Consent – or why we shouldn’t force children to sit on Santa’s knee

Trigger Warning – this article discusses sexual assault and related topics.

I came across two articles in the media recently.  One discussed the horrible reality of what it termed ‘rejection violence’ – that is women being abused (especially verbally online) for saying ‘no’ to men.

https://amp.abc.net.au/article/13253626

The solution (minimally) discussed in the article mostly focussed on re-education of men and safety tools in dating apps as solutions to the problem.  Which are certainly worthwhile things to implement because something really does need to happen right now to protect women from this sort of abuse.

However – as alluded to in the article – anything that we do now is only a band-aid on a gaping wound in society and does exactly nothing to stop every future generation of men turning out exactly the same and thinking that abusing a woman just because she said ‘no’ is fine and no big deal. It’s treating the symptom, not the disease.

This is a systemic problem and one that can only be fixed by tackling the problem at its root – children (boys especially) need to be taught about consent from the earliest moment that they can comprehend the lesson. That’s where the second article comes in.

The Guardian – Teaching consent to children…

I like very much that this article doesn’t just address this problem from the point of view of teaching boys to respect other people’s boundaries – it goes much further and deeper and discusses teaching children to understand and assert their own boundaries – which I suspect then provides a solid foundation to discussing accepting other people’s boundaries.

Of course it also requires adults to respect children’s boundaries, making it a slightly circular problem we are tackling…

So, I had never thought of consent in this way before – but it makes sense as the fundamental starting point. Does a child want to be cuddled by a grandparent, or friend? Why don’t we ask children if they want this sort of contact? Why do we force children to “sit on Santa’s knee” when they don’t want to?

Put in this perspective, the origin of men feeling free to abuse women for something as simple as being rejected starts to make more sense – from an early age children are taught that they don’t have the right to choose who touches them and how. This is clearly setting up men to feel justified in forcing contact on women – and women in having to resign themselves to accepting that men are going to do that to them.

At the end of the day we have one problem with two actions required to resolve it.

Firstly we need to publicly and constantly make it very clear to all men that even if they don’t respect women’s boundaries and consent that they must curb that behaviour, even if they won’t personally accept that it is the right thing to do. We do this in every other aspect of our lives (like paying for things we want, following the road rules, or not committing assault) and men who may not respect the law – mostly – manage to behave rationally through fear of consequences.

Secondly we need to fundamentally shift how we treat and educate children. It has to happen in schools. And it has to happen in homes. And we won’t see any tangible results for at least a generation – far beyond election cycles and the media’s attention span…

All of this requires leadership with a strong moral compass. Something that Australia sorely lacks, especially at a federal level (I mean seriously, we have a prime minister who had to ask his wife to explain why the sexual assault of a woman in parliament house was a problem).

Sadly, I don’t see that these things will happen in any significant way any time soon – although I was pleased to see a high profile footballer was just convicted of two counts of “sexual intercourse without consent”. Convictions of this sort are vanishingly rare, but it is good to see that a man from one of the most privileged classes in this country (a sportsman) has been held to account for his actions.

That’s a good start.

John.

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