The non-custodial sentencing last week of eight young men who humiliated and sexually assaulted a young woman has generated a strong public response.
A Children's Court judge convicted seven of the eight youths after they pleaded guilty to making a film in Werribee last year that showed them forcing a 17-year-old girl to perform sex acts with two of the boys while others spat on her and set her hair on fire.
The perpetrators used the body of another human being to further their own sense of gratification and power. Unfortunately, this incident is an extreme manifestation of a set of attitudes towards women that remain prevalent throughout our society.
For the last five years I have been running a sexual violence prevention program in secondary schools in Warrnambool. The program is designed to explore with students what healthy relationships might look and feel like.
Too often, both male and female students display attitudes that suggest that women are things of disrespect and humiliation, and that a woman's role in sexual relationships is about fulfilling men's desires and wishes.
It is not uncommon for girls as young as 13 to begin their sex lives by performing oral sex on boys. For some girls, oral sex is a way to prove you're not "frigid". Unsurprisingly, the male recipients of these sexual services generally do not treat their "providers" with respect and affection after the event, with devastating consequences for the girl. Further, the young woman earns a reputation. It is the old adage: you are frigid if you don't - and a "slut" if you do.
Too many young men talk about sex in terms of "getting a bit". If they're "lucky", they'll score vaginal sex. Less so, and they'll get a "hand job" or a "head job". The less-than-subtle assumption behind this terminology is that the "job" being done is male orgasm and the question is just about which part of the female body is going to provide the service. Mutuality is simply not part of this sort of thinking.
The attitudes of the young women and men with whom I work reflect a culture where women are often devalued, degraded, dismissed and seen as objects. Advertising and media regularly present women as sexual objects to be looked at and used.
Pornography, the ultimate objectification of women as mere bodies for men's sexual pleasure (and often, it should be said, violation), has moved from the fringes into the mainstream and studies suggest that growing numbers of young men are using the Internet to get access to it. Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg told a conference earlier this week that girls who were just beginning puberty were copying sex acts, including group and anal sex, that they see on the Internet, believing that such behaviour is normal.
When women are not seen as fully human and deserving of respect, violence against them is easier to commit. In Australia, about 1 in 3 young women will experience sexual assault by the time they're 18.
Sex without consent is rape. It is illegal and it is an extremely serious violation of another person. But sex that is merely about "getting a bit" is part of the same way of thinking. While it does not involve the same denial of consent as rape, it does constitute a lack of respect for and objectification of women. If we want to prevent sexual assault, we need to address attitudes that deny the full humanity of women and the respect that this entails.
The young people with whom I work want to know about sex. And they are not just interested in biology. Importantly, they want to learn about the relational and emotional aspects of sex. They are attuned to the messages around them and need help to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing in the media, among their peers and in their families.
We - parents, friends, neighbours, community and political leaders - need to equip them with the conceptual frameworks and the personal and emotional skills required to have fantastic relationships and, if and when they choose to, fantastic sex. We need to model healthy ways of relating and challenge attitudes that undermine these.
We need to learn to identify violence against women in all its varied forms, including the violence implicit in attitudes that occurred in Werribee. We need to reclaim a sense of the preciousness of all people, women and men, and an understanding that sex ought to be grounded in this. This is the work of prevention of violence. It is also the stuff of healthy intimate relationships.
To think and act and speak as though we are all worthy of the utmost respect as human beings might also be a way of capturing the imagination of the boys who are trying to "get a bit" and the girls who are "putting out" for them. As it is, both young men and young women are being badly, and apparently unknowingly, ripped off by a culture that promotes a hollow understanding of intimacy and tolerates degrading attitudes towards women.