Online comments that shocked brought protests but some young people say rape talk is just that: all talk. The statistics don’t back that up and there are calls to make sex education compulsory throughout school and to make sure it’s being taught by well trained, appropriate staff. Aimie Cronin reports.

When a group of Wellington High School students sent an email to all pupils this week asking them to sign a petition calling for Better Sex Education in Schools, two replies came back at them within five minutes.

One said, "rape isn't real," and the other, "no thanks".

Josh Stewart, a Year 13 student and one of the petition organisers, says he was shocked by the comments, but at the same time he says it's pretty normal for young people to make light of rape, to use the word in everyday conversations at high schools - not just his. "It's massive and the issue is simply not talked about."

Some examples of everyday comments he hears: "It has become synonymous with someone being completely wasted; if someone is drunk, they will be like, 'oh they're so raped right now'. Or, it is used in sports teams, like, when a team does badly you might ask 'how did your rugby game go', and they'll say, 'we got raped'."

Advertisement

Lauren Jack, another petition organiser and Year 13 student, says language like that often comes from junior students, the Year 9s and 10s. "When they are talking about video games, they will say things like, 'haha, I'm gonna rape you'."

Jack believes rape culture resonates more in her age group with the commonly held ideal that "to be a man, you should be in control of a women, and also at parties when people are drunk and are not able to make good decisions."

A second-year University of Canterbury engineering student who does not want to be named, says it was common at his high school for groups of boys to talk casually and joke about most things, including rape. "The best way I can describe it is just a bunch of teenagers talking shit.

I believe that this conversation could be the cause of the perceived rape culture in our schools," but he goes on to say that he doesn't believe these conversations necessarily translate to assaults and disrespect directed at women.

In 2013, it was Roast Busters that sparked national conversations about whether our country had a big problem on its hands. The conversations waned. Then came last year's Chiefs stripper scandal.

Now, the issue of rape culture and calls for compulsory sex education throughout the country's high schools has flared up again because of comments made by Wellington College students this month on a private Facebook page that read "f*** women", and, "if you don't take advantage of a drunk girl, you're not a true WC [Wellington College] boy."

The students responsible were stood down and stripped of their leadership roles, and outraged teenagers from the Wellington region gathered to organise a protest against rape culture that brought somewhere in the vicinity of 600-800 people together to march on Parliament.

One of the organisers, Mia Faiumu, in Year 13 at Wellington East Girls' College, says she wanted to do something to reach out to victims.

Advertisement

"I think a lot of people who have been affected by rape and rape culture feel invisible, but what I hope the protest has done is that it shows lots of people think it's wrong and there are lots of people who care."

Mia Faiumu, one of the organisers of the Wellington College rape culture protest. Photo / Supplied
Mia Faiumu, one of the organisers of the Wellington College rape culture protest. Photo / Supplied
Dr Nicola Gavey who has done a joint study of 21 women who have been through the Family Court. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dr Nicola Gavey who has done a joint study of 21 women who have been through the Family Court. Photo / Dean Purcell

How big is the issue?

Stats from Rape Prevention Education reveal that about one in three girls will have experienced an unwanted sexual event by the age of 16. The majority of those incidences would be considered serious, with more than 70 per cent involving genital contact.

Family Planning clinics see about 17,000 young people each year and only 10 per cent of them are young men, (which raises the question of where they can be educated beyond relying solely on the family unit).

Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond says that although she can't give absolute numbers, staff perception around the country is that there is an number of young women coming to the clinics who have been the victim of a non-consensual event.

"We certainly see a number of young women where alcohol has had a big impact for them in terms of their decision-making at the time, and also we see a lot of young women who are coming in after having been sexually assaulted, or who are not remembering what happened. Certainly our clinic staff are very concerned about it."

Rape culture, she says, "is a really significant issue in New Zealand", and she puts alcohol right up there with the worst contributors, in that it impacts on people's decision-making ability, "particularly for young people, who are in really vulnerable situations," she says, "that's young men and women, both are vulnerable".

Social media keeps coming up too. Campaign for Consent founding member Anjum Rahman says that though it's difficult to judge whether rape culture is becoming more prevalent, the tools that are available to promote it are growing stronger. "People have the ability to group together that they never had before."

Taylor believes social media perpetuates the culture of objectifying bodies, rather than the idea of getting to know each other that is becoming increasingly old-fashioned. Whereas older generations might have flirted at the bus stop, now people send nude pictures of themselves.

She says it has become the initial way to make contact. "If you objectify someone, if you take the emotion and personality out of it, then you don't really care what you do to them. You don't care if you hurt them, because there's no person behind it.

"As a society we are really good at objectifying people, and as a culture, there is that sense that boys will be boys, and we perpetuate this myth that they are just animals following their instincts when they are not at all - they are thinking, feeling human beings and they are as in control of their bodies as anyone is and it's a cop out to pretend otherwise."

Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Dean Purcell
Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Dean Purcell

What should be done about rape culture?

One suggestion from Gavey is a targeted social media campaign that says nothing of consent or rape, but looks at gender and encouraging men to be "vulnerable, weak and multifaceted human beings".

Josh Stewart says he remembers posters on every stairwell by the Year 12 health class, saying "Never guess, you need a yes." He says it got students talking about issues around consent.

Mia Faiumu says often, when a rape joke or comment is raised among her peers, people will roll their eyes, but she hopes after the protest and all the subsequent conversations, young women and men will feel empowered to stand up to the behaviour and that it won't be so normalised.

There are ideas such as these that will make incremental changes, but most people spoken to by the Weekend Herald agree that the only way to ensure the level of sex education that needs to be taught, is to make it compulsory right through school and to make sure it's being taught by well-trained, appropriate staff.

In a statement, Education Minister Hekia Parata responded to the idea by saying "in the matter of sexual safety in particular, I want to repeat that this is first and foremost a parental, family and whanau responsibility".

The current education model is that the board of trustees, principal and staff at each school will devise a sex education programme tailored to their students. Sex education is taught as part of the Health and PE curriculum from Years 1 to 10.

There are guidelines stipulated by the ministry around what should be covered and some of those topics include consent, coercion, sexual violence, and safety in relationships.

"The reality is that schools are under so much pressure, they struggle to dedicate the time needed to have those complex conversations around things like consent," says Family Planning's Edmond. "[What is being taught] is pretty hit and miss and we know there is no great consistency around what is happening across all schools."

She believes schools should step up and provide compulsory sex education classes the whole way through.

There is an intentional flexibility around what the ministry asks of each school. The risk is that the board of trustees is not equipped to decide on an appropriate sex education programme for its school; that it might favour a once-over-lightly approach because of a wilful ignorance; that sex education is just not prioritised within a school system that already sees teachers under the pump to deliver the curriculum.

Gavey calls the ministry's stance "incredibly irresponsible", saying "these are public issues. They don't just affect the pupil, it's a wider public concern."

Says Taylor: "Sometimes a school has to take the lead and say this is really important, because they've got a different level of understanding about it and sometimes families don't have that bigger picture.

"At a certain point, the professionals have to stand up and say we know this, we've done the research, just like they've done with the maths curriculum, they don't take it to the community and say, 'do you think we should focus on addition and subtraction, or statistics?'"

At some point, the internet and the subsequent ubiquity of pornography has meant that many parents and caregivers are out of their depth when it comes to educating their young person, or even grasping what they are up to. Even for those parents who heavily police their young person's phone.

"There are kids who are 15 or 16 watching hardcore porn on their phones on the bus to and from school and they are often showing the younger kids," says Taylor. "I don't think we understand as a society how much that has infiltrated. Gone are the days where you might have found a dog-eared Playboy under the sofa."

Jane Morgan, clinical director at the Hamilton Sexual Health Clinic, has worked in sexual health for more than two decades. She says the repercussions of internet porn are visible in her clinic on a daily basis. For some, she says, it's been an instructional video on how to have sex.

"Where are the grown-ups?" she asks. "The grown-ups are busy going, 'Oh my God, what do we do?' when the grown-ups should be having conversations with their young people. We teach them to drive, we teach them so many things, we definitely need to be talking to them about modelling healthy relationships."

Ideally, she would like to see every school offering ACC's Mates and Dates programme that was rolled out in 2014, designed to help prevent sexual and dating violence. It has had a steady increase in buy-in from schools (16 per cent are expected to run the programme this year).

"I'd love to see every school offering it," says Morgan, "if every young person could know more about consent. But schools can't do everything and wider society needs to step up as well."

Advice for parents

•Jane Morgan, sexual health doctor, recommends regular conversations with young children about what consent means, even when they are toddlers and it is around sharing toys.
•As they grow, she says it's worthwhile having conversations around what they are watching, making sure they have an understanding around social media and issues such as privacy and consent. "Non-threatening conversations make it easier to move into things that are a bit more sensitive," she says. "It's about having a regular dialogue with them."
•If your young person is connected with a group that holds certain views, those views will be made to feel normal. Try to challenge their views and grow their ability to critically analyse what their peers, or what the media might be telling them.
•Kate Taylor, who works as a doctor in schools and as part of the Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care team, says teaching children from a young age about appropriate and inappropriate touching, and allowing them to decide who to touch and who they don't want to, will help them feel they have autonomy over their own body.

Stop the man bashing

"Men and boys get raped, too," says Kate Taylor, who works as part of the Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care team. "It's important that we acknowledge that in the same way we acknowledge female victims. Often is it harder for males to come forward because of the shame that is attached."
Ken Clearwater, the national advocate for the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, says it's important to remember that while the majority of sexual offenders are men, the majority of men are not sexual offenders and many of them support the call for cultural change. "We will make changes by working side by side," he says. "We need to stop the man bashing and say, 'okay, what's going on here, what can we do to help?'"

Do you need help?

• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline on: 0800227 233 (08002B SAFE).

• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

• For more advice visit police.govt.nz/advice/sexual-assault