Women and girls deserve so much better

The word consent has been mulled over more in the past few weeks than in a very long time. Rape and sexual harassment accusations within the Canberra “bubble”, the extraordinary outpouring from schoolgirls about their experiences, and even the NSW Police Commissioner’s ham-fisted “consent app” idea have put the issue front and centre in the political debate.

Despite various attempts at reform, the legal system still struggles with the concept and how to define it. There are good reasons why so few sexual assault victims are prepared to have their day in court and one of them is the difficulty authorities have with questions of consent.

It’s time to truly confront the issue of consent. Credit:Tribune

But what this discussion about sexual abuse, harassment and assault in Australia is making crystal clear is that the problem runs broad and deep.

Thanks to the likes of Australian of the Year Grace Tame and former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, the true scale of what women and girls face in our society is finally emerging. And it’s not confined to any specific generation or sector of the community or type of workplace.

Of particular concern is what is going on in schools. Former Sydney student Chanel Contos’ petition for consent to be included earlier in  sex education now has thousands of testimonies from women subjected to sexual harassment and assault during their time at school.

What is striking is the contemporary nature of these issues. These are not incidents from another time when sexual misconduct may have been explained away as being a result of a different set of standards, or simply kids being kids. Most of the testimonies are from recent years. We should all be horrified that we are not doing better.

This was brought home in Victoria by Wesley College principal Nick Evans, who has had to apologise to students and families after disclosures of more than a dozen instances of alleged sexual assault, harassment and disrespect to girls by male students. In his words: “I once would have said relationships in these schools were warm and respectful. Sadly, I don’t think I can say that now. I am personally devastated to be able to admit that.”

What can explain the present-day machismo and misogyny among school-aged boys? Child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg says water cooler conversations will throw up a range of culprits including teenage brain development, adult role-modelling, the power of peer pressure, abysmal and tardy education around respect and relationships, the influence of social media, violent video games and internet pornography. But what hope of a solution?

While schools have been in the firing line for not taking the problem more seriously, Dr Carr-Gregg has some stern words for parents: “Perhaps it is time we named the catastrophic spinelessness of some parents to set intelligent limits, boundaries and consequences when it comes to the behaviour of their boys.”

The fact that so many young women are now brave enough to put their stories out in a public forum means we can no longer ignore the behaviour to which they have been subject. It is there for all to see. Everyone must play their part.

Schools and parents must get better at educating young men that consent is not just a tick-the-box exercise before having sex – much less a click-the-app process. It must go to every interaction they have with women, whether it be at school, on a date, at a party or in the workplace. The Victorian government’s move revealed at the weekend to give state school students mandatory and specific classes on consent from next month is welcome.

This is a moment of truth telling. What emerges from it, though, is even more important than hearing these stories with an open heart. It may be easier to look away and ignore the many voices that are finally speaking up, but behaviour must change. Those brave enough to tell their stories deserve nothing less.

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