For the past few weeks my news feed has been dominated by commentary on the need for better sex education in schools. This is fantastic news. I’m glad people are getting on board with this as it is something I, as well as others in my field, have been advocating for many years. Calls have been made by parents, politicians and psychologists for students, namely boys, to be taught about consent in order to address the overwhelming incidence of sexual violence committed against school aged girls.
I read an article on the topic titled, “The Sooner, The Better: Why Young Boys Need To Be Taught About Consent” In this article it was suggested that “We fail to ask young men to practice consent, to respect women’s wishes to avoid sexual violence,” While I realise that the remark was referring to societal narratives that endorse victim blaming, I don’t agree with this statement. The fact is we do ask young men to practise consent and we do ask them to respect the ‘wishes’ aka human rights of women to be free from sexual violence. We have been asking for decades.
Discussions around consent are not new nor are they absent in schools.
Over the past decade I have been involved in both the development and the delivery of sex and relationship education programs to thousands of students, teachers and youth workers across New South Wales. Every single one of these sessions has involved some discussion on consent. I have run workshops discussing the complexities of consent and written programs explaining the simplicity of it. I have never run a workshop, a professional development session or a class on sex, relationships or reproduction without talking about consent. Ever. Nor has anybody I know.
Young men are not sexually assaulting women simply because they are confused about consent. The problem is much bigger than that. I know this because we are all talking about consent. All. The. Time. And yet, little is changing.
Asher Learmonth, head prefect at Sydney’s prestigious Cranbrook school summed it up when he addressed his peers a few weeks ago and stated, “despite the regular, valuable, and powerful talks we have received about consent and respect over the years sadly it appears that these speeches haven’t had the intended and crucial impact”
Asher’s address to his peers is powerful and brutally accurate. In it he depicts the attitudes of entitlement, privilege and power that underlay the basis of a rape supportive culture which equally contributes to and dismisses, the existence of sexual assaults on school aged young women.
In a move that would usually be disallowed by the PR departments of Sydney’s elite private boys schools, Asher recounts witnessing situations of gross misogyny from his peers where he stood by and said nothing. He gave specific examples where a girl’s politeness and willingness to engage in conversation with a boy was viewed as a ‘leading a boy on’. He pointed out that her refusal to engage in sexual activities after a night of interacting like this was met with anger and disdain, shared vocally around the school labelling the girl a “tease”. He openly admits many boys in his cohort view spending time with girls as having a very singular sexual purpose. This has never been addressed.
It may be argued that these attitudes of entitlement toward sex are amplified by these boys being part of one of the most privileged groups of men in the world. This may well be the case and if this is true we must also consider that a lack of education is not the problem.
Sex education about consent is essential. There are definitely some sexual interactions that cause confusion when it comes to consent and I believe we are on the right track to addressing these. We need to reframe sex from something that someone does to someone else (almost always boys to girls) to something that people do together. We need to talk about how sex feels. How sex should feel. How sex should leave you feeling. We need to talk about respect and dignity and sex outside of relationships. We need to talk about safety of sex, emotional and physical. We need to talk about the responsibilities of have sex with someone outside of birth control and preventing STI’s. We need to talk about this as humans. Not as boys or girls. Some boys really want to have sex in high school but not all boys. Some girls really want to have sex in high school but not all girls. All of this is ok. We need to talk more about sex. And how good it should be. Because if we don’t, we have a generation of people having sex when they really don’t want to and not ever knowing that it should actually be an excellent experience. The key to talking about consent in high school is to tell young people that they should really only be having sex with people who REALLY REALLY want to have sex with them.
But even when we as educators are given permission to talk about this in ways we KNOW that work, it has limited effectiveness unless we are all adequately addressing the underlying gender issues which are arguably one of the causes of the problem.
Unfortunately, even the most comprehensive sexuality education program which debunk messages of toxic masculinity and reductive gender roles will struggle in our current social and educational environment which seems unable or unwilling to appropriate address the sexual assault of women even in its highest most public forum.
Over the last few weeks we have heard of several schools warning girls that they should not wear revealing clothing to school formals for reasons including, ‘not distracting the male teachers’, ‘not risking male teacher’s employment at the school’, ‘keeping themselves safe’ and ‘having some respect for themselves’.
Other heads of schools have criticized parents for holding parties which enable sexual assaults to happen. Another principal stated that we can’t expect an intoxicated teenage boy to “recall his sex education curriculum and restrain himself at a boozed-up party when given the opportunity to pursue his porn-filled imagination and desire”. Can't we really?? One Principal of a girl’s school emailed parents telling them it was important they knew where their daughter was, who she was with and that they picked her up at the end of the night, and did not allow alcohol at parties they hosted.
We live in a society that normalises the aggressive pursuit of sex by men to women. We are told to accept that it happens and simply try to avoid it. It is assumed that boys always want sex and girls are the gatekeepers of it. Girls are responsible for their perceived level of attractiveness to men and should consider this in all of their interactions. Even at school. Even with their teachers. This is not acceptable.
While we are in classrooms teaching these young people and their parents about sex and consent, we have heard our Prime Minister dismiss, disregard and diminish the serious assault of a women in parliament house and blatantly fob off the idea of an investigation into claims of a rape committed by one of his most senior staffers. The Chief of Defence addressed his academy class warning them of the dangers of being out after midnight while consuming alcohol, and presenting themselves as “attractive”. He stopped short of letting them know they had no-one else to blame if they were sexually assaulted while doing these things.
From the time they are born boys and girls are organised into genders where there is a massive power imbalance. Boys are strong like KingKong and girls are weak throw them in the creek. Women are defined by their attachment to men ie Miss or Mrs while men are individuals whose social status is unaffected by their marital status yet having a beautiful woman by their side often adds to their own value. Men possess women. Women belong to men. Our fairy tales, our societal structures and our marriage ceremonies all enforce these notions. They still pronounce us MAN and wife. This power imbalance is reinforced both subtly and overtly in thousands of different ways throughout young people’s lives and it all adds to the subtle yet serious dehumanisation of women which allows the act of sexual assault as well as the dismissal of its occurrence to be accepted as commonplace in our current society.
THIS is what we need to addressed in all classrooms in all schools. Everywhere in every way. Gender education is essential and needs to be overhauled in our education systems.
Mason Black, head of Brisbane Boys College, addressed his student body this week speaking out against a culture that devalues and dehumanises women and asked them ‘stop being boys, and start being human”. It is a speech that has been praised by many. And rightly so it was moving and accurate and necessary. It should not be ignored however that this is a speech that women have been giving for years. I have been ‘ranting’ about this for years. My 12-year-old daughter raised this same issue in her own classroom this week. When she informed the boys in a discussion in her class that 1 in 5 women would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and it was something that really concerned her and should concern them, they told her she was lying and exaggerating and that she needed to calm down. Sound familiar? She came home crying. Cautious to ever put herself out there again. Cautious to ever speak up. This is the world we live in and it is unacceptable.
Comprehensive Sexuality Education in schools is essential and invaluable but we are fighting an uphill battle when principals of schools who tell their female students to not show their shoulders because its distracting to the male staff members, still have jobs. We are fighting an uphill battle when 12 year old boys disrespect and disregard their significantly more informed female classmate as hysterical without intervention or education by their teachers.
We are fighting an uphill battle unless more people start taking this seriously and we reprimand our leaders of educational institutions who support the gendered stereotypes which allow this power imbalance to flourish.
Leesha is a Sexuality Educator, writer and Psychotherapist specialising in adolescent sexuality, diversity, gender, relationships and wellbeing.