Crime

'The sooner, the better': Why young boys need to be taught about consent

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An expert says when it comes to preventing sexual assault, the focus is too often on victims’ behaviour rather than changing the attitudes of young men, who statistically represent the majority of perpetrators.

Conversations about consent have dominated Australia’s political landscape since Brittany Higgins, and several other women, alleged they’d been sexually assaulted by the same Liberal staffer.

Former Sydney high school student, Chanel Contos, also made headlines this week after receiving thousands of allegations of sexual assault from girls as young as 13. 

While shocking, these allegations are not surprising, according to Dr Michael Flood, a researcher on masculinities, gender, and violence prevention at the Queensland University of Technology.

Brittany Higgins
Brittany Higgins has spoken out publicly about her alleged rape inside Parliament House.
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According to the 2016 ABS Personal Safety Survey, one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

In 2018, the rate of police-recorded sexual assault was almost seven times as high for females as males, ABS data shows.

A whopping 97 per cent of sexual assault offenders in 2018-9 were men, according to ABS. Males aged 15 to 19 years of age had the highest offender rates of any age group.

Dr Flood believes boys from primary school age, boys can be taught about bodily autonomy and consent. Lessons about sexual consent can take place from the age of 12, he added. 

Historically, there’s been a historical “victim-blaming” focus on educating girls and women about how to reduce their risk of sexual assault, Dr Flood told The Feed.

“The net result is that we fail to address the source of the problem. We fail to ask young men to practice consent, to respect women's wishes to avoid sexual violence,” he said.

The knowledge of those aged between 16 and 24, when it comes to violence against women, has declined over time, according to the National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey.

One in eight respondents believed that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.

Alarmingly, two in five Australians surveyed said women make up false reports of sexual assault in order to punish men.

Dr Flood said this survey also showed perpetrators may not recognise their own behaviour as sexual assault or rape. 

“With some men who’ve sexually assaulted a woman, what they think they've done is they've had sex,” Dr Flood said.

“Their sexual pleasure and that sexual coercion of women is so normalised, that they may not name what they've done as rape, although they clearly coerced or pressured that woman into sex,” he added.

Dr Flood said other men may be aware that a woman is hesitant or uninterested in sex but still prioritise their own pleasure.

“Some people say that we need to teach boys and men how to communicate better but I also think the problem is a willingness to push past women's resistance.”

He told The Feed restrictive ideas about gender and sex can lead to harmful outcomes for men and women. 

“So for example, the expectation that men should be the sexual initiators and women should be the gatekeepers,” he said.

Other harmful myths that men have an “uncontrollable sex drive” and the stigma for sexually active women also persist.  

Dr Flood said it’s encouraging to see programs on respectful relationships and sexual consent in schools but notes they’re often “ad hoc” and uneven across Australia.  

Along with schools, parents have a crucial role in educating their children about healthy and respectful relationships, Dr Flood said.

“As a parent of a son and a daughter, I’ve had those conversations about consent and bodily autonomy and I explicitly criticise some of the sexist and rape supportive messages in pop culture or advertising,” he said.

 “But we shouldn’t neglect the responsibilities of our workplaces and institutions of our schools, government and other social institutions.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.