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Category: Sexual harassment and discrimination

We need to equip our teens with strategies to deal with sexting

If you have a teenager, it’s highly likely that at some stage they have been sent a nude image.

There’s also a strong possibility that they’ve sent a nude image of themselves to someone they trust.

And it isn’t just the teens who engage in other high-risk forms of behaviour, such as drinking and experimenting with drugs, who are sexting. Writer and women’s advocate Nina Funnell believes that the practice is in fact, now normalised among teens.

“Having spent several years investigating the phenomenon of what motivates nude image sharing, first in an academic setting and then as a journalist, I can tell you that it is more prevalent than ever. Educators and police have been preaching to teens about the dangers for almost a decade now, yet the words of warning just aren’t resonating,” she says.

These warnings may be going unheard as they rely on scare tactics; the messages often present young people as either callous criminals, or vulnerable victims. While it is important to be clear that sending, possessing or forwarding sexually explicit photos of underage photos of an underage person is a criminal act (even if that person is you) there is a wide body of research that shows campaigns that rely only on fear as a motivator are both counter-productive and ineffective.

It’s important for teenagers to know that being caught up in a sexting situation doesn’t mean they’ve destroyed their future. (Pic: Supplied)

The doom-and-gloomers also lose credibility quickly with teens who see such messages as alarmist, and possibly out of step with their own often more complex experiences.

What approaches do work? Acknowledging that at some stage our teens may be sent an unsolicited nude image, and providing scripts on a range of ways in which they can deal with this (everything from delete and block, to reporting the sender, to using humour — the mother of a 16-year-old girl recently shared an image her daughter automatically sends to any guy she knows who send her a “dick pic.” It shows a sharp knife next to a sliced cucumber).

Allowing teens who have sent nude images a safe, shame-free space to discuss why they sent these, and how they felt about this afterwards (especially if they were coerced into sending the image) can also be illuminating.

Blogger Jae Schaefer reflected on why she sent nude photos of herself at sixteen, and how she felt when these were then distributed around her school and workplace. “I had total strangers tell me I had ‘destroyed my future’… (but) life goes on. I don’t share naked photos anymore. Not because I think it’s immoral or dangerous, but because I don’t crave the attention like I used to. I got really honest about why I was doing it… now the exhibitionist within me is expressing herself in a more conscious way (through writing).”

It’s important too that when we talk about sexting we don’t present it only within a cyber-world framework. The discussion needs to also cover broader real-world issues such as what a respectful relationship looks and feels like, why it is that female nudity in particular is so often associated with shame and loss of reputation, on how we can be ethical bystanders, and on how we can always move beyond any mistakes we may make.

When adolescents are only ever told about possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, any opportunity for an open dialogue with them is shut down.

And we urgently need to not only continue talking, but to listen. Because when it comes to the relationship teens have with sexting — it’s complicated.

This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, and was shared online by RendezView 8/4/17 

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

Your online behaviour says a lot about the person you are

The Waiter Rule was first proposed by newspaper columnist David Barry in the late 1990s.

It preposes that a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat serving staff.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can’t help but wonder what Barry would think about the comments left on both social media and mainstream media platforms, and more to the point about what these reveal about the nature of those who chose to log in, and let rip.

The internet has become so increasingly aggressive and hostile that it is now considered wise to refrain from reading the comments section, to take regular digital detoxes, or to consider leaving particular social media platforms permanently.

Actor Leslie Jones left Twitter in July of last year after receiving a barrage of online racist and sexist hate for daring to star in the remake of the film Ghostbusters.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti followed suit the same month after tweets were sent threatening to rape and kill her five-year-old daughter.

Writer and activist Lindy West deactivated her account recently, declaring Twitter “is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators”.

Leslie Jones (far left) was subjected to racist abuse for her role in the new Ghostbusters film. That says a lot about the character of the people trolling her. (Pic: Ghostbusters)

It would be tempting to reassure ourselves and think that only a small minority choose to badger, belittle, and bully. Yet research from the US shows that 28 per cent of online users admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.

Some don’t even seem to be embarrassed by this behaviour. A 2016 study on online firestorms concluded that non-anonymous individuals are actually more aggressive compared to those who remain anonymous.

How do the people who throw these word-missiles reconcile their online behaviour with the self-perception many surely hold to be true — that they are decent, reasonable people?

Perhaps they do so by reassuring themselves that although they just sent a message to a journalist they disagree with, threatening to sexually assault her with a rusty knife, earlier they had offered to make their wife a cup of tea.

Although they did just post a cap-locked string of expletives on Facebook telling someone they find annoying why they don’t deserve to live, they had put their hand up to help at the school canteen next week.

The internet can sometimes seem a cesspool of hatred. (Pic: iStock)

Or perhaps they simply choose to ignore the fact that the mark of any person is not how they treat those they like, but rather how they treat those they find challenging and those from whom they have little to gain.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller argues that although even the kindest of us can have bad days and be rude, or unnecessarily hostile, “We have a responsibility to recognise that we are capable of belittlement and rudeness and to remedy it as soon as we feel we may have been out of control.” We need to learn to regulate our emotions, he says. Both in our face-to-face interactions, and in our virtual ones.

The modern-day litmus test of a person’s nature should be how they engage with others in the cyber world. Just as most of us would recoil from a blustering fool who chose to bark demands or attempted to demean the staff at a restaurant, so too will we start to move our seats away from the online haters.

Because whether the trolls would like to acknowledge it or not, their comments reveal far more about them than they ever do about those they are hoping to intimidate or discredit.

 

This post was originally published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView  20/1/17 

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

Domestic violence in teenagers — why aren’t we talking about it?

In the United States, the entire month of February is devoted to Teen Domestic Violence Awareness. Here? The dating violence young people experience remains a silent epidemic. But the uncomfortable truth is that teens are one of our most vulnerable groups and very few of those experiencing abuse feel equipped to seek help.

The statistics are the stuff of nightmares for many parents who may well be clueless to the fact their child is even dating, nevertheless in a toxic partnership. While 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, 20 per cent of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

Even more worryingly, surveys show that 33 per cent of teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

Alarmingly, Australian research also indicates that young women aged 14-19 may be up to four times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than older women.

For teens experiencing dating abuse, reporting this to a trusted adult is often particularly problematic. Many remain silent as they fear they will get in trouble from their parents for dating in the first place.

Others keep quiet knowing they will have to face the perpetrator everyday at school, or for fear they will be asked to change schools to avoid their ex.

Some fear being alienated by their peer group if they speak up while others don’t yet have the language to even identify the behaviour as domestic violence and simply don’t know how to describe what is happening to them.

Roxanne McMurray, manager at Leichardt Women’s Community Health Centre, works with young women from the age of 13 and says she hears from many girls that age who are in extremely abusive relationships.

“They often don’t realise what is happening to them isn’t OK or that it is domestic violence,” McMurray says. “They will start to talk about a boyfriend who monitors all their social media interactions, tells them who they can and can’t talk to, what they can and can’t wear … On the surface this looks to a young girl who has bought into the knight-in-shinning amour romance rhetoric that their partner is just being protective. Even when he hits them, they make excuses: ‘It’s because he loves me so much and gets so jealous.’”

With all the work that’s been done on raising awareness about domestic violence in the last 12 months, why are our young people not hearing these messages and spearheading change?

While adults need to debunk their misplaced, and dangerous, belief that young people aren’t already dealing with these adult and complex issues, McMurray argues we need a more targeted approach to raise awareness in teens.

“There’s a misplaced belief that teens are soaking the education campaigns aimed at adults in too,” she says. “They’re not.”

This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph and shared online by RendezView, 6/2/16

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Hollywood finally realises women have stories to tell too

The following post was first published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView, 26/12/15.

Is it any wonder that after overeating, overspending and feeling over the in-laws, so many of us escape between Christmas and New Year to the movies?

The December holiday period is in fact one of the most lucrative for cinemas, as evidenced by the unstoppable box-office performance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which set a new record for worldwide ticket sales on its release.

But as much as I love tales of underdogs defeating dark forces, this Boxing Day I’ll be lining up to see a different set of fighters bravely putting their lives on the line and challenging existing power structures.

Bring on the suffragettes.

Opening in Australia today is this historical period drama Suffragette, which tells the story of the “Mothers, Daughters, Rebels” who risked everything in their battle for the vote.

It won’t necessarily be comfortable viewing. I suspect many cinemagoers may be shocked at both the plight of women in 1912 (when the film opens) and the brutality of the British government’s response to their campaign.

But how vital it is that we learn more about women’s stories; particularly considering much of what we learn at school in history is often so very male-centric.

Back when I was a high school history teacher I was frustrated at just how difficult it was to access quality resource material on the role women played in various historical periods. During wartime for example, most textbooks reduce the role of women to either waving off their sons to war, or to nursing; to narratives of motherhood and sacrifice.

In reality, female contributions were far more diverse, from women taking on traditional “men’s work” outside the home, to serving as special agents in World War 2 (Australian educated Nancy Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person for the work she did with the French Resistance and remains this country’s most decorated servicewoman). Why have there not been more films telling their tales?

In a recent New York Times Magazine article on sexism in cinema a top entertainment executive, who insisted on anonymity, offered an insight into why so few women’s stories, historical or otherwise, reach an audience, “ It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color (sic), no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys’’.

Slow indeed. According to Screen Australia, here women account for only 32 per cent of the producers, 16 per cent of the directors and 23 per cent of the writers.

Suffragette is, therefore, a rare cinematic gem as it not only sheds light on a crucial period in the history of the fight for gender equality, but has two women at the helm with both a female director and screenwriter.

So today I will grab my popcorn and head to the movies, not only to honour the memory of my suffragette sisters, but also to support the work of women in film.

Yes, we have come a long way. But it’s clear the fight continues.

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How young men will help put an end to domestic violence

The following post was originally published by RendezView 15/10/15.

 

Like most Australians, every time I hear news reports about yet another woman who has died at the hands of her partner, I feel horrified.

And as at least one woman gets killed as a result of domestic violence every week, I find myself feeling horrified often.

But how does one move from anguish into something more constructive that might form part of the solution?

As an educator and author I’ve dedicated my career to date to working with young women; empowering them to know their worth, encouraging them to deconstruct limiting gender stereotypes and teaching them how to develop and maintain respectful relationships.

But putting an end to violence against women and children cannot just be the work of women; we desperately need the passion, creativity and hard work of good men too.

So when I joined a committed group of people in my local community working to establish a new domestic violence shelter in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, called The Sanctuary, I wanted to initiate a partnership with the largest boys’ school in the area, Oakhill College.

It is these lads who can help us ensure that one day, our refuge may no longer be needed. Because while shelters are focused on creating crisis accommodation for women and children, they are also focused on early intervention and prevention work.

This is why all 220 of the Year 10 boys who will be adopting The Sanctuary as their own were briefed about why a refuge is needed in their local area, and about what they as young men can do to help curb violence.

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This initiative was also featured in The Daily Telegraph 14/10

They then did further research — including looking at the underlying issues that drive domestic violence such as gender inequality and sexism — and started creating their own anti-DV posters they will carry when they join in our local White Ribbon march in November.

The boys will also now begin making up Welcome Packs (toiletries, chocolates, etc) that can be given to women and children as they arrive at the shelter. The attached gift card will simply read, “We care about you and we are glad you are safe. This gift is for you to show you that you’re valued.” This small act of kindness has the potential to have a huge impact for both the giver and the receiver.

Their English teachers have also now begun brainstorming ideas for how they can embed this work across their curriculum. The staff love the social justice focus and also the opportunity this creates for the application of learning in the real world.

And like with all projects that young people feel a sense of ownership over, it will evolve in ways none of us can even anticipate at this early stage. From the simple (the lad who approached me to say, “Danni, this really means a lot to me and if you want I’ll get some friends and go door knocking to get you more money”) to the more innovative (there’s talk of producing and performing plays, and of making film projects).

Why has the initial response from these boys been so positive?

The boys have been encouraged to realise they can be part of the solution.

When I first met these boys, I looked straight into their eyes and told them I knew they were gorgeous young men who felt just as distressed as I did by knowing not all women and children are safe in their own homes. And I told them I knew they would welcome the opportunity to learn and be voices of difference.

So often too we forget that in homes where there are violent men, there are young boys who are not violent. Rather, there are boys who feel scared. Boys who feel angry. Boys who feel powerless.

Boys who want to make things OK.

And while I am incredibly grateful for the enormous contributions of the women who work tirelessly in this field, in my community I have been inspired to see there are plenty of men who want to step up and make things OK as well.

There are fellow Sanctuary Board members, like Hills Local Area Commander Rob Critchlow, who helped get the ball rolling here by seeking out a location to establish a safe shelter and managing security concerns. And the Centre Manager for Castle Towers, Martin Ollis, who convinced his QIC Board to donate a fully refurbished property to The Sanctuary rent-free. There’s the Assistant Principal at Oakhill, Bob Munday, who jumped at the opportunity for his boys to be The Sanctuary’s advocates.

And there are these young men.

All are true champions for change. Their attitudes reaffirm that most men in Australia respect women and children and believe that the current culture of violence is unacceptable. And those who feel otherwise are discredited and put on notice.

Update 30/11 – I was asked to speak to Brisbane Breakfast FM radio 97.3 about this initiative for White Ribbon day. You may listen to this animated discussion here:

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

Gamers: they sit in dark basements and become serial killers. Or do they?

What is the one thing teen boys say they wish adults better understood about their lives?

Forget raging hormones, academic angst and peer pressure. When my team and I run our personal development workshops with young men the thing they tell us they feel is the cause of most inter-generational misunderstanding is their passion for computer games.

“I wish my parents knew that just because I like gaming doesn’t mean I am a loner or that I’m going to become a serial killer.” “I wish the adults that mock me for the games I play would at least learn a bit more about them, and how skilled I am at playing them, first.”

The very fact that we tend to only ever target in on young men when fretting about gaming highlights how misinformed we tend to be. The reality is that almost half of those who play are female, and approximately a third are aged over 35 years old (yes, it seems that we have already had a generation of young game-loving people emerge as adults, and yes most are happy, well adjusted and productive members of society).

The reality too is that gaming is actually highly social; players work together to solve problems, share tips and tricks, compete with one another. My biggest complaint when my son plays?

There’s too much noise as he’s animatedly chatting via Skype to the mates he’s teaming up with online.

And make no mistake. Gaming does develop valuable skills. It is a fluid intelligence mega-booster, encouraging participants to seek novelty, challenge themselves, think creatively, do things the hard way and network.

There are many surprising socio-emotional benefits associated with gaming as well. It has been shown to be helpful in alleviating depression (it is believed games distract people from negative thought patterns), in developing intrinsic motivation (gamers learn to overcome one obstacle after another), and in developing the type of 21st century skills that employers require (not only the familiarity with computer operating systems, but the ability to work and collaborate virtually).

As for the notion that games are violent, whilst it is true that some of the most popular games like Minecraft are not, many do have violent elements. While this doesn’t thrill me, it also doesn’t surprise me. Children’s games have long explored such impulses; be it through playing with toy weapons or soldiers, or through role-plays such as Cowboys and Indians.

The real question is whether playing these types of games leads to more violent behaviour, and on that point the findings are mixed with most studies concluding that whilst for a person predisposed towards violence this might be triggering, for well-adjusted individuals it is not. In fact, some young men I talk to say that when they are feeling angry, playing a game that is aggressive can be a helpful way of channeling that rage safely.

All this is not to say we should white-wash the very real issues that need addressing in gaming such as the sexist and abusive way in which some female players and game developers are treated (something my son thinks is shocking) and debates around ratings. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which tend to attract the type of media interest that may have contributed to the current culture of fear and misunderstanding, are rated R (18+). They will, of course, like all forbidden fruit, appeal to younger kids as well and just like when they wish to view films that are not suitable for them, it is then that parental boundaries need to be established.

Leena van Deventer, a game narrative lecturer at RMIT and Swinburne Universities, argues parents have actually never been in a better position to engage with the games their children play, and setting boundaries is aided not only be the games rating classification system, but by better parental restrictions that can be set on game devices. “We don’t have to play every game before our kids get it, these days either”, she says. “We can jump on YouTube and watch a complete play-through of the game and decide whether it’s the sort of game we want our child to play.”

It is true that like anything a young person becomes passionate about, gaming can become addictive. However, It seems odd to me though that whilst we wouldn’t dream of shaming a young person who was obsessed with locking themselves off into their room to read books, it tends to be open season on the gamer.

The way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

We need to be prepared to get in the game.

This article was first published by RendezView. 

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