Why we need much more than consent training in our schools to stop sexual assault

Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and uses sexual terms. 

One of the main reasons I wrote my bestselling 2020 book From Boys to Men was to help parents and those who work with tweens and teens to raise boys to be happy, healthy men. No-one wants to raise their son to be a creep, a sexual predator, an abuser of girls and women or worse, a murderer who kills his female partner and children. Sadly, on this International Women’s Day we know that statistically violence against women is increasing.

At last there is some serious light being shone on the dark underbelly of inappropriate sexual behaviour and abuse and most specifically rape from boys and men in Australian schools, communities, businesses and parliament. From the moment that the courageous advocate for survivors of sexual assault Grace Tame became Australian of the Year, something shifted.

Then, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins finally disclosed her alleged (I use that word only for legal purposes) rape in the office of a Federal Minister. This disclosure from an eloquent young woman has been the catalyst for others to speak up about similar assaults in our Federal Parliament.

Then appeared the petition by former Kambala student Chanel Contos now signed by almost 30,000 girls and young women. The testimonies that they have left are harrowing and distressing to read however the light needs to shine on the stories so that we collectively know the truth of this violent culture and stop it happening to other girls.

Chanel has now set up www.teachusconsent.com and this is a message from that website:

“Those who have signed this petition have done so because they are sad and angry that they did not receive an adequate education regarding what amounts to sexual assault and what to do when it happens. These are uncomfortable conversations to have with young teenagers but it is far more uncomfortable to live knowing that something happened to you, or a friend, or perhaps that you were even the perpetrator of it, and it could have been avoided.”

Many of the stories shared are about appalling behaviour from boys from elite private schools. Since then, stories have been shared that include government schools so it is safe to say this is problematic for many adolescents, not just in Australia but around the world. I know and I want to acknowledge that not all boys behave in these disgusting ways, but many decent boys stand by and do nothing, and that has to stop too.

In Chanel’s words.

“The following testimonies were sent to me by those who passionately believe that inadequate consent education is the reason for their sexual abuse during or soon after school.” www.teachusconsent.com

First, let me explore some of the reasons why I believe things seem to have got worse since the digital world arrived. Indeed, most children and tweens have smart phones which give them access to content that can be shattering their child-like innocence and feeding a ‘hook-up’ culture where sex without intimacy is almost the norm. We need to keep in mind today’s children, teens and young adults DID NOT create the digital world. It was created by adults and, sadly, it is our young who are paying the price.

Access to free porn

Porn is freely accessible and sadly many children stumble upon it accidentally. Heck it can even be found on Kids You Tube where sickos embed links that take children to graphic hard-core pornography. There has been a significant increase in inappropriate sexual behaviour, often of a penetrative nature, with children under five. One of the main ways children learn inappropriate sexual play is by seeing pornography or through having another child who has seen it, doing it to them. Research has shown that sibling-on-sibling sexual violence is common among children with problem sexual behaviours – and the vast majority have experienced early sexualisation via porn.

The first thing we can do to better prepare our children to avoid being sexually abused or becoming a sexual predator, is to ensure that access to all pornography needs to have an age verification. Many good parents have told me that, even with parental controls and conversations about how to avoid seeing bad pictures and videos, their children have been exposed to porn by other children. With smart phones, this can happen on the bus, in a school playground or on a play date or sleepover.

Protective behaviours and body awareness education must start in the home and thankfully there are many excellent picture books and resources that can help with these conversations. We must teach our children about their ownership of their own body and that it’s not OK for anyone to touch their private parts. This is also where we first start talking about the importance of consent. It is now built in to early childhood education and in our schools however we need to be addressing this in our homes just as importantly. No matter how awkward the conversations are, they need to happen, often.

Adolescent sexual maturity

Evidence is now showing that today’s children are beginning puberty earlier than ever. There are so many changes on this journey – physical, emotional, cognitive and hormonal and one of the drivers on this journey to adulthood is sexual awakening. This is normal, however if our young people are learning how to express their sexuality by watching pornography it is problematic. Why? Firstly, because they are watching porn during a stage where they lack the cognitive capacity to understand and make sound choices through reasoned decision-making using a fully formed executive functioning brain (this doesn’t develop til the mid-20s or so). Secondly, during adolescence, they are biologically driven to belong, and to be liked and validated by those of the same age so they’re more prone to being influenced and so we can understand how this could become problematic. There is plenty of research that indicate that our young people’s sexual behaviour is being shaped (negatively, more often than not) by porn.

This problem of male entitlement where boys demand that girls meet their sexual needs, or where boys think there is no problem with raping a sleeping or unconscious girl, has to come from somewhere. It has been a part of traditional patriarchy for years but it seems to be reaching a tipping point for teen boys today – attitudes aren’t shifting as we might expect. This is not just about the lack of consent education. This is a lack of character building from not only their family and society at large, but also their school community, and the communities that surround them whether that be sport, faith or the arts.

Raising healthy, happy respectful men takes a lot of time and measured intention and cannot be left to chance or the world wide web.

Obviously, from some of the reports, choosing an elite school is no guarantee that your son will become the man you dream of. I argue that we are sending our boys over the bridge to manhood without any rails. Our boys are learning about life online and their phones are the main digital pathway. I have had boys tell me that they don’t need their parents to teach them how to do things because there is always a video on You Tube that will show you how to do stuff.

The gaming world has stolen hours of connection time for many of our teens. Not only that, some games like Grand Theft Auto 18+ include the rape and murder of women. Many other games are about killing and winning at all costs, which can feed into an unhealthy male ego that will then be hungry to use power in any way they can. We must remember that rape and sexual assault is about power not sex.

Today’s teens are spending less time in face-to-face contact with significant adults and that means less time in real-life relationships with fewer conversations to guide them to make better decisions for themselves. One of the big areas that parents and extended family or ‘the boy tribe’ – this circle of significant caring adults – need to be educating our young people around is healthy boundaries. Sibling conflict, friendship dramas and individual challenges that our kids experience will all have issues around boundaries. These conversations need to challenge disrespectful behaviour and teach over and over again, the values of the family. This is so important because not all families hold the same values. The metaphor about ‘the line in the sand’ needs to be a frequent conversation… what is ok, what is not and why.

 When the family holds and models strong values around honesty, fairness, respect, compassion and equity, it gives kids the most fertile soil to grow up with a decent character.

Yes they can still make poor choices, however the chances of them abusing others, or deliberately choosing to demean, hurt or crush another will be less. This is the way that parents and educators can challenge the unhealthy stereotypes that have existed within traditional patriarchy. I taught for many years in high schools and saw this pseudo-misogyny start around the age of 13 to 14 and now it seems to be happening even earlier. If it is not nipped in the bud around this age it can grow because a boy is hungry for credibility and status from the boys around him and he can make impulsively poor choices.

Many boys have told me how uncomfortable witnessing this behaviour can feel and we need to give them permission to show that real courage comes from standing up rather than being silent when disrespectful behaviour happens. If a mate shares details about a conquest or wants to share nudes (often elicited illicitly), we need to teach and coach our boys how to stand up and say that is wrong and not okay. For many boys, intervention can be really difficult because they risk being excluded from the group or becoming a target themselves.

We need to make it more of a norm to stand up and speak out and I think the light being shone on this issue right now is a great opportunity to do that.

Consent education will not be enough to transform some of the social conditioning that teen boys have experienced and may hold as truth. However, it still needs to be happening from early childhood right through to the final years of schooling. A key message needs to be about possible consequences due to the criminality of rape, cyberbullying, possession of child pornography (ie in the case of asking for nudes from underage girls) and the possibility of being sent to jail or juvenile justice, which can ruin their opportunities in future life.

There is a huge place for restorative justice, where a boy who has sexually assaulted someone goes through a process where he gets to understand the impact his actions have had. In other words, he needs to know how wrong his behaviour has been and that he now needs to make it right in some way. I argue that little boys need to learn about accountability because often their behaviour is impulsive and they are clueless as to what they did wrong, because their intention was not to cause harm. Pornography can distort this perception in boys because they can see this is “just what men do”. If only we could find video content of tender, respectful teen love making where both parties show joy and delight at sharing an intimate experience (Obviously over age of consent!).

Gender conditioning needs to be deconstructed and thankfully many excellent programs are run in schools however many schools do miss out! Long-term programs that focus on rites of passage are particularly effective at shaping mindsets. All genders need to learn about how to clearly communicate their wants, needs and boundaries. I preferred to teach in co-ed high schools because I knew that there were many opportunities in classrooms to challenge gender stereotypes and to have both boys and girls learn the nuances of conversation and learn to work together. Genuine boy-girl friendships around 16 can be incredibly positive as they can help each other navigate the final years of school. You never ‘hook up’ with your girl mate and you can feel important watching out for her safety and she can help stop you acting inappropriately. Two of my sons had girl mates who helped them enormously to grow into decent man.

What else needs to change?

Our girls particularly are being sexualised earlier and earlier. We hear of five-year-old girls asking mummy if she is sexy and girls in early primary school skipping meals so that they can look skinny enough to please the boys.

It is not just online that our girls get these messages. We must consciously challenge the harmful and disrespectful messages that are forced on our girls through pop culture, music, advertising, social media and pornography. Melinda Tankard-Reist has long been a champion for challenging these parts of our society. Have you seen some of the Honey Birdette shop windows in our large shopping centres? Some of these incredibly explicit advertising images that show women with their legs spread and their vulvas exposed in obvious porn-themed ads, are also on huge billboards. Sorry but this also needs to stop NOW.

It is difficult for children to understand the nuance between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification – which dehumanises women and makes them toys to be played with. Clothing with sexually suggestive message for boys and girls needs to stop too. I have taken a quiet stand and when I see these kids’ T-Shirts,I discretely  collect them from the rack and place them in a store bin.

Tinder-culture conditioning

Being able to find a date by swiping left or right on your phone has made dating a very different dynamic to how it was before smart phones. Admittedly many people have found their life partner on an online dating site. Sadly, for many men this space has become a little bit like a hunting ground and abuse has been allowed to run unchecked. There is already a serious concern around the impacts of loneliness and male suicide, and so this trend is one that is concerning. I know some women over 40 who frequent these sites looking for a genuine friendship and companionship who tell me how abhorrent much of the behaviour from many men has become over time. They will send a dick pic without consent, almost immediately thinking that will improve the chances of meeting! If only they knew how many of those pictures are shared in circles of women with much laughter! Many women have told me that if a man buys them dinner there is an expectation that they owe him sex. Sadly, these are grown men not immature teen boys.

Sexting and nudes

If we did not have smart phones in the hands of our children and teens, they would not be sexting and sending nudes. Full stop. Research from the e-safety Commissioner indicates 1 in 3 14-17-year-olds in Australia “had some experience of sending, sharing or being asked to share nudes”. Even though this may be considered quite normal among teens, it is still illegal. Sending unwanted dick pics and harassing girls for naked images needs to stop. Even if there is consent, it is still illegal. Harassing and pressuring girls in any situation is a form of coercive control. We must call this out and stop it because this is often a dark underbelly in domestic violence.

So many schools tell me of how much valuable time they lose during school hours managing the fallout of sexting or the unwanted sharing of nudes. This is not the job of schools and much of it happens at night.

Please delay giving your kids smart phones for as long as possible and definitely have tight boundaries around access to phones and digital devices at night. Really, don’t be complacent.

Kirra Pendergast from Safe On Social reports that she is hearing more and more from parents of kids in Grade 5 and 6 about flirting via devices that is bordering on sexting. We are seeing more and more instances of revenge porn (distributing nude images of people without their consent) and ‘sextortion’ (blackmailing someone by threatening to send images) and often young people are involved – this can get very serious. Please educate yourself about having conversations with your kids about this and what to do when things go wrong.

Parties and teens

Most teens enjoy spending time with their friends, and hanging out socially has always been a part of the adolescent journey. Statistically, today’s teens are drinking less alcohol than previous generations, however in our sexualised world parties have become more problematic despite the shift in consumption. Risk-taking behaviour is quite normal with adolescents as they are wired to stretch themselves without due caution as they have an underdeveloped brain.

Decisions made while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs that alter the mind, will be different than ones made while sober. This needs to be a key part of the education around consent and given the nature of the current landscape, every teen party needs to have adult supervision to ensure that everyone can stay safe. Making it as difficult as possible to consume large quantities of alcohol is also a sensible thing for the adult supervisors to ensure. Given that one of the most risky times around parties is getting home, care must be taken to ensure teens get home safely. Parties are not bad however they must have mature, responsible sober adults in attendance at all times. And if your teens are attending parties, please do all you can to make sure they have a plan for getting home and that they know that NO MATTER WHAT they can call you for help and you will have their back.

The legal system must change

Sadly, so few sexual assault cases end in convictions and this needs to stop. Further, the victim blaming rhetoric must stop. The legal process needs to focus on the perpetrator and the wrong they have done not on what a woman was wearing or why she was walking alone at night or whether she was drinking! Victim blaming is a part of unhealthy patriarchy and we must all educate ourselves about it and name it when we see it.

There is light and hope

After I finished teaching, I worked as a full-time counsellor and ran seminars in schools often for tween and teen boys. I still keep in touch via my surveys and in my own community and I am going to tell you that most boys are not creeps or misogynistic sexual predators. It was so good to read the head prefect of Cranbrook School’s speech which was recently published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Asher Learmonth gave a measured and brave callout to the boys in his exclusive school, quite simply to be better and to do better. He challenged them to stop making excuses for their poor behaviour and to change the way they view women from the sexist and reductive attitude of many. He argued that “women are just as interesting as you, just as smart, just as funny, have just as many insights, are just as impressive, are just as good value … Women are people like you. People to get to know. People to love. People to be friends with.”

Cultural change

Our cultural challenge is to build empathy and compassion for everyone, regardless of culture, gender identity or age. With these brave young women stepping forward and refusing to stay silent there is so much hope. It is not all bad in the world of the male gender.

Over the last 20 years there has been a wonderful cultural shift around men and fathering where dads now see themselves as valued and important in the raising of their kids. Big, tender-hearted capable dads are everywhere and so we know that culture can change. Our children of all genders need to be surrounded by loving, caring grownups who protect them from the negative impacts of the digital world and who make the time to teach and guide them to grow character and backbone so they are able to navigate this crazy dance called life – without hurting or harming anyone else.

Yes, the call for schools to do as much as they can to provide education – not just about consent but how to treat others with fairness and respect which is often under social and emotional learning – is an important part of changing culture, but it’s not all of it.

Indeed, many schools encourage our tweens and teens to be a part of the solution. They encourage them to aim to lift others up and bring more hope and light into the darkest unhealed parts of our world. We need to be very careful about WHO runs programs in respectful relationships – this is a task that has to move beyond fear-based lecturing and which encourages agency.

This recent letter from the Head of Newington College Michael Parker was a sign of incredible hope in the way schools can help change sexist culture. He gave very clear advice about how parents could dive deeply into consent with their young people. He acknowledged the need for parents to step forward and work with schools because we all have a part to play in changing disrespectful attitudes and perceptions.

Quite simply, for real long-term cultural change to occur we need so much more than just more consent training in our schools – but we do still need to start there.

We also need a serious campaign to call on tech giants to make their apps and platforms porn free for our precious kids under 18 and this needs to be needs to be a priority.

Collectively delaying giving kids smart phones for as long as possible could also make a huge difference. Phones and devices without access to the internet need to be seen as the latest best ‘practice’ to prevent early exposure to harmful content and cyberbullying. Deliberate and ongoing education in our primary schools for kids to learn how to become responsible, safe digital citizens is another step that will make a difference before they are given a smart phone. I am an ambassador for an excellent platform that allows schools to do this called Digii Social. It’s a great place to start with kids from 10-13.

Thank you Grace, Brittany and Chanel – together your bravery in sharing your stories and those of other girls and women means that more voices will be heard and the wheels of change have finally begun to move forward. Now we all have to step forward and play a positive role and we need to start right away.

On this 2021 International Women’s Day it would be fabulous if we collectively could give our kids, tweens and teens a clear vision of hope for the possibility of a world where there can be more compassion and healthy relationships that are based on fairness, equality and delightful mutual intimacy.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call the 1800 Respect national helpline on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Note: Maggie has written a follow-up to this blog. Read here.

Image credit: ©️ Paolese/Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com