Girls' Rights Kerry Smith.
What we can't tell from the statistics is whether it's the number of sexual offences that is rising, or simply the reporting of them. Plan UK acknowledges this and released a statement by research consultancy nfpSynergy analysing the findings and concluding: "Reported sexual offences have more than doubled in the period 2011-12 to 2014-15. However, this does not necessarily reflect an increase in sexual offences during this time, but rather an increase in reported sexual offences."
In the time period discussed, we've had Jimmy Savile and other high-profile sexual abuse cases. Talk about consent and boundaries is undoubtedly, and thankfully, far more mainstream than ever before. Both of these, perhaps, foster a climate in which schools are keen to pass on to police anything that could constitute a sex offence.
And that brings us to the biggest problem with this data. What are these sexual offences? Without knowing this, it seems silly to draw conclusions. Data submitted under the FOIs groups together everything from having porn on your phone to serious physical assault; a field so broad it becomes meaningless. Of the incidents reported, 471 were alleged rapes. What were the remaining 4240? Likewise, who were the victims in these cases? Were they always pupils or sometimes teachers, staff or parents?
It was during the period in question that the sexting terror raised its fearful head. In 2014 a teenage girl was given a caution for sending an explicit selfie to her boyfriend. It's an area the police acknowledge as messy.
"The line between whether a child is a victim or an offender is a blurred one," wrote NPCC Lead for Children and Young People, Olivia Pinkney, in a blog. "The offence that they are committing of making and distributing an indecent image of a child is an offence that was created prior to the smartphone era within which we now live. It was intended for an adult who created and distributed images of a child, not for peer on peer images."
Inevitably, the reporting of the Plan UK stats turned towards porn, with the Guardian quoting Lucy Russell, UK manager of girls' rights campaigning at Plan International: "There is an indication that the very heavily sexualised messages that children are getting from online pornography and sexualised videos is impacting on their behaviour."
It's unclear why porn – no longer a startlingly new threat – would have contributed to a rise in reports since 2011 and, while it undoubtedly needs to be addressed as part of sex and relationships education (SRE), the issue is too important to tidy away with easy scapegoats.
"Any suggestion that pornography is responsible is naïve," says Professor Clarissa Smith, professor of sexual cultures at the University of Sunderland. "It may be an attempt to sideline what is really needed: full, and age appropriate, education about the ethics of relationships – sexual, emotional and platonic – recognising the need to set boundaries around acceptable behaviours, not requiring children to put up with unwanted interactions, and dealing with the continuing sexism in our expectations of children."
And finally, 788 of the 2751 incidents were carried out by pupils. There are around 24,500 schools in the UK and these reports cover a four-year period. That's roughly one incident per 31 schools, over the time period. Still too many, but hardly indicative of a nation of sex-crazed schoolchildren.
SRE is still not mandatory in UK schools, despite desperate pleas from campaigners. Any step towards changing this is welcome. Meanwhile, it doesn't bode well that such a wide spectrum of behaviour is being labelled an offence. Schoolkids need to be empowered to make good decisions and set clear boundaries. Creating a murky pool of shame around everything related to sex has the opposite effect.
More on VICE: