In the past weeks thousands of testimonies from present and former schoolgirls about sexual assaults by male peers, often in association with alcohol or drugs, have been posted on a website set up by Chanel Contos, who had attended a prominent Sydney girls’ school. These heartbreaking and graphic accounts have reignited calls for education in sexual consent. Leaders of the single-sex schools named on the website have been quick to agree.  

Last November the New South Wales parliament received a commissioned report into whether sexual consent laws should be changed. This was prompted by the case of Saxon Mullins, a woman who gave no explicit consent but still lost her appeal to uphold the conviction of her alleged rapist. Ms Mullins was not impressed with the recommendations of the report and together with Dr Rachael Burgin she has founded a group called Rape & Sexual Assault Research & Advocacy.

Dr Burgin said Tasmania’s “positive obligation on somebody seeking to have sex with another person … to ensure, by doing or saying something, that the other person also wants to have sex” was the “best-practice approach currently legislated” in Australia.

But should we legislate guidelines for casual sex — or is casual sex the problem?

It’s not about the girls … nor about the boys

Loren Bridge, Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia, is quite right when she said the problem being exposed on such a massive scale in Australia right now is “not about girls”.

But neither is it about boys. When children misbehave it is always and fundamentally about parents, and it is the duty of other organisations, including parliaments and schools, to do all they can to help.

In any case, these events are in one small corner of a vast canvas. Sexual assault crimes are at unprecedented levels everywhere in the Western world. There is no reason to think Australia differs from the trend in the United Kingdom.  

Abuse by family members; abuse by sports coaches, politicians, soldiers, ministers of religion, and academics; abuse in boarding schools, in orphanages — no domain of life seems exempt. Nor is it just abuse of minors. Young women beginning their careers write of abuse under the #MeToo hashtag. Even old women with Alzheimer’s attract abusers. “The stories of sexual assault are harrowing and, disturbingly, common and are not just confined to the political class,” one journalist pointed out.

When adults fail to lead, can we expect anything different from children?

Sexualisation begins in the culture. We condone violent, self-centred, sexual behaviour as an end in itself – think of the 150 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey sold in bookstores, and US$570 million at the box office. Our libraries stock pornographic comics, our governments tax sex workers, our media celebrates sex outside of commitment.

There’s no love without self-control

How can we hope to succeed in teaching our children the importance of devoted marital love along with the prerequisite of sexual self-control?

For the last 30 years we have surrounded children with the mantra of safe sex in relation to HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases — so are we surprised to discover we have forgotten the meaning of marriage? Journalist Miranda Devine writes: “Children have become canaries in a sex-soaked culture”.

Reliable surveys show that most 16-year-olds access pornography regularly — so why do we show surprise at high levels of sexualised teen interaction? One in five 12-year-olds in the UK thinks that viewing pornography is normal. A 2016 report from National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the UK, found that “substantial minorities” of children wish to “try out things they had seen in pornography”. It found that the “proportion wishing to emulate pornography increases with age—21% for 11-12-year-olds; 39% for the 13-14-year-olds and 42% for the 15-16-year-olds.”

How can we expect that a society with highly sexualised advertising, film, fashion, and music, will then fail to generate sexualised children? Major reports reveal as much.

This crisis is not caused by boys’-only schooling nor will it be fixed by roleplays about consent, nor by lessons in gender ideology courtesy of the mislabelled Respectful Relationships program, which has been touted as a solution by politicians.

No, it is “not about girls”, but a Sydney principal who, in good faith, advises girls not be naïve about attracting unwanted attention was pilloried in the media recently. Journalists who publish unproven allegations are hounding people from their jobs and undermining their mental health. Our legal system, which is based on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, is creating a new class of victims — those unable to prove their innocence.

We are in the grip of a bizarre cognitive dissonance. And all because we wish to have it both ways: to perpetuate a culture where self-indulgent sex is normal, and, at the same time to protect our children.

Our society is in denial that our attitude to sex is broken and has been for a long time. Neurobiologically, we are setting children up to fail. How can we effectively build pathways of sexual responsibility (a habit of cognitive judgement) when we legitimise habits of self-indulgent impulse gratification (bypassing the cognitive), and when we allow the senses and emotions of impressionable children to be twisted by bitter first experiences.

Novelty and emotional experiences predispose for learning … for better or for worse.

Behaviour is not book learning  

Teaching consent does not seem to work. Asher Learmonth, the head prefect of one of the schools mentioned in the testimonies, says simply: “Despite the regular, valuable and powerful talks we have received about consent and respect over the years, sadly, it appears that these speeches haven’t had the intended and crucial impact.” 

Nor is legislation the answer. Confucius, for one, says no.

“If you govern the people by laws and control them by punishment, they will have no personal sense of shame. If you govern by virtue and keep order among them by ritual… they will gain their own sense of shame and correct themselves.”

Why is this?

Because the behaviour of human beings doesn’t just follow theories and rules. Our characters are the sum of our habits. The habitual preferences and desires we have formed in our characters underpin our choices. Add to this poor peer example (Asher Learmonth provides abundant examples), the example of the few easily becomes the misbehaviour of many. “We become like the company we keep” wrote Euripides 2500 years ago. We are meant to be impressionable … this is the primary mechanism for children to learn. But when impressions are unguided, havoc reigns.

Where are your dads and mums?

Driving through the cinema district of Sydney on one Friday evening several years ago I stopped at traffic lights. Some 14 and 15-year-old girls, heavily made up and dressed accordingly, were playing up to the boys outside a hotel. The boys needed little encouragement to take things a bit further. As I watched this I was thinking: “Where are your fathers? Do they love you so little?”

Depth of respect for others, and of an appreciation of personal intimacy, come first of all from home. Preschool children are quite capable of learning positive attitudes towards others. And parental self-control predicts infant self-control. But when self-control is divorced from lessons in respect from the earliest years, and if it is taught in isolation after puberty, the most important motive for sexual self-control is missing. It’s all but too late.

Parenting is not just feeding and protecting. Jim Stenson, the American parenting author, argues that children are grown-up, not when they can look after themselves, but “when they can look after others and want to.” Many parents will measure their parenting success on whether they have passed on their most cherished values, and whether or not their adult children are settled in permanent loving relationships.

Mutual consent for one-night stands or “friends with benefits” can never deliver this.

Young people have a right to guidance, not just about consent but about the very purpose of life and how to give meaning to life. (Thomas Lickona’s 2004 masterpiece Character Matters remains one of the best books in this field.)

We need good habits of saying “No” to pleasures when they are no longer good for us (temperance), and good habits of holding our course on tough assignments (fortitude), so that, with our emotional house in order, we can think clearly (prudence) and offer respect to others in all we do (justice). These four good habits are the cardinal virtues. They are best modelled and inculcated at home in the earliest years and then reinforced in every other context of life.

On the other hand, complacent bad habits are vices. Once established, they are hard to shift. Unlearning a vice is always a work-around. It’s much easier to build on an empty block, to get it right at the start, in the family.

Whenever families have been overpowered by totalitarian forces — think of the Hitler Youth and the Cultural Revolution — the children have been led far astray. Here again we are seeing families overpowered, cancelled, by foolish laws, by a media obsessed by profit and ratings, and — most culpably of all because they are our children — by our own lack of conviction.

Parents have to get back in the game.

Here’s my action plan

There is no room for self-indulgent sexual licence in a society that truly values children. And children will be undervalued where marriage between a man and a woman, the starting point of children, is devalued. You cannot have it both ways.

Legislators have a duty to create a society where children and families are protected. You cannot legislate for goodness; goodness can only be fostered in the family.

Here is a ten-point plan for political consensus, effective child protection legislation, and parental support. 

  1. Use the crisis of sexually predatory behaviour to build a cross-party consensus. Both major parties must agree not to politicise the issue but to act on a united platform.
  2. Develop a consensus that it is the duty of us all to protect children from sexualised exemplars. This will mean that adults must be prepared to accept restrictions on their own freedom.
  3. Forge a recognition that sex without responsibility has led to the current crisis. A massive reset is required with respect to the contraceptive, pornography and sex industries, to the social acceptance of extra-marital and homosexual activity, and to the social protections given to families.
  4. Create awareness campaigns for adults about sexualisation of children similar to the “Kids absorb your drinking” commercials. 
  5. Forge a collective will to enact laws that protect society and families from the culture that makes parenting in this space so difficult.
  6. Extend the definition of child protection so that it becomes well-nigh impossible to corrupt the minds of children through digital media.
  7. Legislate to prevent commercial interests from bombarding children with sexualised images.
  8. Win the battle for the minds and hearts of citizens. Care of children and of the next generation are our most powerful motivations. Foster sound parenting practices.
  9. Conduct parenting campaigns to help parents of young children teach respect and an appreciation for personal intimacy.
  10. “Think globally, act locally”. Focus on your own kids.

Dr Andy Mullins now works with parents and university students in Melbourne and teaches the Formation of Character course at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. He is the author of Parenting for Character...