From the Deputy Head Master – Summer Hill
In addition to his missive to you concerning the shocking testimonies of sexual assault by boys and young men that was the subject of press coverage last weekend, the Head Master spoke powerfully at Quad Assembly with your sons about the allegations that the perpetrators were boys and young men from schools like ours. His remarks were confronting and sobering. The fact that the coverage followed hard on the heels of allegations of a cover up of a sexual assault in our own Federal Parliament suggests we have not yet eliminated a toxic culture that, at its heart, objectifies women and is deeply misogynist. Sadly, although unsurprisingly, it is almost a year to the day that the School spoke with your sons about the anti-social and misogynist behaviour of a group of young men on a Melbourne tram that was the subject of a Four Corners programme, Boys’ Club, when the incident first broke last year. Last week’s press coverage drew back the curtain on the largely hidden pattern of sexual abuse by adolescent boys and young men, and has led me to reflect on the fine line we walk between creating the sense of belonging and community that we value so much at Trinity, and the potential for children and young people to make poor judgements, especially online, when they congregate in groups, when they sacrifice their values in order to experience a sense of belonging, or in their interactions with those outside what they perceive as their group.
What it reinforced for me was the critically important role teachers and parents play in bringing up our sons and daughters. We must, if we are to avoid the pitfalls of racism, homophobia, misogyny, tribalism and other anti-social behaviour, continue to teach them and talk to them about our values, how those values are reflected in how we behave, and what the basis for those values is. Importantly, we must also follow up in a way that is consistent with those values when our children and young people inevitably fall short of our expectations. The boys and young men who behaved so disgracefully on that tram in Melbourne a year ago were from a school not dissimilar to Trinity. The boys and young men accused of sexual assault last weekend are also from schools like ours. It is entirely plausible that young men from Trinity have engaged in the toxic behaviour that has been so vividly uncovered. On a personal note, I am grateful for the courage and strength of the young women who shared their stories, as devastating as they were to read.
So, how then do we respond as parents and teachers? How do we help our sons develop and act with empathy, a sense of decency and respect in their personal relationships? What can we do to help our sons grow into good men? How do we bring about the cultural reckoning that Daniel Principe has called for in a recent article in Eternity?
There are no simple answers to why some boys and young men sometimes engage in deeply misogynistic, sexually abusive and disrespectful behaviour. Although, to be fair, western culture has a long patriarchal history that means the roots of sexist stereotypes and tropes run deep. This is not a recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, one of my working hypotheses, and one which I have written about in this forum previously, is that the ubiquity of pornography, the pornification of contemporary culture and social media, and especially the way girls and young women are represented, has created a perfect storm that has a particularly harmful effect on young people. The statistics around the first exposure to pornography and the fact that virtually all adolescents in Australia have viewed explicit pornography by the time they are 16 is significant, in my view. What seems to be consistent in the research is that frequent viewing of pornography, and substituting pornography for sex education, leads to the objectification of girls and women, an increase in male sexual aggression, negative gender attitudes, an increase in sexualised behaviours on social media, increased narcissism and an increase in callousness.
Lest we take refuge in a belief that the boys and young men of Trinity Grammar School are atypical, the School participated in a piece of research conducted by Dr Marshall Ballantine-Jones, a current parent, that found that over half of our Senior School students were statistically likely to be regular consumers of online pornography. Even more confronting is the statistic that 90% of pornography involves violence towards women, a piece of research that Susan McLean, a cyber safety consultant, shared with our Housemasters in a professional development session in January this year. Likewise, there is a significant body of research that suggests that the consumption of pornography by boys and young men leads to a decrease in empathy and an increase in callousness. Given these research findings, it is unsurprising that some young men form the view that intimate relationships and sexual activity are done to someone else, rather than with someone else and that they form a worldview where they believe they are entitled to behave in a way that is, in fact, both anti-social and almost certainly criminal.
So, if we take it as a given that we want our boys and young men to grow into empathetic, ethical, respectful, and decent men, we must step into this space. For those of you of my generation, the prospect of being connected twenty-four hours a day is an alien concept. But this is the world in which your sons spend many of their waking hours and which informs their behaviour and values. It is a world which is unregulated, addictive and largely unsupervised by the adult community of parents and teachers.
Can we stop them from watching pornography or engaging in inappropriate sexualised behaviour on social media? Probably not. But, forewarned is forearmed. If, as parents and teachers, we are aware of how young people are behaving online, intuitively a precursor to adoption of anti-social values, and if we are prepared to engage in conversations around what constitutes acceptable and healthy behaviour, if we are prepared to deconstruct the unhelpful and depersonalising depiction of women, if we are willing and able to have the conversations around consent and intimate relationships, it ought to be possible to mediate the messages they may be receiving and mitigate some of the worst effects of a cultural milieu that sexualises and objectifies girls and young women.
As an aside and an encouragement, it was very interesting to note a couple of years ago, when I attended a presentation by a guest speaker from Your Choicez, David Kobler, to Year 9, that a number of the boys and young men in the room expressed an appreciation that their parents had been strict in the enforcement of family guidelines around ‘phones and devices in their tweens and early teens, and saw parental control and clear boundaries as a good thing for them.
Some years ago, I shared some suggestions from a little booklet produced by Churchie, an Anglican Boys’ School in Brisbane not unlike Trinity in its values and the composition of its student body. Many of these tips come with permission from that little book. Most of them are common sense, but, as with many truisms, they gather power, cultural currency and momentum from repetition and sharing. Points ix, xii, xiii and xiv are apposite.
- Set your expectations for your son just a little higher than you think he can achieve
- Understand that your son doesn’t only learn by doing as you say. More often, he learns by watching and imitating you.
- Encourage the process rather than the result (more on this subject next term)
- Allow your son to experience the logical consequences of his actions
- Understand that it is the certainty of the consequence, not the severity that is the key
- Insist your son does chores
- Be an authoritative (not authoritarian), consistent parent, not a friend to your son
- Encourage humility rather than hubris
- Know your son’s friends
- Explain that compromise is an inevitable part of human relationships
- Allow time for your son to talk and don’t fill the silence
- Insist that your son respects women and girls
- Reject the excuse for boorish behaviour that, “boys will be boys”
- Respond decisively to disrespect, rudeness and profanity
- Pass on life’s lessons. Share your experience.
Bradley Barr | Deputy Head Master – Summer Hill
 On Wednesday the ABC News online platform published an analysis piece on consent that may be helpful for some families https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-24/what-young-people-need-to-know-about-consent/13184494
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