29 July, 2021
From a young age we teach our children to ask for permission, to learn to respect others and to play well together. These pro-social skills are learned and practiced, then reinforced by parents, teachers and other adults. They are also learned through interactions with siblings and in social settings such as the playground. Through trial and error, our young people learn about consent through the context of the sharing of a toy, a learning tool or even personal space. Experience and guidance informs them how to play, cooperate, collaborate and make friendships, and consent around person-to-person interaction is at the core of these successful relations. Sadly, we are now beginning to appreciate that in regard to intimate interpersonal experiences within our greater adolescent society, this notion of consent may have lost its way. Many courageous young women have recently told of personal experiences where the lack of consent has led to assault or rape. Many disenchanted young men have felt the stigma of being tarred with a universal brush of accusation. We, as a society, are now grappling with the reality that we have allowed a perfect storm of conditions to exist unchecked, and it has led us here, today.
Tasmanian law is different to many states in Australia in that a lack of refusal is not deemed consent in regard to sex. Tasmanian law states: To consent to sex, a person needs to be old enough (within the legal age of consent) and freely agree to the sexual activity. You cannot freely consent if you are drunk, drugged, unconscious or asleep. It is also not consent if you are forced, tricked or threatened into having sex. If you have sex with someone who is unable to freely consent, this is sexual assault, which is a serious crime (1). Whilst we don’t expect that people will solely rely on knowledge of the legal system in regard to their actions, why is it that some people’s moral compass is discarded in the most personal of moments after years of family, societal, informal and formal education around consent? The many factors that result in this are inter-related and complex but, in my 30+ years of experience in working with young people and watching societal and technological evolution, there are four key elements I wish to focus on: the neuroscience of the teenage brain; societal expectations and peer pressure; access to online pornography; and alcohol and unsupervised social gatherings.
Neuroscience research has shown that the gap between the remodelling of the brain’s socioemotional reward system and the cognitive-control system is significant between the ages of 12 and 20, resulting in teenagers being far more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. This results in teenagers finding it increasingly difficult to self-regulate in motionally arousing situations (2). Also identified through this research, is the growing need at this age and stage to fit into a peer group and gain their approval. During this stage, when our teenagers’ brains are undergoing re-wiring, peer group influence is of far greater importance than parental and familial approval, which dominates this space in younger children. In many, this manifests itself in the pressure on our teenagers to be in a relationship, to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, and to be interested and to experiment with intimacy. Helping to fuel that pressure is the influence from the media, and social media in particular, which sexualises both our boys and girls and is accessible to all, virtually 24/7.
In short, there is significant pressure on our teenagers to be adults before they have the neurological or emotional maturity to make the best decisions and to potentially act in a way that opposes the peers from whom they crave approval (2).
The most recent and possibly the largest contributing factor to this issue is access to online pornography. It is often the first observation that a young person has of an intimate relationship and findings from entities such as Covenant Eyes (3) support that assumption, finding that:
■ 9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography online before the age of 18,
■ The first exposure to pornography among boys is 12 years old, on average,
■ 71% of teens have done something to hide their online activity from their parents,
■ 28% of 16-17-year-olds have unintentionally been exposed to pornography online,
■ 20% of 16-year-olds and 30% of 17-year-olds have received a sext.
Equally damning, a 2017 article on the ABC cited a study by the Burnet Institute’s researcher, Dr Megan Lim, who found that ‘of more than 940 young people in the study, the typical age for boys to view porn for the first time was 13 years of age, and 16 for girls’ (4).
The effect of this on the behaviour of young people is startling, but probably not surprising. Numerous studies, such as that conducted some years ago by Child Family Community Australia (5) and an article in the Journal of Paediatric Health (6) found that the effects on our young people of frequent and routine viewing of pornography and other sexualised images may:
■ Lead to high-risk sexual behaviour,
■ Reinforce harmful gender stereotypes,
■ Contribute to the objectification of women and the forming
of unhealthy and sexist views of women,
■ Contribute to sexual aggression and the condoning of violence against women, and
■ Lead to unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships.
Given that a meta-study in the USA (7) of problematic pornography use (PPU) stated that ‘the content analysis of best-selling pornographic videos revealed that 88% of scenes portrayed physical violence’, it is no wonder that pornography has such a profound and deleterious effect. In short, the easy access to online pornography sets the scene for young people to form an unhealthy view of what an intimate relationship ‘looks like’ and the role that each person in that relationship plays.
Melinda Tankard Reist (8), author of a number of books about the sexualisation of girls and the porn industry, offers an even more bleak assessment. The porn industry, she charges, “takes pre-existing harmful codes of masculinity and entitlement and turbo-charges them.
All the best intentions and efforts cannot compete with the world’s biggest department of education: pornography. If we don’t address pornography’s conditioning of boys, which trains them to accept rape myths – that “no” in fact means “yes” – and which normalises aggression, coercion and domination, these girls and all those that follow don’t stand a chance.”
Given the aforementioned factors at play (adolescents’ inclination towards risk-taking behaviour and peer approval, and their ready access to pornography), access to alcohol at this developmental stage for our young people adds a further dangerous factor in the area of consent. Apart from the damage alcohol consumption has on the developing brains of our teenagers, alcohol consumption has the dual impact of removing any inhibitions they may have as well as potentially rendering one person incapable of removing themselves from an unwanted situation – this goes for both boys and girls.
Add these elements together in an unsupervised environment and even good young people will do things they regret when the factors at play over-power what they know to be wrong.
In highlighting these contributing factors, I am attempting to show that we know our young people are at a vulnerable stage in their lives, and importantly we know what adds to the likelihood that they will make mistakes that can cause irreparable damage to another’s life and their own. If we think about where and with whom our young people spend the majority of their time, it is at home and at school. This presents the opportunity for these two entities to work together to give our children/ students their best possible start in life and provide environments that promote and reward belonging, compassion, integrity, respect and equality. We must break the cycle of stereotypes of toxic masculinity and submissive femininity, of violence against others/women and of unhealthy relationships that destroy lives.
Although the concept of ‘consent education’ is fairly recent, the College has been working proactively in this area for many years through an educative approach, utilising guest speakers such as Melinda Tankard Reist, Susan McLean, Paul Dillon and SEED, to address the topics of the sexualisation of young women, cyber-safety and sexting, drug and alcohol awareness, and respectful relationships. These of course are in addition to that which is taught in Health and Physical Education, modelled through our College Values and reinforced via the multitude of daily interactions that occur between staff and students. All teachers are first and foremost concerned with the welfare of our students; even so, our pastoral care system ensures that there are layers of care for each and every one of them. From our class teachers and tutors, Heads of House and Dean of Students, to our Heads of School, Counsellors, Psychologist and Chaplain, there is always a caring and confidential ear available to our students to help them with any concerns.
Our commitment to developing young people of good character is as strong as it has ever been; the landscape is, however, becoming more complex. Therefore, we are currently reviewing what we do, researching amongst colleague schools and reinforcing our CollegewideWellbeing Program to ensure an integrated approach to address these and other vitally important social, emotional, physical and spiritual issues in the healthy development of our young people.
Given the issues we are navigating, it is more important than ever that home and school work together to support our young people.
Some suggestions are:
■ Install a net-nanny to guard against inappropriate internet use for all ages;
■ Have open, frank dialogue with your children about sexual consent and pornography;
■ Always supervise parties and do not provide alcohol to underage people;
■ Attend wherever possible the Wellbeing community seminars we host and discuss with your child/children the parallel programs they have attended at school;
■ Limit social media access and discuss the unrealities of media representation of children, as well as that of the women and men to whom they are often relating and aspiring to emulate online.
All these endeavours are with a mind to guiding our adolescents to adulthood safely and buying them time for their developing brains to catch up with their impulses and their values. I can think of few things more important in life than the ability to form and maintain caring and respectful relationships and we owe it to our children to have these difficult conversations early, to pave the way for their happiness later.