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Anthony Cleary: The challenge for all is to not be silent

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The emergence of ‘no means no’ in our common parlance, points to an insidious social reality. School photo created by yanalya –

Today, most Australians are familiar with the phrase, ‘no means no’. Despite this, it appears that’s there is a growing number of people who refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.

‘No’ is one of the first words we become acquainted with in our early childhood, and throughout our lives it can occasionally rub against the grain of our natural instincts. For some, ‘no’ can be a source of frustration as it denies them things that they want and things they wish to do. But there are many very good reasons why people say no.

The emergence of ‘no means no’ in our common parlance, points to an insidious social reality, one in which many girls and women are subject to debasement, to sexual harassment and abuse, and most alarmingly – a rape culture.

The objectification of women is perverse, and it takes many forms: bullying, trolling, sexting, body shaming, crude jokes, threats of sexual violence, unwanted touching and forced sexual activity. All of these are to be deplored, as is any attempt to downplay them.

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Most young Australians reach the ‘age of consent’ during their secondary schooling, typically at the ages of sixteen or seventeen. Put simply, this means that a young school-age person can legally say ‘yes’ to being sexually active. Social research however points to the fact that ‘consent laws’ have little or no influence on the life choices and behaviours of young people. Many are sexually active well before the age of consent, and perceive it as a ‘right of passage’ of their teenage years.

Many young people do not properly understand what ‘consent’ is and what it involves. They sometimes fail to see that it fundamentally safeguards personal boundaries and the development of respectful relationships. It can never be assumed nor coerced. Consent is a positive, voluntary agreement, where people are clear about what is being agreed to and have the opportunity to change their mind should they wish. It should never be reduced to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.

Anthony Cleary PHOTO: Sydney Catholic Schools

In recent days, the issue of ‘consent’ has come under the spotlight, with the publication of an online petition calling for an overhaul of ‘consent education’, so that it is taught earlier and is better resourced. Several thousand individual testimonies highlight the prevalence of sexual abuse and exploitation among teens. In a very real sense, this is a watershed moment, as the scale and nature of the petition has brought about widespread public recognition and scrutiny of an age-old toxic culture.

Misogynistic behaviours amongst adolescent males are not new. Yes, they can be heightened by alcohol, drugs, pornography and ‘group-think’, but their roots go deeper. At their heart, is the objectification of women and a failure to nurture and value right relationships with them.

We live in challenging times. This is especially true for teenagers in their search for personal meaning, their understanding of self and their relationship with others. They are called upon to navigate the expectations of family, the pressures of close friends and the stereotypes of society. In the midst of all of this, they sometimes get confused – and on occasions lost. Deep down – they simply wish to be happy, and to belong.

It is in their desire to belong that young people sometimes mistakenly compromise their personal boundaries and their behaviours. Binge drinking clouds their judgement and their reasoning, which also means that they are NOT in a position to give free and informed consent.

Furthermore, a person’s rejection of inappropriate behavior or unwanted sexual advances may not even be signaled by their articulation of ‘no’ but evidenced in their body language or signs of physical discomfort. Some, especially those traumatized by the experience, remain silent throughout and even in the years that follow.

“The challenge for all, young people, their families and their teachers, is not to be silent”

The challenge for all, young people, their families and their teachers, is not to be silent – but to speak out against this perverse social reality, and nurture within our young people a respect of themselves and each other, and a desire to experience life to the full.

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