BREAKING THE CODE OF SILENCE
Teenage girls tell Joanna Wane they're not going to take it anymore
Anger was written all over the walls when boys began arriving at school on the Monday morning. The chalked slogans, calling out sexism and harassment by students from Christchurch Boys' High, washed off with water. The ugliness they exposed has not been so easily erased.
The conversation that's emerged over the past few weeks has raised some uncomfortable questions around the way so many teenage girls are treated with such casual brutality by both their male peers and older men. In a survey conducted at neighbouring Christchurch Girls' High in response to the controversy, two-thirds of those who took part said they'd been sexually harassed, ranging from verbal abuse to violent assaults.
More than 20 allegations of rape were made, a number that doesn't include other extremely concerning incidents where the details were not fully disclosed. Since the results of the survey were released, three formal complaints have been laid with the police.
What's disturbing is not just the scale and seriousness of the revelations but the fact that so few of the students themselves found them shocking. "I was actually surprised it was so low; I expected almost double that number," says Alfie Smeele, who's in Year 13 at the Riccarton school and on the senior student leadership team. "I don't know if there's a teenage girl who hasn't experienced sexual harm or isn't close to someone who has. I just don't think that person exists."
Another student, at a co-ed school in Auckland, told Canvas a level of toxic behaviour towards girls has become so accepted it's often not recognised as abuse — by the victim or the perpetrator. "We're so desensitised to it, and so are the guys. They don't see themselves as 'offenders' whose behaviour is hurting or breaking someone. Men are trained not to respect women. And if you challenge it, they're the ones who feel they've been targeted unfairly."
In her experience, some of the nastiest incidents happen within friend groups, such as taking advantage of girls who are vulnerable because they're upset or have had too much to drink — a trend also reflected in the Christchurch survey. She's heard boys slut-shaming girls they've slept with and boasting about "collecting virgins".
"A lot of it's about feeding their ego," she says. "They're not necessarily doing it to hurt women, they're doing it for the male gaze. In a way, it's nothing to do with women really."
When three culprits behind the chalk graffiti were tracked back to Christchurch Girls' High, the school, to its credit, heard them out before deciding how to respond. As a result, a sanctioned protest to highlight gender-based violence and rainbow rights was held on the grounds, with a few students invited from two other girls' schools.
Trouble spilled over after a breakaway group of a hundred or so younger girls decided to march on Boys' High. Police, who'd been keeping an eye on the protest after it was publicised on social media, stopped them before they reached the school, where apparently some of the boys were lying in wait at the gates with food missiles.
By then, the situation had become increasingly volatile. A battle of words erupted on Instagram, with allegations of sexual assault on one side being dismissed as false accusations by the other, before both accounts were shut down.
What happened next has generated the kind of headlines most schools prefer to avoid. With the backing of the board and strong support from parents, Christchurch Girls' High commissioned an independent survey to gauge the level of sexual harassment experienced by its students, believed to be the first of its kind in New Zealand.
Of the 724 students who responded (aged 12 to 18), 60 per cent said they had been sexually harassed, many of them multiple times — out on the street, around town, at social gatherings or online. In most cases, their harassers were teenage boys of a similar age, or older men.
The impact of even what might be considered low-level harassment was often distressing. Relentless cat-calls and sexual comments had led some students to change their route to and from school, or to avoid travelling by bus altogether. Some of the verbal abuse that was reported, including rape threats, was truly vile. A girl on her way home from school says she attracted a volley of abuse when she walked past a group of teenage boys, with one of them shouting, "I'll f*** you until your back breaks."
Other students told of being groped, followed, filmed without permission or sent unwanted "dick pics". One was offered money to allow herself to be touched. Several of the reported rapes involved multiple offenders taking turns with a girl who'd had too much to drink or been subdued with drugs. More than once, a supposedly supportive boyfriend had helped her into a bedroom to lie down, then brought in his mates.
Principal Christine O'Neill admits the survey was a real eye-opener. "The degrading, misogynistic language being used, the assumed attitude of entitlement to a woman's body. In a lot of the stories, there was no opportunity to give consent. That right had been taken away."
Police were brought in to talk to students about safe reporting, including the option to "bank" a report while the details are still fresh in their mind, before deciding whether to lay an official complaint. In a TV news report after the survey results were publicly released, male student leaders, including the head at Christchurch Boys' High, called on boys to take ownership of the problem, too, by speaking up if they see or hear something that isn't okay.
Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti says new relationships and sex education guidelines introduced late last year make it compulsory for all schools to teach students about sexual consent. However, most of the girls who disclosed sexual assaults in the survey had never spoken about it before; less than 10 per cent received any help or support.
"They hadn't even told their friends," says O'Neill. "Breaking that code of silence is so critical. It's not about demonising anyone; there are lots of fabulous young men out there. But it's like racism in the workplace. What allows the minority to continue what they do is that the majority doesn't step up."
Last month, a major review released by the UK's government inspectorate Ofsted revealed similarly high levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse across 32 schools, with students claiming it's become so normalised that they treat it as a routine part of daily life.
Here, the Ministry of Education has called for a meeting of secondary school principals to front-foot the issue. Some have already come forward to offer support, while others have closed ranks. However, there's no reason to believe the problems identified in the survey aren't widely replicated elsewhere.
Backing on to the Avon River, Christchurch Girls' High is the largest girls' college in the South Island and, like much of the city, is still in the process of rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake.
On the last day before mid-year break, Canvas sat down to talk with two senior student leaders, Alfie Smeele and deputy head girl Kate Hastings. Alfie's father, Klaas, and Kate's mother, Tracey, also took part to add a generational perspective, from the days when sex education involved putting a condom on a banana, and porn was a "Penthouse" magazine hidden under the bed.
"I was shocked when I saw the survey," says Klaas. "I really was. I like to think as a family we do talk about things and I want my kids to be informed and protected as much as possible — emotionally and physically. But it's not something men tend to talk about with their mates. Perhaps we should."
For Kate, sparking those conversations is one of the most positive outcomes of the survey. "I'd like to see some changes in the education system within the curriculum, but that's not the only thing that needs to change. In health class, we're taught how to protect ourselves, but why aren't people being taught how to treat each other better? It's a wider societal issue."
She thinks boys have no idea how belittling and intimidating it is to have comments constantly made about your body or clothes, or how unsafe girls can feel. In the survey, students talked about having their boobs or bum grabbed on the bus. "They [boys] think they're being funny, but there's this whole fear around everyday things, where you might not be comfortable walking on the street or being in a public space."
Tracey has talked to men in their 20s and 30s who told her it wasn't until they were at university that they understood the impact that pack mentality has on women. When she was a teenager, girls were taught to brush it off and retain a dignified silence. "Maybe that's not the best strategy to be giving our children. If [the harassers] don't get the reaction they want, they just move on to someone else," she says.
"Smartphones and dick pics aren't something we had to experience growing up, but the wolf-whistling and unwanted touching in a bar or nightclub is probably pretty similar. It's sad when you reflect on it, that so little has changed from my generation to Kate's because we haven't stood up and said that's not okay."
When it comes to sexual violence, she believes there's still a lack of understanding that a reluctant yes is not consent, which may go some way to explaining the low number of reported assaults. "They don't realise some of this stuff is actually rape."
The survey also highlighted disproportionate levels of sexual harassment and abuse faced by the rainbow community, a reality confirmed by statistics nationwide. Alfie, who's 17, identifies as a trans male. Since transitioning this year, he's had a window on both worlds, hearing the way his male friends talk about women, while still being preyed on by both teenage boys and older men who think he's a young girl.
Not that it would be any kind of excuse but, like most victims of harassment, he isn't sexualised because he's provocatively dressed. The previous week, he'd been yelled at twice from passing cars — "Get off the road, slut!" — while riding home on his bike.
While alcohol plays a part, the culture of being "one of the boys" is inherently toxic. "There's a lack of understanding and empathy even with some of the guys I'm great friends with. And it's not much of a step up from lower-level harassment like rape jokes if you know your friends are chill with this stuff," he says. "It's the same with all types of hate crime, from racism to homophobia. You're able to remove the humanity from that person and justify hurting them."
He'd like to see healthy relationships and consent taught right the way through school, but says poor behaviour will continue if young people see it modelled by male leadership and adults in power. "Pulling ponytails," says Klaas, referring to former prime minister John Key. "Yeah," replies Alfie. "That's a good one."
Underlying the entire debate, of course, is the pervasiveness of online porn. For boys as young as 10 or 11, it's where they're learning about sex, with no frame of reference to process what they're seeing.
Slapping, choking and anal penetration have become mainstream expectations for males, who think that's what girls want and assume they'll be both willing and subservient. Klaas believes internet providers have a moral obligation to protect their users by blocking access to porn if you're under the age of 18. Both Kate and Alfie think that's simply not feasible and the only way to counter porn is by providing an alternative narrative.
"What porn does is take the most extreme parts of what consensual sex can look like with kink and fetish, and removes any type of education around those things," says Alfie. "Choking might be fine if you've talked to your partner and know the risks. But porn doesn't present it that way, which is so incredibly dangerous. That scares me a bit, especially for young queer people, because it skews what enjoyable sex can be."
Victim advocate Ruth Money says porn culture is driving an epidemic of sexual violence that's causing intergenerational trauma. "No one is having conversations with these young men, who grow up thinking that's the way they should behave. If what they're watching is RedTube, of course they think they have to slap women or pull their hair or hold down their heads during oral sex until they vomit." One woman told Money she thought that's what it meant when people talked about "blow".
"I talk to people all the time who have no idea they've been raped. They don't understand they have the legal power to say yes, and if they didn't, it shouldn't have happened."
Statistics suggest the younger age groups are actually having less physical sex than in previous generations while digital interactions have become commonplace, and are often shared publicly without consent. Another woman Money has supported agreed to making a sex tape with her boyfriend; six months after they broke up, a friend recognised her on Pornhub. The video already had 34,000 views. "And we still can't get him charged."
Money says school counsellors are drowning — "are they actually qualified [to deal with sexual assault] anyway?" — and more Government funding is needed for programmes like Loves-Me-Not, which teaches both male and female students how to identify an abusive relationship.
In her experience, there's little difference in the level of sexual harassment experienced by students at co-ed or single-sex schools, and she sees more surveys as a waste of money. "We know the stats. We don't need to waste time on a wider piece of research," she says. "This is the time to act, not delay. "