Why 'no' is so

At school, being pursued socially is a badge of honour and a source of envy, as it still determines your social worth. CEO of Relationships Australia NSW Elisabeth Shaw explains the nuances of consent and how we can better support victims of assault.

This article was originally written for Body & Soul.

Chanel Contos’ online petition seeking comment from girls and women who have experienced sexual assault by a boy from a single-sex private school has drawn a great deal of attention, and rightly so. It describes a snapshot of disturbing behaviour and of longstanding shame and trauma.

It can be tempting, at first glance, to rush to draw conclusions based on first impressions. You might be outraged that something as simple as “no means no” still hasn’t taken hold. You might hold questions about why girls “put themselves in that position”.

You might rail against privilege, entitlement, power, and the systems that support it, in this case, elite private schools. Yet this defies simplistic judgements and conclusions.

Gender and Power

Patriarchy is alive and well, and that there remains pervasive and persistent gender discrimination. Women in Western society do enjoy more freedom than in many societies, have greater educational opportunities and career prospects, and that means their desire to hold their own in male domains is both a right but also operates in defiance of that baked in reluctance to really share the power with them. Even where power, privilege and entitlement may look equal, there are the familiar re-enactments in relation to gender and power, and the exposure again of vulnerable young women.

Girls and women are now more strongly encouraged to develop their careers and to be independent of thought and action. On another level, the message is that to be valued is to be wanted by a male and to fulfill a sexual fantasy. Too many young women are posting online in their underwear, blatantly set up as an object of desire. On the one hand, looking empowered and celebrating, indeed flaunting their bodies and sexuality, on the other holding poses of pin ups throughout the ages, always objectified, always vulnerable. The communication is both clear and unclear.

Women are not “asking for it” when they strike those poses and accept those social invitations. They want the desire, the social acceptance, the chance to explore connection, and to simply have fun. It is also true enough that male socialisation, measured still by “notches on the bedpost”, being potent and the conqueror, leads to a mindset that the willingness to be present at the gathering is a willingness to go along with anything that occurs.

For young women, some level of being compromised is often thought to be the cost of buying your way into acceptance. We see this in the entertainment industry and in the workplace, even in parliament, so it is really not a surprise that we see this in schools.

Social worth and pressures  

At school, being pursued socially is a badge of honour and a source of envy, as it still determines your social worth. Being invited to a party or gathering means you count and it can feel frightening to be left out.

It can feel tenuous to rely on being a male’s choice as a gateway to social success; to keep your spot the level of compromise can be intensely felt as the classic “rock and hard place”. Cast out or refusing to participate can feel like social suicide. Keeping yourself afloat and as part of that, drinking your way into connection, can seem like your only option.

Saying no and staying home or saying no when your male friends push you into joining in requires a level of moral courage that can take a lifetime to acquire. Throughout our lives as adults, we know all too well how hard it is to stand up to unfairness and injustice. Speaking up on the side of right can mean being rejected from your religious community, losing your job or your relationships, shunned by your local community. We don’t celebrate people who go against the tide.

Knowing right from wrong

Thinking that men behaving badly are ill-informed or ignorant is a highly erroneous proposition. This week Scott Morrison said that he needed his wife Jennie to explain to him his correct political course, and this drew great anger. It is challenging to be presented with men as perpetrators of violence against women, and then otherwise portrayed as needing women to explain right from wrong. We need male allies to assert peer responses to pervasive problems of equity and social justice. Not for women to train them.

We can spend a lot of time instructing young people about the right course, when largely people know the “right” thing, but can’t operationalise it. The stakes are too high, the cost too great, the anxiety and fear running too hot, the time pressure is on. Glib responses like “just say no”, while important for the tag line for TV as a broad socially supportive position, just doesn’t always help on a lonely Saturday night.

So right now, we can be aghast at the trolling and abusive behaviour and the vulnerability of victims, and that is how it should be. How we wrestle with the more pervasive problems about gender equity and respect, navigation of sexual politics and the ethics of consent, in the context of youth, the need to belong and the vulnerability of youth mental health, take a much more comprehensive and holistic approach to all those different strands of the problem. This is not solely a youth problem, although it is disturbing to see how young it starts.

Play a part in change

What we have recently seen displayed in alleged assaults within parliament and incorporate life brings home all too well that this is a broad social problem not defined within any one cohort. Narrowing the focus might make us feel that the problem is more manageable, but sometimes you have to see it for what it is and know that we all play a part in change.

Those who have been victimised can have had long-standing effects from assault, as well as the long tail of social effects within peer groups and the local community. Young women and men who have borne witness to hurtful and degrading behaviour, and through their lack of action kept secrets or participated through passive means, may also experience moral injury. Guilt, regret, and shame can be burdensome.

Communities that have become collusive, which can include large private schools within metropolitan cities, need outside help to breathe fresh air into their systems, processes, and relationships. This is not a one-off intervention for students and teachers, and not something that can be changed and then audited from within. Reaching out on an individual, family, school and community level will be critical to attend to victims and to achieve change.

Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.

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