SCREENSHOT / 7NEWS

Australia is swimming — literally — in crises at the moment. Parts of the eastern coast are under water at the moment with once-in-a-hundred years flooding. The Covid-19 pandemic has been contained with masking and lockdowns, but everyone is still jittery. A Royal Commission exposed an elder abuse crisis in nursing homes. There’s a hidden methamphetamine crisis. There’s a climate crisis.

And now there’s a sexual abuse crisis. Or rather, the media has discovered a hidden sexual abuse crisis.

An Australian woman living in London, Chantel Contos, launched an open petition, “Teach Us Consent”, “for sexual consent to be at the forefront of educational issues in your school, from a young age”. So far, 3,660 people have added their personal testimonies to her website. Most of them relate the experiences of young women who “passionately believe that inadequate consent education is reason for their sexual abuse during or soon after school”. They make harrowing reading.

Together with allegations about politicians who had raped women, these stories sparked “March 4 Justice” demonstrations in 40 cities all over Australia last week. An estimated 110, 000 people participated, including high school students. The demands of the demonstrators centred around the prevention of gendered violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and a gender audit of parliamentary practices.

Ms Contos contends that there is an urgent need for boys to be educated about what “consent” means. “I have lived in three different countries,” she writes, “and I have never spoken to anyone who has experienced rape culture the way me and my friends had growing up in Sydney amongst private schools.”

Whether Australia is the front-runner in rape culture is debatable. What is not debatable is that sexual abuse is a vile crime. But is education in consent the way to turn things around?

The baseline is that a person who is intoxicated or unconscious cannot legally consent. Nor can a person under the age of 16 give legal consent.  

Consent training, which has been a staple in universities in Australia for years, goes further. It teaches students that  partners in sexual encounters should ask for and receive consent before proceeding with different stages of intimate or sexual behaviour.

These would include kissing, touching, undressing of oneself or the other person, and subsequent “sex acts” which means, as far as I can tell, objects and genitals in various human orifices.

Without an “enthusiastic yes” from the partner (in the university training, a delightful example of this “enthusiastic yes” is “F*** me!”) you are not allowed to proceed. Silence does not signify consent. Either partner can call a halt to proceedings whenever they do not “feel comfortable”. Consent on one occasion does not imply consent on the next occasion. And so on.

One of Australia’s top police officers, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, even floated the idea of a mobile phone app to record the stages of consent.

You do not have to be Einstein to work out that these proposals, like many of the rape allegations surfacing now, are the result of the hook-up culture and the increase in “recreational” sex, the contemporary euphemism for promiscuity.

Not that these things did not exist before.

Baby boomer parents, high on a cocktail of sex, drugs and rock & roll (how come no one recites this holy trinity of liberation these days?) invented the type of partying that Chanel Contos’s schoolgirl friends experienced, sometimes when they were as young as 13. It was made much easier by the ready availability of contraceptives and abortion.

Nor do you have to be Einstein to work out that you can give all the consent training you like but girls and women will still get hurt. Women always have more to lose in this sordid game. There is a reason why so many women participated in the March 4 Justice. They are not just joyless radical feminists who are trying to destroy the Patriarchy.

Consent training is the latest coat of paint on the Sexual Revolution. I wonder if Chantel Contos or Mick Fuller has asked themselves why half a century of “sex education” in schools has not worked.

In fact, there is evidence that classroom sex education has steered kids towards pornography. And pornography is part of the cause of the upsurge in aggressive sexual behaviour (I did not see any signs in the March 4 Justice calling out Pornhub for the 10 million videos it has recently been forced to take down because they contained under-age girls or women who were sleeping or comatose). It is a vicious circle.

If the best and brightest minds of the Sexual Revolution have failed to find a solution to stop male students from abusing female students, can consent training possibly stop boys from seeking “to score”?

The only education which will help young people incorporate sex into their lives in a holistic and respectful manner is an education in the moral virtues of self-control and restraint. Moral virtues are not about religion. They are about being the best person you can.

This is not hard to understand. Name a person of good character, with religious faith or not, who is not restrained and not self-disciplined. Martin Seligman, one of the foremost psychologists dealing with human happiness, includes the classic four moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude along with love and a sense of the transcendent as the six great strengths which exist in all the world’s cultures that make for flourishing individuals.

This is radically different from consent training. Self-restraint is not a rule book or a series of ticked boxes.

Nothing illustrates this better than an incident in Melbourne on the very day of the March 4 Justice rallies. Several boys from one of the city’s leading private schools were caught making “loud, ‘disgusting’ comments about women” on a bus. Some elderly women and even some students beat an early exit to escape the obscenity. This happened at the very moment when public awareness of sexual abuse was at its peak. Will a teacher mumbling about “consent” change the attitude of these boys? Not likely.

The idea that we are free to do whatever we like as long as we obey the law may be the only workable way to organise a liberal democracy. But it is not a good way to organise your life if you want to flourish and enable those you love to flourish. For people to be both free and to do the right thing, they need to incorporate virtue into their lives.

How? Well, a virtue is a disposition which arises from a habit, in much the same way that you acquire a disposition to kick a ball or play a particular tennis shot or strike keys on a piano in a skillful way.

You only attain the habits of these skills with practice. There is no other way.  We cannot expect people to be restrained and respectful (which is a vital element of another moral virtue, justice) when they turn 15 years old if they have not had practice.

Mums and dads who indulge cute young children will raise adolescents and young adults who are self-indulgent and sex-obsessed. Their children will not have acquired habits of self-restraint, respect and generosity.

If you look at recent events from the angle of virtue, it become obvious that Australia does not have a sexual abuse crisis. It has a parenting crisis.

By all means, organise consent programs at school. But if they are not supported by what parents do at home, lectures at school about self-restraint will fall on deaf ears. To engage with something, you need some familiarity with it already. Education in self-restraint begins in infancy.

Back in 300 BC Aristotle nailed it. Habits formed in youth don’t just make a difference, he wrote, they make all the difference.

Martin Fitzgerald

Martin Fitzgerald has taught English, Philosophy, Latin and Rugby at Redfield College in Dural, Sydney, Australia for 28 years. He played Rugby as a schoolboy and young man and as he gets older, he says,...