**Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.**
Schools around Australia are no doubt scrambling to introduce or expand consent education from Years K -12. While this to be commended, I have some concerns about the quality of some of the presenters. Firstly these educators need to understand teen development where sexual awakening, risk taking, making impulsive choices, and a drive to be liked and validated are all normal. Also, being demanded to change behaviour and being told what they should be doing, is usually met with a push back as teens are seeking more autonomy and independence.
Presenters also need to ensure they model respect and compassion and give teens a safe place to be heard. Recently I was told a consent educator made comments like ‘boys can’t help themselves’ and ‘girls need to be careful of how they dress’ or worse still ‘girls, stop getting drunk.’
I have also been told in a school of faith, that boys and girls are simply told they need to save themselves for after marriage. While this abstinence-only message may be in alignment with religious values, for many of the young people in our sexualised, less inhibited world these messages can induce even more guilt and shame – and abstinence only messages can fail to deliver key information about sexual health. A key message that might be helpful to include is the legal age of consent as many teens have never heard about it.
My other concerns lie with our tweens and teens themselves. Early sexual experiences can be confusing and scary even when consensual and respectful, let alone when things go wrong. When I was counselling full-time I can still remember vividly working with teen girls, women and men who finally had found the courage to disclose sexual molestation or rape. The main reason that many keep their traumatic experiences secret is mostly to do with shame. Of course, many girls worry they will not be believed and as we can see with all the stories being shared in the media this is still a big area of concern today. CEO of Enlighten Education Dannielle Miller has explored the unlikely chances of a victim fabricating sexual abuse.
Evil thrives in silence – so let’s talk
From the moment that Grace Tame (pictured) was awarded Australian of the Year earlier this year, the wheels of change began to move. The story and the silence that she had to endure, mainly due to our legal system, is horrendous. Her fight for justice is not just for herself, but for all those who have experienced sexual abuse and the march to Canberra, and around Australia on March 8th, included men and women. Her catch cry – that “evil thrives in silence” is so powerful and potentially transformative as it has the potential to bring more voices to be heard, and to be believed.
Interestingly, a challenging encounter I had with a large, powerful, popular young man at a 21st birthday party, when he tried to pull my knickers down and pushed me against the wall with his erect penis in full view, is something I have never told anyone. I am a strong and feisty female with very clear boundaries even as a then 16-year-old, and maybe thanks to having older brothers, my impulse was to punch him hard in the face. Thankfully for me, it was enough for me to escape. I have often wondered why I have never shared that with my nearest and dearest, or even the therapists I’ve worked with over the years. Speaking up must be encouraged from a young age and keeping secrets should be discouraged.
One of the most confronting and heartbreaking stories I heard as a counsellor came from a 21-year-old young woman whose life had been spiralling out of control for many years. She disclosed to me that at the age of 14, she and her friend had climbed out of the bedroom window to go to a party in the neighbourhood. At this party, older males in their 20s gave these girls alcohol and they were both raped by up to 8 men that night. This wounded girl had never been able to share her trauma because she felt so ashamed of herself because of the silly decision she had made. She had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, anorexia nervosa and chronic anxiety since the abuse had happened. Her parents had been completely mystified as to what had happened to their precious daughter at the age of 14 that had made her life so difficult. She had loving parents and yet avoided sharing her shame with them, for fear they would be so disappointed in her they would stop loving her. Following significant professional support she was able to overcome her challenges mentally and emotionally, and has been able to find healing and is now in a loving relationship and has two beautiful children.
I also had two men in their 40s disclose being raped and sodomised by clergy and a boarding master at a boarding school. The Royal Commission into institutionalised sexual abuse found that many men kept sexual abuse secret for over 20 years before they found the courage to disclose. The profound shame is again the main reason for this. One of the men I supported was worried that if his wife of 25 years knew that he had been raped, that somehow she would not be able to love him. Trauma, especially around sexual abuse, can cause really long term mental and emotional damage that does need specialised professional help to cope with. Sometimes the trauma and the shame is too much to bear – the last thing we need is the suicide of more young people.
“Evil thrives in silence” – again, Grace Tame has shared this so many times and I agree.
We must be ready to believe victims of sexual abuse. Also are all consent educators trained with how to receive disclosures and even more importantly know what to say and do if a traumatic memory should be triggered during the session?
Grace Tame has mentioned several times that when she decided to disclose what was happening to her and to report the teacher who had been raping her, she was believed.
The line around consent
One of the areas that consent educators need to be mindful of is the difference between premeditated and planned sexual assault and spontaneous, impulsive non-consensual sexual behaviour. I have concerns for both boys and girls who now know, looking back, that some sexual experiences they’ve had were not consensual. It doesn’t matter if it was a one-off experience or something that occurred within a relationship while they were adolescents exploring their sexuality. For girls who now know that what they may have come to believe from porn about how sex was supposed to be – and never spoke up when the sex made them feel uncomfortable or hurt – how must they feel? For girls who have kept an experience of sexual abuse buried… how are they feeling in this emotionally charged time of cultural change? To the boy who has realised that his coercion of a girl to have sex was wrong and may have caused her harm? For boys who ignored the messages of stop or no, who felt they had some sense of entitlement to a girl’s body, how are they feeling?
There is a grey area around consent that even adults can misread at times and so our teens are naturally more at risk of making poor choices. Men in my surveys have expressed regret about poor choices that made as teen boys. A lawyer explained to me that there are two types of consent – explicit and tacit. Some states would define consent as needing to be ‘enthusiastic’. There are also certain situations in which someone legally can’t be considered to have given consent (i.e. when they are asleep or intoxicated).
Tacit consent refers to something done or made in silence, as in a tacit agreement. A tacit understanding is manifested by the fact that no contradiction or objection is made and is thus inferred from the situation and the circumstances. – https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/tacit
Tacit consent is no longer considered sufficient. When we lean towards someone, when we respond to a kiss or when we make sounds that show we are enjoying something, we are giving tacit consent. Consent educators need to explore this area and keep affirming that consent needs to be confirmed explicitly, and that consent can be withdrawn and this also needs to be accepted. Further, all teens need to know that pressuring someone until they yield is not consent, it’s part of coercive control – that needs to be really unpacked with young people. Especially when 1 in 4 young people (according to Our Watch research) think it’s “pretty normal for guys to pressure girls into sex”.
My message to us all as families, staff in schools, lighthouse figures in young people’s lives in our communities – please be ready to listen, believe, reassure and then find the support that a boy or girl require to get the help they need. 1800RESPECT is a great place to start
Making amends for mistakes
In my latest book, From Boys to Men, I write in-depth about teaching boys about the line in the sand because things are changing and what was once appropriate, may not be appropriate now. As we deconstruct and challenge toxic male attitudes to girls and women, there will be mistakes made. Consent educators need to be careful not to assume all teens in the class are understanding the cultural shift that is happening.
In the consent education that is coming into schools, we need to address making amends. If boys identify that what they have done, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has taken advantage of the girl in order to have a sexual experience without clear consent, what does he do next? Making mistakes and failing can cause many of our boys to feel embarrassed, angry at themselves and ashamed. Not only that, they can be deeply impacted by the reactions of their parents and other people who love them.
“I have worked with two other male university students who have almost died by suicide when they failed at university. Both of these boys expressed to me how crushing failure was not only for themselves but their perception of how disappointed their parents would be too. Fear of parental disappointment is one of the reasons your sons will not come to you when they fail.”– Maggie Dent, From Boys to Men (2020).
Sadly I believe that some teen boys totally know that forcing themselves on others is wrong and yet they still do it anyway. Then I have concerns that some boys who learn that their actions were wrong and harmful, will become enraged and defensive and may take that toxic emotion and either choose to hurt more girls or ‘pay back’ the victim. This is a pattern in some intimate partner violence of grown men and if consent training has not been handled well, this could be an unintended consequence. This is why we must be careful of the implicit and explicit messages being given to our students.
We need to give them clear messages that they need to accept that what they have done is wrong, and that they not only need to choose to behave in a more respectful way in the future, they also need to consider making things right in some way. Restorative justice is possible in this place however both parties need to feel comfortable to be a part of the process or it could cause more harm for the victim. Boys can ‘make it right’ in other ways. They can step forward when disrespectful behaviour or banter happens and call it out as wrong or they can be an obvious safe ally for girls in their families, schools or communities. They can become agents for positive change by joining rallies – or choose to actively support a local women’s refuge.
Misogyny and disrespect towards girls and women in our homes, schools, communities, work places and even in the Federal Parliament, will no longer be accepted as it has in the past. We are at a significant crossroads of cultural change and the steps forward need to be chosen mindfully and carefully.
Please keep in mind that our boys and girls in the window 12-25 are still maturing on all levels, and are highly impressionable and vulnerable. Tread carefully when doing consent education (in our high schools especially) and having conversations in your homes. Remember ‘evil thrives in silence’.
For more information and support…
- 1800 Respect
- Reachout has some good information about sexual assault.
- Beyond Blue has a helpful forum on sexual assault.