MTR opinion piece on ABC: Why “consent” doesn’t stand a chance against porn culture

Published March 10 on ABC Religion and Ethics 

Warning: this article contains accounts of sexual assault that many will find disturbing.

“Most of my friends had either been raped, sexually assaulted or received unwanted sexual attention by the time we were in year 11.”

If ever there was cause for a cultural reckoning, the Hurt Locker of female student trauma compiled by Chanel Contos is it. It is Exhibit A in our collective failure to cultivate the social conditions conducive to the flourishing of healthy young human beings. The horror archive now contains more than 5,000 accounts of sexual assault, unwanted sex, and coercion shared by female students and former students in response to a question posed by the 23-year-old former Kambala student on Instagram.

Now studying in London, Contos asked if other young women had experienced sexual assault by their peers from all-boys schools in Sydney. (The net has now been extended Australia-wide.) The query grew out of a conversation among friends who each realised they had “unlimited rape stories” to share. “It happened to so many of us”, Contos says. “We talk about a guy who forced us to give them head like what we had for breakfast yesterday.”

Some young women describe waking up naked at parties or in a young man’s house, after passing out due to intoxication, with male peers penetrating them. Some said they had only met the alleged perpetrators that same night; others they had considered friends. Some said they only realised something had happened to them when they woke up in pain and found their underwear soaked in blood. Some who were forced to provide oral sex say they were filmed in the act.

Every day more girls come forward to add to the trauma tome, offering their testimony of being violated by teenage boys. Some of the girls are as young as thirteen or fourteen years of age.

Reading the accounts feels like wading into a never-ending crime scene; taken in its entirety, it represents a horrifying collective refusal to recognise the humanity, much less the human rights, of young women. The stories echo those that I’ve been hearing for more than a decade in hundreds of schools — stories of sexual harassment, emotional manipulation, cruelty, and coercion. My most recent encounter was with a twelve-year-old girl in extreme distress, having been pressured to send sexual images by an eighteen-year-old male, who then blackmailed her for more.

Chanel Contos is now calling for better sexual consent education. I support her aims — I speak frequently about consent and respectful relationships, too. And I commend her for bringing the issue to public attention in the way she has. But with every school workshop I run, I see that overwhelming cultural forces are overpowering any hoped-for advancement. Consent education won’t be effective if women are not first seen as human and worthy of dignity and respect. We are, ultimately, talking about a grave and systematic human rights violation.

All the best intentions and efforts cannot compete with the world 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.

The porn industry is a mammoth dispenser of sexualised violence and misogyny; it is the world’s most powerful sexual groomer. Boys see girls as something to act-out on rather than fully engage with. Of course, we already knew about unhealthy expressions of masculinity, harmful patterns, and too narrow expectations of behaviour. But the porn industry takes pre-existing harmful codes of masculinity and entitlement and turbo-charges them.

The illusion of consent

I have sometimes heard it said that the boys didn’t know what they were doing. That they needed to be taught more about consent, or that, in the heat of the moment, they simply misunderstood the girl’s wishes. But surely we can all agree that if a boy rapes a girl while she is asleep, there was no attempt to gain consent. If a boy sexually assaults a girl while his friends film it and they then share the footage, there was no intention to gain consent. In both instances, sexual gratification triumphs over empathy. The victory is in the taking. Can we really claim that this many — otherwise intelligent, well-educated — boys didn’t know that it was wrong to behave like this? Do we really needing to be writing on whiteboards in class, “If a young woman is unconscious, you shouldn’t have sex with her”?

There is a disturbing degree of coercion — whether it be the practice of ignoring consent or of forcing something close enough to consent to give the perpetrator plausible deniability, getting his “consent card” stamped, if you like —reflected in so many of the accounts that Chanel Contos has gathered. Here is a small sample from thousands of those testimonies:

“I have had many peers describe openly to groups at school their ‘techniques’ to get a girl to agree to Sex after they initially said no. I realise now that it was not … consent, it was duress.”

“Older Boys who had already graduated from [school name] and [school name] would buy us drinks and get us drunk then make moves on us when we were obviously not able to give consent. We would’ve been about 15 and at that age we thought it was cool but also had no idea what we were doing when these boys clearly did.”

“Proceeding to ask another 30 times and receiving a unwilling yes due to peer pressure is NOT valid consent. That is a young woman too unsure of herself that was finally coerced into giving the answer they know you want to hear.”

“My ex boyfriend went to [school name]. Most times he initiated sex it would be really sudden, grabbing me, jumping on me etc. He convinced me I ‘liked it like that’ but after sex I’d often feel deflated and used. When I tried to talk about it with him he would either be dismissive, gaslight-y or turn it around on me by saying he felt uncomfortable when I asked for consent before initiating sex.”

“I was raped by my then boyfriend … in 2018. We were sober and lying in his bed about to go to sleep. I said that I didn’t want to have sex but he didn’t take no for an answer. And I think that’s the crux of rape culture: the idea that a man is unconditionally entitled to a woman’s body ... I told him to stop a number of times but it kept going. Then he started attacking me with his words. When I couldn’t take it anymore I said ‘fine, make it quick’. I lay flat and still and stared at the back of his room while he used my body as a hand. The next day I was confused, repulsed and mentally unstable.”

“When I was in year 9 I stopped hanging out with a group of [school name] boys so I wouldn’t be in a position where I would be pressured into giving oral when I didn’t want to. I had to literally isolate myself from some of my guy ‘friends’ because consent was not respected (even during the day when sober, not just at night). If you were not ready for sex or not taking part you were considered frigid, and bullied for it …”

A number of testimonies indicate that the offenders had already participated in “consent” sessions. For instance:

“A [school name] boy who I considered a friend, had sat in the same auditorium as me, through the same consent education day our schools held together. Three months later he raped me at a party. It’s not just about consent education but entitlement.”

“It was last year in 2020, I was really drunk ... He had been my boyfriend for 11 months … I told him I didn’t want to have sex … I was a virgin, he knew how important it was for me ... He proceeded to do it … He then broke up with me and proceeded to say ‘I know I didn’t rape you, because I did a sexual consent course at university and what I did was not rape’ the morning after it happened. Knowing he was fully guilty …”

Many of the testimonies demonstrate the limitations of the language of “choice” and “consent”. Girls often feel as though they didn’t really have a choice; consent became merely giving in, or passive compliance. One woman writes, eloquently, that “it’s this illusion of choice and illusion of consent that actually gaslights victims. I was coerced and forced to do something I didn’t not want to do without ever being asked if it was something I wanted at all.” Another writes, “I was educated to say ‘No’ [but] I was never taught what to do if you get raped.”

De-radicalising boys

These young women suffer the collateral damage of pornography’s distortion of male sexuality and disruption of developing sexual templates. “He would put me in uncomfortable positions that he had seen from porn websites”, one writes. The non-consensual circulation of video footage or images of the humiliation of these women — often referred to as “revenge porn” — is also a sickeningly common theme.

Mindgeek, the Montreal-based parent company of Pornhub, the world’s largest purveyor of pornography, has been investigated by a Canadian Parliamentary special committee and is currently facing multiple lawsuits — including class-action suits filed in Quebec’s Superior Court and US federal courts in California and Alabama. The company is accused of profiting from the trafficking and production of child sexual exploitation material, and of hosting a large number of images and videos of women and girls being violated against their will. Any serious reckoning with the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls must take into account the role played by these vast machines of misogyny in normalising and promoting that violence.

I have a colleague who is a research scientist at Oxford University. He uses the pseudonym “James Evans” and has written profoundly about the need to “de-radicalise boys” by breaking the hold porn has over them. He describes how, through years of porn consumption, he “stopped seeing women as human beings.” Immersion in dehumanising online subcultures resulted in “a radicalisation behind laptop screens and smartphones that preaches the objectification, dehumanisation, and hatred of women and normalises sexual harassment, rape, and child abuse.” Evans said he needed to rebuild his sense of morality in order to “return to thinking that abuse is wrong and should be condemned and stopped, not something you masturbate to. I had to re-learn empathy. I had to start seeing women as human beings again and not just living sex dolls.”

“Porn is every toxic male power fantasy, polished, scripted and in high definition”, Evans warns. “We’re looking at a future of far more widespread abuse against women and girls if we don’t de-radicalise men now.”

Evans has joined other men in calling out porn’s life-warping and relationship destroying effects. My colleague Daniel Principe, who works with me in schools, recently shared his reflections on sexualised culture and the need to call boys to a higher standard. In the wake of Chanel Contos’s petition, the Headmaster of Cranbrook School, Nicholas Sampson, described “readily accessible pornography” as the “most pernicious and undermining of all” of the negative intersecting influences on young people. Cranbrook boys’ prefect, Asher Learmonth, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “women are completely and shamelessly over-sexualised — mere objects of our desires”, and he called for a radical shift in behaviour.

It is good to see more boys and men doing what they can to interrupt the porn-inspired script.

Consent is not enough

“Consent education” cannot compete with this mega-industry. Consent is important, but it is not women’s salvation. I fear we may start thinking of “consent” as a magic bullet to get us out of this mess. How can we hope to convince boys that “Girls aren’t sexual objects, so don’t treat them like pieces of meat”, when this global industry profits from indoctrinating them to see women as precisely that — just meat for their own enjoyment?

Until governments and regulatory bodies step up and do something serious to protect young people from pornography’s malign influence, women and girls will remain at risk — and the aims of the National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children will not be realised.

One immediate action the federal government could take is to respond to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry report, released this time last year ago. The Committee concluded that “age verification can create a significant barrier to prevent young people — and particularly young children — from exposure to harmful online content.” As Professor Michael Salter from the University of New South Wales recently remarked:

It is well past time we had a serious conversation about regulation around adult content, we have age verification for online gambling sites — there’s no reason why this should not be applied to adult content sites as well. Basically we have an entire generation exposed to this material really in the absence of any government or industry regulation.

It is this absence of an ethical and just response that is contributing to the de-humanising of women and girls, and to the inflicting of further physical injury and emotional damage. It also contributes to the severing of young men from their own humanity and their collective “moral injury” caused by participation in gravely unethical behaviour.

Unless we address the malign effect of pornography, the testament of trauma that Chanel Contos has begun to compile will just keep growing.

MTR on ABC Brisbane drive with Steve Austin

ABC Brisbane Radio's Steve Austin interviewed MTR March 11 about the opinion piece published by ABC Religion and Ethics the day before. 

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  • Melinda Reist
    published this page in Media 2021-03-12 02:48:25 +1100

You can defend their right to childhood

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