Don’t always assume inappropriate behaviour is sexually aggressive

27 Sep 2021, 6:00

Learners are sometimes being wrongly labelled as sexually aggressive, writes Jennifer Wilkinson

Teaching in the 21st century is no small feat. Not only are we now educators, the list of “professional responsibilities” just keeps growing.  

One of the hot topics in FE at the moment is sex. Now I know what you’re thinking: yes, sex has always been a hot topic.

But for most young people education is their first real experience of an institution and of a community. As such, it is only natural that colleges become the pitch upon which many issues play out on a micro-scale.  

And in the post-Savile/Weinstein era, inappropriate sexual behaviour has now become a pressing professional responsibility for teachers. Although this heightened awareness has many benefits, it also has its drawbacks. 

That’s particularly the case for learners with autism and complex learning difficulties.

When lecturers are faced with, let’s face it, the uncomfortable situation of confronting sexually inappropriate behaviour, our instinct can be to communicate the severity of the situation to the student in question.  

In schools, there are now zero-tolerance policies on any sexually inappropriate behaviour, including revenge porn, sexting, physical acts or unwanted attention.  

Of course, actions must have consequences. If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot just ignore the problem.

However, what do you do when the student does not fully understand their actions? Is the hard-line approach really the best solution? 

A fashionable colleague once told me a story about working one-to-one with a student with complex needs. She just so happened to be wearing sparkly-glitter tights.  

While she was reading the student’s work, he began to run his hands up her leg, under her skirt. Naturally, she screamed and jumped out of her seat.

When she asked the student why he’d done it, he said, “I wanted to see what the tights felt like and if the glitter went all the way up.” 

The student said ‘I wanted to see what the tights felt like’

It was not meant as an act of sexual aggression, nor to harm the teacher. The student simply saw something sensorily interesting.  

Students with autism and learning difficulties are at risk of being labelled “sexually inappropriate”, “sexualised” or “sexually abusive” because of the lack of understanding within colleges of how to deal with difficult events constructively.  

These labels can be highly destructive, often making it more challenging for students to express sexuality in a healthy way.   

Recently, a male student with learning difficulties made inappropriate advances towards a female student on his vocational course.

She felt extremely uncomfortable and understandably stopped speaking to him.

However, he did not understand why, nor did he feel able to speak to staff to help him navigate a very complicated social situation.  

The boy became labelled and isolated from his peers on his course. He did not fully comprehend how his behaviour had caused this complex situation or affected others.

He eventually dropped out of college altogether. The support available to him came too little, too late.  

Between 20 to 30 per cent of convicted sexual offenders are “estimated to have learning disabilities or difficulties”, according to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression in 2007. 

We also know crimes by those with learning difficulties and autism tend to be impulse-based – trigged by curiosity as opposed to seeking sexual gratification.

But this cohort has a higher rate of detention and prosecution than the average population (Craig & Hutchinson, 2005). 

Educators should not be put in a situation where hard-line responses are all we have, because mental health support has been outsourced to a phone number due to budget cuts.  

So, we desperately need the government to employ more professionally trained counsellors in colleges, who can focus on early intervention and prevention of escalating behaviour.

I am a teacher, not a professional counsellor. My job is to preserve the student-teacher relationship and maintain an environment where any student can learn.

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