What started with a private Instagram poll by ex-Kambala student Chanel Contos amongst 300 friends in late February, violently erupted into shocking exposés of abuse, exploitation, and rape. Thousands of testimonies from young females emerged about their own experiences of non-consensual sexual exploitation.
As I write, these revelations are expanding into a full-scale website giving voice to girls all over the country: private, Catholic and public schools. A voice has been given to those girls who have been silently suffering from the shame, humiliation and hurt of terrible experiences.
It is distressing to read, provocative too. It has ignited harsh criticism throughout the media, some blaming private school elitism or single-sex school culture. Chanel’s own movement insists that boys lack consent education, thus demanding urgent overhauling of the education on sexuality and consent.
I would say we have a broad social problem that requires all hands-on deck.
I have to be blunt – these testimonies came as no surprise to me. Not only have movements like Melinda Tankard-Reist’s Collective Shout have been prophets about society’s pervasive sexualisation of girls, but I’ve seen firsthand just what is going on with our boys through my PhD research.
Aided by my studies in adolescent sexualized behaviour and attitudes in independent schools, I want to address the questions: do our boys have a problem and is the answer better ‘consent’ education?
My research told me that the primary reasons for aggressive, entitled and predatory behaviours amongst many adolescent boys relate to the high rates of pornography consumption. The more they consume, the more they objectify women, desire casual sex, approve of pornography, and have narcissism (which inflates self-esteem). Also, more porn means less empathy and poorer social conduct.
Overall, 70% of teen boys view porn monthly, and 30% weekly. Some adolescent girls consume pornography too, but only about 20% regularly, and even then, only 4% view it weekly or more. Sadly, for those girls who do have higher consumption rates, their negative attitudes and behaviours mirror the males. This is why I know porn is the key!
The more porn, the more problems. And since vastly more boys consume porn, you can say, on the surface, we have a boy problem.
But it is not that simple. It begs the question – why are so many boys consuming pornography?
Four factors contribute to most porn behaviours.
Parents are the most significant influence on their child’s pornography engagement. Parents who BOTH regularly speak about sexualized culture, appropriate attitudes and behaviours AND actively monitor and restrict their child’s access to their devices and internet, have better behaved sons. It is not just about having ‘the talk’ but defining a culture. Talk early, talk often, and talk better. If you need to upskill your parental communication, I highly recommend Patricia Weerakoon’s Talking Sex by the Book. More, regardless of your trust in your children, restrict their access. Devices should have blockers like Family Zone. Access should only be in public spaces, and never in bedrooms, bathrooms, or behind closed doors. Buy them noise-cancelling headphones if they complain. Explicitly allocate screen time. Restrictions help!
Peers are the next most influential force on porn engagement. Young people are heavily influenced by peer culture – what they perceive as normal. They hate missing out, they want to fit in, and they draw much of their value through the opinion of others. When they perceive that porn, sexualised behaviour, or gender attitudes are normalised, they follow. Their closer friends have the most impact. There are two powerful ways peers can become an asset in fighting pornified behaviours: first, carefully monitor and filter their friends. Learn about the families of their friends, discuss expectations, explain you concerns. Friends with better attitudes and behaviours will influence your child. Second, allow these peers to critically evaluate their world. When peers are empowered to question, interrogate, and oppose social norms, they can together be a force for change. Schools can assist here, but churches, youth groups, bible study groups, Christian camps, are all opportunities for peers to work together. They have such a power to change each other and the culture around them.
Education is very important, and consent education is one of a number of areas students must learn. Don’t hear me underplaying this. Having reviewed most current national programs on the consent, respectful relationships, sexting and pornography, I agree that there is enormous scope to improve sex-education in schools. But the real problem is that pornified young people are receiving another, competing education. Boys especially are being educated, very regularly, by porn (plus social media, tv, movies and music videos). Hard core pornography, the normal diet for porn users, is highly aggressive and misogynistic, devoid of intimacy, care, consent, or commitment. It is tailored for the male brain – visual, in the first-person, exalting a male’s conquests. Girls, too, are educated daily - by Instagram, Snap Chat and TikTok. Just look at the feeds on these apps and gasp at the way girls are crafted to be sexualised. No school, no matter how solid the education is, can compete with this until we reduce the competition.
Still, the evidence of my research is that effective education can be achieved, but it must engage more than just better content. Only when parents and peers are substantially added to the equation, will genuine shifts in attitudes and behaviours occur. Indeed, when I integrated parental and peer engagement into my PhD school resource, now developed into a Yr 5-10 resource called DigiHelp, amazing positive changes were seen – especially in porn-affected boys. For schools who wish to know more, feel free to email me.
Lastly, there are neurological forces at work in our boys. In addition to the violent awakening of their sexual systems, typical of most pubescent males, there is the ongoing interplay between their developing brains and the lack of brain development. As adolescent brains prepare for adulthood, they prune away childish interests while reinforcing the newer habits. Yet, male brains develop slowly. Their self-control mechanisms don’t work well until late 20s. They are impulsive. So, boys who are saturated in porn will both develop long-term preoccupancy with it, while struggling to control these behaviours. It’s a cycle of reinforcement that becomes compulsive. I consistently saw genuine addiction problems in frequent users in my studies. Tragically, for them, the benefits of good education and parenting will have limited value unless they receive some additional support. I highly recommend therapy with an addictive behavioural specialist.
Do we have a boy problem? I would say we have a porn problem. Do we have a consent problem? I would say we have a broad social problem that requires all hands-on deck. Parents, peers, schools and faith-based organisations – only when they pull together, will hurt and abuse be reduced. Only when we pull together can we begin to offer a safe society for our girls.