'I’ve heard it first-hand': Kambala petition just the tip of the iceberg

Daniel Principe has spoken with students about toxic sexuality – and he wants us all to do better

Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and includes some graphic sexual terms. 

On a whiteboard, I am writing a question to ask the Year 9 girls at Kambala School, in Rose Bay, Sydney – the same school making headlines because of a viral petition on sexual assault that was initiated by a former student. A petition that has dragged the ongoing issues of consent and problematic masculinity into the spotlight again in Australia, in the same week as Brittany Higgins’ revelations are challenging Federal Parliament’s culture.

I was at Kambala late last year, beginning a day of workshops with my Collective Shout colleague Melinda Tankard Reist. We were there to unpack sexualisation, objectification, and the harms of pornography.

Our aim was to help young women navigate a sexed-up world.

The question I put to the girls on the whiteboard was: “What does today’s society and culture value young girls for?”

Before I even turned around and regained eye contact with the group, a voice from the crowd yells out: “Big b..bs!”

Then from another: “Virgin-whores!”

Devastating and honest.

Before long, the whiteboard starts to look awfully familiar, like the previous whiteboards after every girl’s session I have run in schools such as Kambala. A sad indicator that the problems of teens and sex run deep and widespread.

What does today’s society and culture value young girls for? Filling the whiteboard are shocking terms: “Sluts”, “whores”, “virgins”, “looking young”, “teen fetish”, “slim”, “hot”, “compliant”, and “submissive”.

It is all so matter of fact from the Year 9 girls, though. With their permission and guided by their enthusiasm, we unpack how these toxic and pornified expectations manifest in their lives and influence how boys treat them.

“Don’t try to pressure me to do things I don’t want to do!”

The girls effortlessly articulate and analyse the harmful messages forced on them through pop culture, music, advertising, social media and pornography.

Their words echo the declarations I had gathered together previously from a group of Year 8 girls in Newcastle:

“No means no and you aren’t going to change my mind!”

“Stop making jokes about us and our bodies!”

“Don’t try to pressure me to do things I don’t want to do!”

“Respect me and my decisions!”

“Rape jokes are never ok!”

How has it come to this? Why are 11 and 12-year-old girls telling us about being sexually harassed, groped at school, pressured into sending sexual images? Why do year 7 girls ask us to tell the boys not to tell them about the porn they watched the night before?

Why do girls think they can’t refuse unwanted sexual acts?

After every school I visit, I keep returning to the same conclusion: we have abandoned our collective responsibility. We have allowed these girls to get into harm’s way. Yes, all of us, Australians.

At the end of our sessions, the girls always plead with us to go to the nearby boys’ schools. “Have you been to [Insert: local boys school]. You need to go speak to them!”

Graciously, they also acknowledge that they know boys are under pressure too.

The time is overdue to reimagine healthy expressions of masculinity …

During the past week, more than 2,500 stories of sexual assault have been collated through the Instagram petition of former Kambala student Chanel Contos. Many of us have been shocked and horrified.

I must confess that I wasn’t shocked – because these stories reiterated the hundreds I had listened to within schools and churches all across Australia.

These first-person accounts demand a cultural reckoning.

The time is overdue to reimagine healthy expressions of masculinity and not settle for consent being the minimum standard of conduct expected of men and boys.

Of course, not all boys are perpetrators; however, some are enablers or silent witnesses. Others do step in but are often punished by their peers for doing so.

What do these responses say about us, especially us men and the culture we have created and the attitudes we have adopted?

I am utterly convinced that the ubiquitous nature of pornography and social media are fuelling this misogyny, entitlement and callousness. The experiences of Collective Shout in schools and the anecdotal evidence provided by teenagers is confirmed by the latest research.

The more frequently pornography is accessed, the more likely it is for the adolescent to have less social empathy and poorer social conduct. They also are more likely to sexually objectify women and have higher rates of narcissism.

Whether we are parents, ministers, educators, sports coaches, youth leaders or mates, we all have a role and an opportunity to believe in our boys and encourage them to aspire to healthy expressions of manhood and masculinity.

We also have the duty to model a better, healthier way to be men – especially if you are a man.

There are countless young boys desperate for a vision of manhood worth aspiring to.

In light of the recent accounts of sexual assault against young women, Tim Bowden – who is Head Master at Trinity Grammar School, a boys school in Sydney’s Inner West – articulates to parents why all people of goodwill ought to be aspiring for more for young men.

“There are many decent, responsible and trustworthy boys and young men in our community who consistently demonstrate the very best qualities and traits for which we could hope,” writes Bowden.

“Our goal is to help more and more of our boys become men whose actions are consistent with the Christian ethos that our School espouses.”

Amidst such darkness and despair of the past week’s revelations due to Chanel’s petition, Bowden’s declaration of intent is the sort of moment that dares me to hope for a better future for our youth.

There are countless young boys desperate for a vision of manhood worth aspiring to. They are wanting to unshackle the constraints of toxic expressions of masculinity centred on control and dominance. These young men recognise how porn culture is harming them and want to be men of integrity. Once given the tools to understand themselves and the culture around them, some young men recognise their sexist behaviour and attitudes and have publicly confessed and apologised to girls.

The ideal future where women and girls are safe, loved and respected is still a long way off but I know our hopes of arriving there will require us to recognise that we all participate in a sexualised culture. Even if we haven’t created it, we have tolerated it and allowed misogynistic attitudes to go unchecked.

Knowing this, we must lament with these young women and say sorry to these young girls who we have failed. We must also promise to be better and do better.

In doing so, we give boys the opportunity and the permission to see how the culture they live in shapes and conditions them with harmful ideas about masculinity and damaging attitudes toward women and girls.

With this awareness, we can choose to come alongside young men and help them to reject social dictates and pressures and become good men who embrace a different narrative that looks more like love, listening, empathy and preferring the other.

A different, better world where control and coercion are shunned in favour of personal and societal recognition of the dignity and humanity of all women and girls.

Daniel Principe is a speaker with Collective Shout and can be found at lastoftheromans.org

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