Educating children about consent

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As I write this, the sad story of Brittany Higgins, and her alleged rape by a co-worker in our Parliament House in 2019, dominates the news, pushing even COVID and our national stoush with Facebook from the front page. Her story raises serious issues, both around sexual violence against women and workplace culture. Despite our awareness of the issues, the frequency with which the treatment of women in our workplaces comes to light is worrying.

Students in classroom (Getty)

The confrontational culture of Parliament, where so often it is about ‘playing the person’ rather than debating policies, and where so many are separated from family for prolonged times, and under considerable pressure, is a particular concern in Canberra. It is fair to say that there are other issues which need to be addressed if lasting improvements are to be made not simply in Canberra but across society.

The link between excessive alcohol consumption and celebration is an important one, especially where consent is involved. The importance of adequate reporting processes in workplaces is also highlighted as evidenced in the failing of the system in Brittany’s case.

Another strand in the story emerged in Sydney after a petition started by former Kambala College student Chanel Contos disclosed hundreds of former Sydney schoolgirls’ allegations of rape or sexual assault at the hands of their male peers. Though much of the initial coverage centred on Sydney private schools, the fact that so many young women signed the petition is distressing. It would be irrational to think that there would not be similar cases in schools throughout Australia.

The whole area of consent, especially as a time in life when both boys and girls are first exploring their relationships and sexuality, with so many mixed signals from society as to what is appropriate, and where too often alcohol is involved, can have devastating impacts on girls, and on boys also. We need to encourage parents to have these conversations with their children, and earlier, around Years 8 and 9, rather than later. And I suspect we need to encourage boys to talk more with sisters, girlfriends, friends who are girls and good mates about consent.

In schools, we need to reflect on how we inform and educate around consent. The question needs to be put clearly to our young people as to whether sex can ever be consensual where heavy drinking or drug taking is involved, or for that matter, at a young age where pressure in any form is applied. There needs to be more conversation between young men and women around these varying forms of pressure, spoken and unspoken, and the signals that are communicated. In what may be an uncertain, exciting and confusing time in a young person’s life, values of respect and empathy, along with clear understandings of the law, need to be inculcated. Young people need to have the simple and overriding realization and acceptance that ‘no means no’, whenever and always.

 

'Education, in our tradition, is about formation of the person, of the mind, the heart and spirit.'

 

More broadly, we need to communicate effectively the conviction that sex is not just a physical act, and that there is no such thing as purely casual sex. Sexual activity impacts on the way relations between the genders are played out, and on the timing of personal growth and development, and it can have profound impact on wellbeing.

The choices around sexual activity go to the heart of the genuine freedom of the individual amidst the confused expectations around sexual morality. It is a challenging time to be a young man, and it can seem as if all blame in the area of relations between men and women is being put on them. Our very models of healthy masculinity are in contested space, challenged as they are by an array of contrary examples. We are uncertain too, as to the impact of pornography and the way it depicts sexual activity, especially given how easily it can be accessed through technology. It is fair to observe, as a Year Twelve boy from Xavier College recently noted, that 'we live in an age of popular culture that can tend to trivialise and condone casual and inappropriate behaviour'. And we should acknowledge that the patterns of behaviour acquired in our youth can shape long-term attitudes that flow later into relationships, family life and the workforce.

The Church’s emphasis on sex as essentially relational in nature, and that there is a moral dimension to the choices we make in such an important expression of our human nature, bears attention. Sometimes the focus falls so heavily on rules that are seen as restrictive or constrictive of behaviour, rather than seeing them as protective and respectful in their intent. The message of self-discipline and purity in the way we approach this most potent and creative part of our nature is not about inducing guilt but is about respecting what is so powerful within us. More importantly though, perhaps the most significant message we can convey from our faith tradition, one that underpins all notions of respect and consent, is that love is ultimately central to sexual activity, and that love of its very nature seek to put the other, and their needs and choices, first.

The debate, at least in Sydney, also illustrates the weight of expectations that can fall on schools in addressing societal challenges. Sex education in schools has always had challenges, given the diversity of cultural, religious and family situations, not to mention varying levels of maturity among students. And certainly too, education in the biology of sex, fails to meet the challenges faced by the young person navigating the critical area of relationships.

Education, in our tradition, is about formation of the person, of the mind, the heart and spirit. One of the challenges facing schools today is the sheer range of expectations placed on them — educating the young while preparing them for the workforce, conferring life-skills while also teaching students to think, transmitting cultural identity while tending to students’ individual needs. There is the need to provide a safe and nurturing environment, as well as one that is competitive and successful, so that we can form strong yet gentle, centred but generous young people, ready for the world around them.

Jesuit education speaks of the formation of the whole person; And thus we speak of formation and nurturing of body and mind, of the imagination, human creativity, enquiry and play, nourishing the spirit and the relationships that are the very fabric of life. Our nature as sexual beings is integral to this.

I can claim no specific expertise in addressing how we deal with the issues facing teenagers emerging as young adults and the critical issue of consent where sexual activity is concerned. I do believe that the spiritual life of the school plays a part in ensuring the wellbeing and healthy sense of self in students. Liturgies and retreats can provide opportunities for conversation, reflection and encouragement in this critical area of wellbeing.

In the context of Xavier College, our expression of our faith can strongly reinforce our sense of community and the values that shape and express our identity. They can challenge attitudes that demean or exploit others, including around sexuality and gender.

Cultivating a spirituality that underpins a healthy regard and respect for others and placing the needs of others first can go a significant way to reinforcing clear messages around the rights of others, including the right of a young woman to simply say ‘no’ without fear or judgment.

 

 

Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne.

Main image: Students in classroom (Getty)

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, sexual assault, consent, education

 

 

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Existing comments

In reflecting on the issues surrounding consent in the context of sexual relationships, young adults do need to be made aware of the complexity of these issues. Candid conversations within families, and within schools, are so important. When a crossing of sexual boundaries occurs the issues of power, lack of respect and consequences for both parties should be discussed. In schools with a faith-based ethos the stories of Jesus's conversations with women can open very modern conversations between young adults and their parents/carers as well as their teachers at school.
Pam | 02 March 2021


One of the key Catholic doctrines is that Jesus became a real man and dwelt amongst us. Eastern Catholics, whose Tradition has been fully endorsed by several Popes in several encyclicals, teaches that Joseph was a much older man and a widower, with children from his previous marriage. So Jesus was born into a fully functional family. Mary, having given birth, knew what being a mother was about. These are strange, I dare not say apocalyptic, times. Families are often dysfunctional and their members grow up clueless as to how to relate to other people. This is from Bellevue Hill to Mt Druitt. There is also vile, I dare not say demonic, pornography available on the internet. 'Normally accepted sex practice' these days seems to include a multitude of sins which would have been considered perverse not so long ago. Of course grog makes people lose self-control. We all probably drink too much. It is the Australian 'social relaxant'. The problem with 'rape culture' is that it lies at the sick heart of our current society. We need to rebuild our house of solid brick, otherwise at the first hard huffing and puffing of the Moral Big Bad Wolf aka The Devil, it will fall down once again.
Edward Fido | 02 March 2021


What has happened to the cry, "Parents are the prime educators of their children" which Catholic school teachers used to support their abandonment of teaching issues of moral significance to children in their care over the last 30 years or so? Time our society started treating the causes of the moral malaise in our society rather than hiding them behind obfuscating , ineffective band aids with trendy, fasionable messages printed on them. But then, the last two generations of Catholic parents are also largely unaware of and unequipped to impart Catholic/Christian moral principles to their children, abandoned as they also have been by Catholic teaching despite the "great enlightenment" of Vat II.
john frawley | 03 March 2021


I commend Fr Chris Middleton for his willingness to speak up for the Catholic faith tradition's holistic understanding on this important topic of special relevance to families and young people. The observation he includes from the Year 12 student at his school is an encouraging sign that youth are capable of seeing through the often exclusively subjective, commodified and hedonistic impression of human sexuality prevalent in media presentations of it.
John RD | 03 March 2021


Chris, I can see where you're coming from. I would imagine this is a matter which particularly concerns boys' school heads because of the nature of these schools, full of testosterone fuelled young men who are often still clueless about life and women. My take is that the home is the ideal place where young men should learn to treat women properly. So many homes these days are shattered and dysfunctional. Young men who grow up in them may perpetuate the abuse they see there. This is the place that needs the most urgent intervention. Schools can help, but sadly they often are only able to intervene after the serious damage has been done. Men who are scarred like this are a danger to everyone. They exist from Toorak to Broadmeadows. Fortunately, there are loving, non-abusive homes which mirror the icon of family life we see in Nazareth. St Joseph, often ignored, was a non-abusive genuine 'real man' to be held up as an exemplar. We need to rebuild our society on this proper family model. Otherwise we are doomed.
Edward Fido | 04 March 2021


I commend Chris Middleton for his view, especially as Xavier has not been unscathed in dealing with the complexity of issues, such as gender identity, that eventually alienated and took the lives of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo (cf. 'Holding the Man', 1995). As a Catholic educational researcher I am also keenly aware that same-sex schools, especially for boys, run the risk of nurturing sexist behaviours in the young, despite measures taken within those settings to combat such a thing. The research (Lee, 1994, JSTOR), showing that sexist values are much more easily incorporated and embedded in single-sex than coeducational schools, has ended all boys' Catholic schooling in the UK. Hence, the Jesuits would be well-advised to enroll girls at their schools if they wish for them to play a lead, as they should, in contributing to productive measures to combat the sexism that Fr Middleton rightly deplores. What's at stake is our ability as a community to privilege our common humanity over the artificial and predominantly culturally-ordained sexism that insidiously bifurcates single-sex educational settings, predominantly in independent schools, and in which so many of our youth, and especially our young men, are formed in absentia of half of humanity.
Michael Furtado | 04 March 2021


Talking incessantly about a temptation is a good way to stay fascinated with it. So, tempt these kids with the right temptation. The purpose of a Catholic school is to produce Catholic zealots, not, as is usually the case, Catholic Laodiceans. The purpose of some other Christian school is to produce some other kind of Christian zealot, just as madrassas exist to produce Muslim zealots. You can leave high school these days with vocational certificates in IT or car mechanics or cooking. Why don’t Christian students leave their respective parochial institutions with a cert in their flavour of Christian evangelism? Evangelism is difficult and requires nuance. In fact, it’s an art. Instead we abet the world, through articles like this, to distract the kids into gazing at their navels because, as the territorialities above the world well know, gazing at their navels inevitably leads the eyes of their mind to introspect upon the gonads just behind them. The enemy of good is not evil. Most people aren’t evil in the fibre of their beings. In the fibre is mediocrity which is the real enemy. The enemy of mediocrity is a sense of purpose: every Catholic matriculant an incipient evangeliser.
roy chen yee | 04 March 2021


The word 'zealot' has unfortunate connotations to me, Roy viz the Zealots. Jesus was not one of them. I think Xavier et sim should turn out decent Christians. I know many Old Xavierians who are. The cases of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo are complex, Michael and many Old GPS men of their era have died of HIV/AIDS, as well as those who went to coeducational state high schools. Fortunately, due to better education, more general tolerance and better medical treatment, there are fewer HIV/AIDS deaths these days. The main issue here is teaching men how to behave decently with women. It is a complex enough issue. Perhaps we should stick to it.
Edward Fido | 05 March 2021


How about the Church leading by example and allowing married and female priests, to show that it believes that women are not second class citizens to be treated as such? How about demonstrating that marriage as a sacrament is on an equal footing with Holy Orders, instead of being a rung below it, as current Church hierarchical practice implies? The Church seriously needs to rid itself of its patriarchal attitudes, otherwise any attempt in its schools to inculcate respect for females will go nowhere.
Bruce Stafford | 05 March 2021


"Every Catholic matriculant is an incipient evangeliser." "A consummation devoutly to be wished", Roy. And Edward, such is the prominence of men - allegedly or in fact - behaving badly at the moment that your reminder that there are actually functional, nurturing families is very timely.
John RD | 05 March 2021


Indeed, Edward! The issue is about how men treat women and my suggestion, favouring coeducation and backed by research citation, shows that where girls are introduced, there is an immediate calming effect on boys as well as teachers, in relation to whom the same findings show that so-called 'boys' educators', often perpetuating male pedagogies and in peculiar ways drawn to the teaching of boys, co-opt predatory macho methods that oppress girls as well as gay students. Thus, school culture also needs to change. The challenge then is that many parents of girls fear the effects of those predatory cultures on their daughters, especially its unhealthy impact in slotting them from an early age into exaggerated maternal roles rather than co-equal partnerships with boys (Hornsby-Smith, 1978). As a consequence, the same research shows that girls from single-sex schools, while achieving very much better academic results than they would in coeducational settings, are also prone to bullying one another. I commend Fr Middleton here for not raising 'door-shutting' issue of prior sexual knowledge and experience in young persons - agenda that really belong to parents - and his focus instead on what to do after the horse has well and truly bolted.
Michael Furtado | 06 March 2021


As with me, Edward. The trouble with zealots - persons who are fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals - is that they usually wear blinkers and are unable to see, let alone understand other points of view. Abuse of women is a male problem, and we need to focus on eliminating the macho culture that insinuates every segment of our society.
Ginger Meggs | 06 March 2021


Married priests are the norm in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Melkite Catholic Churches. They do provide living proof that Matrimony and Holy Orders are on the same level, as Bruce Stafford says. My great English Catholic hero of the Renaissance, John Colet, Dean of St Paul's before it became Protestant, was in favour of married priests. Stephen de Waeger, an intermittent contributor to these forums, is a PhD qualified researcher and finds 'celibacy' a dubious element in the lives of many Catholic priests. Married clergy are not the same as women clergy. I do not have problems with a female diaconate, which I think will do much good, but I think women priests may not cut it theologically with both the Vatican and Tradition. Tradition is the raft which keeps the True Church afloat. Heterosexuality is the Christian norm. Always has been. The Apostles were all married men. They were, as far as I am aware, neither rapists nor wife bashers. Mary was not bashed, she was and is revered. We need a return to sanity. Now.
Edward Fido | 08 March 2021


Edward Fido: ‘The word 'zealot' has unfortunate connotations to me….’ Which goes to prove that the atheist idolatry of evolution doesn’t work or someone would have come up with a nicer noun for a person with zeal in 2000 years of Judeo-Christian influence on the English language. But never fear. Evolution always begins now and a person of newly acquired conviction can always be a newzealander.
roy chen yee | 08 March 2021


Do you know who the Zealots in Jesus' time were, Roy and what they believed and did? They were fanatics and the word with a small 'z' still connotes that. St Paul is considered by some to have been a Zealot, hence his persecution of the Christians. To me genuine Christianity does not connote fanaticism. I do not consider Jesus to have been a fanatic. Christianity gently took over the rotten, brutal, corrupt Roman Empire and quite literally changed the world for the better. I am unsure what your reference to the Shaky Isles connotes, but I am not a Kiwi. I did laugh at that particular 'gem' of yours.
Edward Fido | 09 March 2021


Words change their meaning over time Roy, because of the way they are used. I think what you were seeking to describe were persons who are convinced, committed, enthusiastic and active but without the negative connotations. Perhaps 'disciple' is what you were looking for ?
Ginger Meggs | 09 March 2021


Celibacy dates back to the apostles: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=7052
roy chen yee | 09 March 2021


Voila! A brilliantly clever remark, Le Roy! I don't know how you do it but would recommend your abandoning your morbid theological jousting and taking up verbal entertainment instead. Just imagine what a humour correspondent could do to boost ES influence. THAT, surely, is evangelisation at its very best!
Michael Leonard Furtado | 10 March 2021


Perhaps the word that you were looking for Roy was ‘disciple’. Someone who is convinced, committed, enthusiastic, and active ?
Ginger Meggs | 11 March 2021


Edward Fido: ‘I do not consider Jesus to have been a fanatic.’ Or, presumably, a 'zealot'. But he did make a ruckus in the Temple, albeit once. The fellow who deposited the Pachamama idols in the Tiber also did his thing once. Was he a fanatic or a zealot?
roy chen yee | 11 March 2021


‘Words change their meaning over time ‘ Thanks Ginger Meggs. So, why waste an apt noun like ‘zeal’ (which is the word attributed by the disciples to Jesus in the Temple commotion – John 2:17) or an adjective like ‘zealous’ by having no noun capturing a similar sound to mean the person who possesses or displays zeal?
roy chen yee | 12 March 2021


Tschugguel (of the statues) was a vandal, like the Taliban who wilfully destroyed the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, the troops who destroyed the statuary in post-Reformation England, and, more recently, the mining company which destroyed culturally significant caves in WA. Their common inability to see the value of anything other than through their own eyes probably also defines them as zealots.
Ginger Meggs | 12 March 2021


Why doesn't Roy decide? He reminds one of Fr Charles-Roux, an ancien regime monarchist from France, supporter of the Divine Right of Kings, deeply committed to the Lefebriste Tridentine Mass, loyally extolling the legitimacy of the Holy Roman Emperors and Anjou claimants to non-existent European thrones, and who referred to John XXIII and Paul VI as modernist heretics. Whatever his curious mix of politics and theology, Charles-Roux was great entertainment value, especially with his fiery after-dinner speeches, delivered annually to dwindling numbers of elderly and hitherto insomniac Catholic dinner-club members, entertaining his audience and their memsahibs with accounts of how the Church had been usurped by communists, republicans, women and homosexuals, while all the Colonel Blimps around him dozed off harmlessly and abjectly satisfied over vast amounts of very good port, waking occasionally to shouts of encouragement and remarks, such as 'Vive la France!' and 'Damn Napoleon; but ain't their anthem a bloody good tune !' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Tschugguel#:~:text=On%2021%20October%202019%20Tschugguel,Sant%27Angelo%20into%20the%20Tiber. In the end one has to concede this: if entertainment and anachronism are the twin hallmarks of contemporary Catholic zealotry, both Charles-Roux and Tschugguel , despite their age difference, would have to qualify, Charles-Roux still fighting the Battle of Lepanto and Tschugguel Muslims.
Michael Furtado | 12 March 2021


‘Tschugguel (of the statues) was a vandal, like the Taliban who wilfully destroyed….’ Correct. Jesus upturned the possessions of others but he did not cause them to be destroyed or become lost. God having foresight, that would have been deliberately so. A video for the Internet could have been made of the Pachamama statues eventually being left at the gates of the Brazilian embassy to make the taking newsworthy to the secular news channels. But, Christ reminded the disciples of zeal and, at least in English, we have no noun for a person who contains zeal which, if evolution works as it should, should have ‘evolved’ into use after 2000 years. And if evolution doesn’t work as it should, what does the atheist have?
roy chen yee | 14 March 2021


A tsunami contains as many things as it hides. The 200 word deluge displays what Furtado considers wrong about Roux but not the microscopic dough-leavening yeast cell that Roux, like Furtado, puts his own ‘conscience’ above the Magisterium. If individual conscience is supreme, Roux to Furtado should be what Furtado wants modernism to be to the rest of us, nothing to be criticised but a little vive la difference to be celebrated. Instead we have le pot calling la bouilloire noire.
roy chen yee | 14 March 2021


Conceding, as those who contribute to this 'journale auguste' must do, to word constraints, as well as to the clever whims and fancies of its contributors, I wonder why Le Roy doesn't write entirely in French. T'would be so Gallic and phallic and chic, don't you think; as well as heaps more theologically mellow and culturally entertaining. For my part, I had wondered where Roy's 'defence d'Uyghur' sat alongside his championing of Tschugguel who, on the public record, detests Muslims almost as much as he does +Francis. Perchance Roy engages in 'faire une montagne d'une taupinière' a bit too much on my account. Try as he must, it doesn't quite have the 'intensite dramatique' of Zola's 'j'accuse' about it, n'est ce pas?
Michael Furtado | 20 March 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘it doesn't quite have the 'intensite dramatique' of Zola's 'j'accuse' about it, n'est ce pas?’ So what? The lesson of Mars Hill is that intellectual dramatics (or the first 57 words of the post that is flashy gibberish which addresses nothing) cannot supplant the stolid factual preaching of Christ crucified. My first post of March 14 hardly ‘champions’ Tschugguel, distinguishing between causing the property of another to be lost and causing it to be temporarily disarranged. Christians don’t detest Islam except in the hyperbolic sense of hating the sin, but, factually, every Muslim is a prisoner of the spirit which misrepresented itself to Muhammad as Gabriel, or a prisoner of a myth. The Uyghur is no different from the Rohingya whom, one hopes, the US might repatriate to Myanmar after overthrowing the Middle Kingdom-backed Tatmadaw, where God in his own time can use the freedom in a new democracy of Christianised Myanmarese of the various ethnic groupings to reach them. Meanwhile, the ones making mountains out of molehills are those who think the Church should update its meanings while being hung up on retaining the traditional meaning of a word.
roy chen yee | 21 March 2021


What! No French? The cracks are certainly beginning show in Roy's discourse. Firstly, Tschugguel was his hero for demonstrating his disapproval of Pachamama's images being incorporated into the papal Amazonian synodal liturgy by throwing them into the Tiber. Next, Roy exonerated Tschugguel from the merest suggestion that Tschugguel, like Charles-Roux, lacked balance - not honesty! - because Tschugguel virtuously returned the statues. And finally Roy chooses to exonerate Tschugguel from the charge that he has actively and publicly supported the Austrian Far Right in barring entry to Austria by Muslim refugees! Stick to the French, Roy! You're consistently better at it than in your logic and, thankfully, no friend of Tschugguel's on the evidence of your advocacy on his or even, more sadly, Christ's behalf.
Michael Furtado | 22 March 2021


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