Who's teaching kids about rape culture and consent?

Hundreds turned up to a protest at Parliament   against rape culture.

Hundreds turned up to a protest at Parliament against rape culture.

Chanting "no means no", and "2, 4, 6, 8, stop the violence, stop the rape", they moved on to Parliament lawn, placards held aloft.

"If she can't say no, she can't say yes", "consent is not a joke", and "teach consent in all schools", the signs read. The protest, organised primarily on Facebook, was a response to comments made on the same platform.

Within the crowd were hundreds of school students, young men and women still in their uniforms. They called for it to be compulsory for schools to teach consent, and the rights of women, and for an end to "rape culture". 

Year 13 Wellington High Josh Stewart, 
Charlotte Poi, and Mira O'Connor, all believe schools should be taking a bigger ...
Cameron Burnell/ Fairfax NZ

Year 13 Wellington High Josh Stewart, Charlotte Poi, and Mira O'Connor, all believe schools should be taking a bigger role in teaching consent.

The rally was organised by Wellington East Girls' College students after young men from Wellington College posted on Facebook comments about raping drunk girls. The boys were later suspended by the school. 

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Meanwhile, at St Patrick's College, Silverstream, four year 9 boys had been suspended for inappropriately filming two female teachers.

Scots College prefect, Manraj S. Rahi says students can do more to speak out against peers who speak or act inappropriately.

Scots College prefect, Manraj S. Rahi says students can do more to speak out against peers who speak or act inappropriately.

The two incidents brought out into the light once again New Zealand's rape culture, raising questions about how and where consent should be taught, and what teenagers were doing on social media – a world many parents and teachers are unable to access. 

A culture that needs changing 

The first thing to address, Auckland University's Dr Claire Meehan says, is the culture in which these comments were able to be made.

If teens are saying such things online, they are most likely saying them to each other, says Meehan, a lecturer in criminology.

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"What happened last week in Wellington, I think, speaks to larger issues of a rape culture that are going unaddressed.

"What really needs to happen is open and honest conversations with families about the larger issues, issues of consent, issues of sexual self, of privacy, of rights, of misogyny, of feminism."

An understanding of consent needed to be taught, that was fundamental.

Professor of sociology Alan France agrees there is a deep cultural problem underlying what happened. 

The country needed to start to think about what was appropriate when it came to role models, and find ones who supported and encouraged young people, "and really do something serious about those negative ones".

"They're not healthy, they give boys justification to act like that. I'm sure their parents are shocked by it, and don't see it as acceptable behaviour.

"They're picking it up from somewhere." 

Consent in the classroom 

Sexuality education is taught in the health and physical education curriculum, so is already compulsory up to year 10, Minister of Education Hekia Parata says. 

Ministry guidance to schools on sexuality education, last updated in 2015, says this should cover consent, coercion, sexual violence, and safety in intimate relationships. 

"I don't think schools can be held responsible for each and every aspect of a child's upbringing, it's a function of society and parenting and the kinds of values and moral compass that we instil in our children as parents and as family," Parata says.

"I think that schools are doing their very best to provide good guidance for the time that students are at the school."  

It was not a school issue per se, but a community issue. 

There are specialist services in Wellington region, and across the country,  that can assist schools with their sex education.

The Sexual Abuse Prevention Network had been working with Wellington College's year 9 and 10 students for two years. The school is now planning to extend its education programmes on healthy relationships and consent. 

Other principals spoken to in Wellington say they provide comprehensive consent education, and Secondary Principals' Association president Sandy Pasley reiterates that teaching consent is in the curriculum.

"It's really critical for young people that they have respect for themselves and respect for others. They're the important messages." 

When the Education Review Office (ERO) was reviewing schools, it looked at how the curriculum was being addressed in each particular school. 

"It's got to be done through the right channels, it's [consent] got to be taught and when ERO reviews us that's what they can look at." 

Associate Professor Katie Fitzpatrick was the lead writer for the Ministry of Education's revised policy of sexuality education in 2015. 

"It's nice that principals are saying they're committed to it, but I would be very surprised if all principals had dedicated programmes," she says.

The teaching of consent meant helping people understand what legal consent was, and how to stay safe, and keep friends safe, in alcohol-fuelled situations. 

"There's a lot of complexity, and it needs time and space to understand – the ethics, the legality, what strategies do we use to be positive, what might ring alarm bells? There's a lot of content." 

Fitzpatrick visited schools as part of her work, and says only a handful were doing really good work. She called for schools to be required to timetable two hours a week for health education from years 7 to 10. 

The online element 

The issue became public via screen shots taken from a private group on Facebook, made up of Wellington College boys. 

Every school would be trying to teach students about the potential consequences of posting things on the internet, but the message did not always get through, Naenae College principal John Russell says.

"I don't imagine there's a secondary school in the country that isn't trying to get that message across, trying to deal with it through programmes and doing it specifically when things like this happen."

The adult world did not behave that well, and kids had total access to it online. "It's quite a hard world for them to find their way through in terms of ethical benchmarks – what's acceptable and what's not." 

At Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt, principal Maria Potter is dealing more and more with incidents and behaviour happening after school or on the weekend that involve students posting on the internet.

Not only are children constantly online, but the technology they are using is becoming more complex, and young people more capable, Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker says. 

Ministry head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey says generally a student's family or caregiver is expected to take overall responsibility for a student outside school hours.

What can parents do? 

The idea of consent is an adult one and complex, says Parent Help therapist Katrina Jacobsen . 

It involved noticing your own feelings about something, stopping and thinking about what was going on, and then making an ethical and moral complex decision around how it affected you, as well as others. 

It was not just parents and schools that should teach children right and wrong, but also the wider community. 

Parents could demonstrate good decision making in conversations with children, and also create a safe environment for discussions. 

The impact of peer bonds was important with teenagers, and when groups of kids got together, the quality of their decision-making could be reduced. 

"Often teens are really aware of the issues, and so you can talk about – 'how might this be different, what could have happened, what do you think is the impact on other people, what would you have done'?" 

Social media added another complication for teenagers and parents, in that comments were recorded for a potentially huge audience to see. 

Parents needed to be aware of how much time a child was spending on Facebook and other media, and again create a non-threatening atmosphere so their children could approach them if they saw something inappropriate. 

Time for change

The events of last week "brought home" what was going on in society, Fitzpatrick says. "Most of the time we go around with a head in the sand approach. When you actually see it up close and personal, you can't put your head in the sand because it is happening. 

"It's a reflection of wider issues and we do need to do something about it. Not just the school, not just the family, but a combination, and young people themselves need to be involved."

What do teens say? 

Scots College prefect Manraj Rahi says he was taught consent between year 7 and 10 as part of the health curriculum, and again in year 12. He felt comfortable in knowing how consent worked in a social setting. 

Guest speakers came into the school to talk about relationships, and to teach boys at the all-boys school how to talk to girls. 

He agrees with academics that rape culture and consent are issues for society, not an individual school. 

"I don't think anyone is immune from being exposed to that talk. We do need to take it more seriously, especially students. I know schools take it seriously but I'm not sure if the reception is the same." 

When it came to comments online, there could be more leadership from senior students, in a world that teachers and parents could not always see. 

He was not shocked by the comments – boys talking about women in a derogatory fashion was not new. In the past people on the street could say something without any record of the fact, but now that conversation had moved online. 

It is hard to pull up friends for saying things they shouldn't when you have to sit with them in class, or spend the whole day with them, Rahi says. 

"We do need to take a bigger stand, we need to be bolder ... we can do something about it." 

Year 13 Wellington High students Charlotte Poi, Mira O'Connor, and Josh Stewart all say they wanted to see better teaching of consent. 

They disagree that it should be left to parents. 

"You can't know every single parent talks to their child, but you can know the school is talking to every student," O'Connor says. 

They feel they have been taught about consent to a high standard at school, but weren't sure it was the same elsewhere. 

The trio feel safe when spending time with their peers, but say it could be different at parties. 

Under the influence of alcohol people could make very silly decisions, Stewart says. On a couple of occasions, he'd had to tell people to "back off". 

"Even without alcohol there are behaviours that support the kind of rape culture," Poi says. "I don't know if that's because of who they hang out with, or other people they've spent time with." 

As a female at a party even if you were safe, it was always at the back of your mind, O'Connor says. If a friend could not be found, she would instantly be concerned because "you just don't know".

That perpetual worry was something boys never had to deal with, and did not understand, says Stewart. 

O'Connor is surprised the incident involved Wellington College boys has blown up so much, saying there would have been many similar comments made. She is also surprised not just about the number of people who have spoken out about it, but that the boys on that page had the confidence to share what was being said. 

All three agree with Rahi, it is not easy to publicly pull people up for inappropriate remarks on social media. 

 - Stuff


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