The scale of the current ‘rape culture’ scandal is shocking. I would suggest that this crisis isn’t just confined to private schools and universities. The true figures probably dwarf the numbers currently being reported. If we can set aside the understandable shock and horror at what has been happening we can perhaps begin to try to think about how such abuse has come about and how it has become so normalised ? Moreover we need to acknowledge that it has been happening in plain sight. How have we, as parents, not noticed ?
To understand the origins of this we have to go back to the 29th June 2007. This was the day the iPhone was introduced. Slowly but surely this, and other similar devices, have now become indispensable to the smooth functioning of our daily lives. For teenagers these devices are as essential to their lives as food and water. They are umbilically attached to them. These Digital platforms have slowly but surely changed family dynamics. Households now consist of couples/parents, children, pets and digital devices. We share time with some of all of them. Through time the digital platforms have become more and more sophisticated. However the seminal shift, the real game changer, has been the move away from the ‘content’ of platforms to issues of ‘engagement’. In other words how long can we keep them on the platforms. They have found that they can now commercialise the human need to connect with each other. As a consequence of this the platforms can now reshape how we connect with each other. Teenagers spent on average 7/8 hours a day on digital platforms of one sort or another. That figure dwarfs the amount of time they spend interacting with their families.
In the race to keep us ‘connected’ the platforms have started to redefine the parameters of what constitutes ‘relating’. Relating as we would understand it, the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, friendship and intimacy, is being replaced by the need for instant gratifications and excitements. In the context of the current crisis we could think of it as ‘courtship’ being replaced by the need for sexual gratification.
To my mind there are two interrelated forces fuelling this crisis, the widespread consumption of pornography and the dynamics of the adolescent boy group.
There are no reliable statistics for just how much porn teenage boys and girls watch for the obvious reason that they are hardly going to tell a random researcher the truth. Rough estimates suggest 90% of teenage boys have seen porn by the age of 14 and 54% believed that what they were seeing was a realistic portray of sex. In other words what they think is realistic is that acting abusively towards girls is normal. Porn doesn’t do consent, on the contrary it is about domination, submission, humiliation and abuse, all of which the women are allegedly supposed to enjoy. If these are the dynamics that boys are using as masturbatory fantasies, is it any wonder that this is what they pursue in real life.
However there is a second more subtle influence at play here and that is the dynamics of the teenage boy group. Teenage boys, however confident, live in perpetual fear of humiliation and shame. Their ‘masculinity’ is a fledgeling one and they mostly take shelter from this fear in the group. They are more confident and stronger as a group that alone. The price they pay for this is blind obedience. Social media has exacerbated these anxieties. A dress malfunction, a misspeak, not getting a joke can be shared with others in the group in seconds bringing with it a barrage of abuse and comment all under the banner of ‘having a laugh’. One wonders how much of this rape culture in driven by the fear of what the group will think if you don’t engage in it. Does a date with Emily which ends with holding hands or an exchange of phone numbers, rather than something more sexual, open them up to being belittled and humiliated in their group ?
The question that institutions will be thinking about is what to do about it ? There will be the usual call for more talks in schools and more education generally. These undoubtedly have a part to play but since when did teenagers listen intently to what adults have to say about anything? At best it may increase awareness but will do little to change the internal dynamics. Ultimately the really serious changes will have to come from parents in the home.
Those that have read my book ‘We need to talk, a guide to raising resilient teenagers’ will be familiar with some of the suggestions here.
Quite obviously there has to be a proper conversation about pornography despite some parents reservations. At the very least they need to understand that this isn’t a realistic representation of sex relationships. They also need to understand what consent really means. As a necessary part of this there needs to be a discussion about the part ‘getting hammered’ has in many of these incidents. The excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol makes the issue of consent much more complex.
In my view we have to ‘track’ our boys lives better because we have clearly lost track of them. Before the mobile phone this was much easier because it primarily was an issue of geography, where are you going, where have you been? This tracking is now much more difficult. Furthermore any attempt to do so won’t be welcomed.
‘You’re invading my privacy’ is a popular gripe
‘I have my rights’ is another.
All of this will be conveyed in the now familiar hysterical rant. Don’t be put off.
You need to know who your son’s friends are. Do you know who are the movers and shakers in the group? Do you know how much influence they have over him and/or what is his relationship within the group ? Is he a leader, a follower ? You need to find out. You need to talk about the importance of doing the right thing even if it means it incurs the group’s displeasure. Explain the dangers of ‘group think’.
Don’t let them disappear into their bedrooms as soon as they come home. They learn about relationships by being in the family group not by being in their bedrooms. Try to impose a technology free part of each day. I don’t for one moment suggest that this will be easy, on the contrary it will precipitate all sorts of conflicts, but the issues are too important for us to ignore.
Imagine how you might feel if the police come knocking at your door wanting to discuss your son’s alleged sexual assault.