Hopefully students and families around the country are discussing the media reports about the online behaviours of adolescents, especially those that disrespect girls.
There is a police investigation into a message chat forum in which students loaded and swapped nude photos of other students. There are serious legal issues with the collection and distribution of such images. Such behaviour is unacceptable. The accounts of the online student behaviour raise issues about power and consent.
Young people flirt and explore sexuality but this should always involve trust, respect and consent. Relationships are built on empathy and a sense of intimacy. Right relationships rely on trust, and the more sensitive something is then the greater the responsibility we have to protect people's dignity.
It is concerning that some young men presume to exercise power so callously. They make girls public property without their agreement. In objectifying others and treating sex as a commodity, they betray the fundamental aspects of good relationships. Young women are not sexual commodities and young men are not entitled to request and circulate these kinds of intimate images.
Some girls feel unfairly pestered and harassed to the point they do not exercise proper volition. Some photos have been taken with consent but are later used without assent. Others were seemingly taken without consent. This is not fun, it is not harmless. It is degrading and humiliating. It is made worse when a victim has sought to have images removed only to be further demeaned. The consequences for young people are substantial.
When we realise someone may be harmed we should take steps to prevent the harmful action from occurring. When we know someone has been harmed, we should try to repair the harm insofar as we can. Some may have followed the Amanda Todd story several years ago. After photos were put on the internet, she sought help only to be further abused. She eventually took her life.
We all need to understand the experience of what it means to be targeted and abused in these ways. Children should stop requesting and forwarding nude shots. Boys and girls need help in how to respond to unwanted requests.
Some young people become disinhibited online. Such is the optimism of youth that some feel invincible. Some make poor choices. Some are pathological. Some young men need to develop empathy; the capacity to feel with another. Some need help to understand better what consent involves and to grow in the virtue of respect.
"It is perhaps more important that students talk with each other. They can discuss together the standards they will accept, how to resist peer pressure, and how not to give into urges that harm others."
We must challenge messages that women are less than men, and the normalisation of pornography that desensitises people to demeaning sex. Attitudes like it's only a bit of fun or It takes two to tango, which are so often part of the boy code, lead to messages among girls such as I shouldn't get upset when he insults me. And they allow boys to think I can get away with this. They create poor culture. There are Australian surveys that suggest one in four boys think it is okay to hit a girl. And 80 women are murdered by intimate partners each year.
Adults of good judgement — including teachers and parents — can start conversations with young people about the risks, rights and responsibilities with using technology, about right behaviour and digital citizenship. Students usually have good perspectives when they are asked to give their opinions and we take the time to listen to their responses. Parents might consider the media coverage of this investigation as an opportunity to initiate a conversation with their sons and daughters with questions such as:
What do you think of this behaviour?
How do you think this would make the girls feel?
Is it right to talk about someone like that?
What are some ways you might talk about these things with your friends?
It is perhaps more important that students talk with each other because they often understand things better from a peer. They can discuss together the standards they will accept, how to resist peer pressure, and how not to give into urges that harm others. We want our boys to be leaders in developing group cultures that value respect for others; that say I'm not going to relate to women in bad ways. We hope they will challenge the cone of silence that allows people to be disrespected.
Fr Peter Hosking SJ has been Rector of St Aloysius' College, Milsons Point, NSW, since 2011. This is an edited version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the college newsletter, The Gonzagan.
This article was first published in Eureka Street.