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Alison Mau: It's time to teach teenage boys about consent – whether they like it or not

From her classroom at Wellington East Girls' College, anti-rape culture protest organiser Sorcha Ashworth can look down on the boys of Wellington College.

OPINION: An apology. A sincere I'm sorry. Not, "I'm-sorry-that-you-were-offended" (you pathetic snowflake), or "I'm-sorry-that-I-was-caught-in-the-act-I-wish-I'd-gotten-away-with-it."

Written in first person and as 17-year-olds would write, the apology released publicly on Wednesday by the Wellington College boys who were sprung a few days earlier, after saying vile things about girls on Facebook, appeared kosher.

I understand a very experienced PR agent was helping the boys deal with the fall-out, but I don't blame the families for that. A media firestorm can be frightening. A single word awry and the public pile-on gets much, much worse. 

Every woman knows the fear that makes your heart pound and sweat prickle your skin, Alison Mau says. That fear is common to your sisters, daughters, nieces, wives and girlfriends.

"It is not OK under any circumstances to write and say what I did, or to joke about it. I have learnt about how important it is not to do what I did."

Wellington College students stood down over Facebook 'rape' comments
Rape culture action moved after Wellington College boys threaten protesters
Sex mis-education: A teenage boy's experience

Some experts have pointed out the apology's shortcomings, and everyone will have their own view. At least two of our young men have been forced to look directly at what their female schoolmates live with every day. They've had to stare the monster right in the face, and hopefully what they've learned will lead to a change in how they behave.


Both boys and girls from Wellington secondary schools gathered at Parliament this week to make a stand against rape culture, and call for consent to be taught in all schools.

But by the time the apology arrived, the issue had moved on; been picked up and hefted forward with brute strength, by girls. A group of those boys' contemporaries decided they would have no more of this s..., and they roared. On the day of the protest against Rape Culture, there were hundreds of young men and women publicly turning their backs on all the matey, rapey peer pressure, to show how fed up they are with the rape jokes, the misogyny, the street harassment, and "all the pathetic excuses".

Those last words are not mine; they belong to one of the protest organisers, Wellington East Girls' College student Sorcha Ashworth. When I emailed and asked her to tell me why she took a stand, she wrote and wrote, and said it all much better than I could.

Sorcha told me she and her friends have been yelled at and propositioned in the street since around the age of 11.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has ruled out requiring all schools to teach consent. Sexuality is a key area of the health curriculum, she says, but each school makes it's own call on which bits to teach and which to leave out.

"It teaches you that you're helpless in your sexuality, that you're something to be viewed. Once I accidentally bumped into an old man on a bus. I apologised and his friend goes to me, 'Don't worry, you're the best he's had all day'. Flippant, sexual and degrading comments like those are passed around regularly."

She says it's common for people to take advantage of others when they're drunk. It happens to boys and girls, she says (are you surprised?) and there's "a disgusting double standard" where there's less of an outrage when a girl takes advantage of a guy.

Sorcha talks about the "familiar anxiety (girls) feel when we're walking alone at night, every time we hear a car approaching and have to listen to see if it's going to slow down beside us or just drive past. Walking up a driveway and pretending to go into a house every time we feel like a car is following us. We've all been taught since we were so young . . . don't separate from the group. Don't stay out too late. Don't wear anything too revealing."

That's real fear she's describing, the kind that makes your heart pound and sweat prickle your skin. That fear is common to almost all the women in your life; sisters, daughters, nieces, wives and girlfriends.

Sorcha and her mates know all about victim blaming, too.

"It's a big part of rape culture. If someone is harassed on the street people ask 'what was she wearing?' If someone's sexually assaulted they ask 'why were they drinking?' Women and victims are expected not to get raped, rather than rapists being expected not to rape."

You can see how that might grate on a young person's sense of fairness and justice, can't you?

I'd love to count all the words that have been written and on this subject in just the past week; it'd tally into the thousands. By far the most powerful was Sorcha's answer to the big question; what should happen next?

"It's urgent we teach the rights a women has over her own body before rape culture teaches those rights for us. It's urgent we teach the importance of consent before we learn from the media to disregard that importance."

"I think classes should start at Year Nine. Consent and respect in sex and relationships should be consistently taught throughout high school. It's not enough to just have an annual talk."


Will the organisers of this week's protest against rape culture get their wish for compulsory consent education in all Kiwi high schools? Not likely.

After declining an interview, Education Minister Hekia Parata sent me a 600-word statement reminding me that although sexuality is a key area of the Health and PE curriculum, each school makes it's own call on which bits to teach, and which to leave out.

Schools can access ACC's Mates and Dates programme, and can use their operational grants to buy in programmes like the Sophie Elliot Foundation's LovesMeNot, and others. It's not hard to imagine that, under pressure financially as they almost always are, many high schools will have found other uses for their Operational Grant long before they get around to thinking about sex ed.

This week might have changed some hearts and minds. Principals have described how school boards are now in a constant scramble to keep up with issues that social media and internet use create.

Labour's Chris Hipkins agreed with the Minister – compulsory lessons are not going to happen, but he did promise more funding. No excuses then for any high school to ignore a subject that will shape the next generation of Kiwis.

* Ali Mau is the host of RadioLIVE Drive, 3-6pm weekdays

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Sunday Star Times



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