In 2014, I sat around a table with a group of 15-17 year old boys from a single-sex private school talking about what they did online. They were one of many groups of boys and girls I interviewed for a federally-funded project researching young people, sex, love and media.
Over the course of the year I interviewed 13-17 year old boys and girls at five very different high schools and asked them what they knew about intimate relationships, what they wanted to know more about and how online and social media was influencing their lives.
One of the many surprises for me in that first group was how open teenage boys were prepared to be with a woman their own mum’s age. Most of them actively wanted to talk about what it was like being a young man growing up in the online and social media age. Watching porn was a common subject of discussion.
In the wake of yet another scandal engulfing an elite private school – the discovery that older boys at Melbourne’s St Michael’s Grammar School have been circulating and rating nude pictures of girls in years 10 and 11 – it is worth reflecting on what I and my co-researchers learned in our study.
It’s unquestionably disturbing that young men are sharing these photos and posting sexist comments on them. The bigger problem, however, is that we seem to default to the same simplistic commentary and solutions.
The business as usual approach is to blame online pornography for “de-sensitising” young men. Then call in the “cyber safety” experts to tell boys not to look at porn and to tell girls they are putting themselves in harm’s way if they send sexual images to their boyfriends.
It’s a knee-jerk approach that ends up reinforcing the underlying issue: the intensely gendered social norms that frame how boys and girls develop their personal and sexual identities.
When you actually sit down and listen to what many young men have to say about pornography they are refreshingly honest. Why do they watch it? Take a wild guess.
What they make of it elicits a much more complex response. They know adults judge them for looking at it. Some have been told by external educators on masculinity brought into run school workshops that it’s “evil” and that if they watch it they will never have a healthy relationship with a woman.
Their response? Largely anger that adults continually underestimate their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. As one young man told me: “Porn is stunt sex. It’s not real”. Another said: “We have emotions too. But everyone thinks we’re just obsessed with sex”.
So how do the comments of the young men I interviewed square with the abhorrent reality that there are repeated instances of young men in high schools and university colleges sharing explicit images of women they know and posting misogynist comments?
Buried in the interviews I did with young people is a more interesting answer to that question than the notion that it’s all the fault of online porn: gender.
Both boys and girls talked openly and often about how there was a double standard which shadowed how they learned to form intimate relationships.
Girls, it was clear, were in a no-win situation. If they were conventionally attractive, let alone sexually active, they were at risk of being labeled a “slut”. If they were not considered attractive they became invisible or openly derided.
This double standard didn’t magically appear with the advent of the internet. It’s is deeply embedded in the gendered structure of our society. And it’s the hardest thing to talk about in conservative educational environments.
So what did we learn from young people themselves about what they need as well as want?
They want an opportunity to talk openly about the dilemmas, fears and aspirations they have and encounter in becoming adults. They want to know more about how to communicate what they want in relationships, they want to understand what their partner wants.
Behind the mask of indifference to young women and the jokey and sometimes brutal remarks young men make there is a palpable fear. Rating women distracts them from their own fear that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t a “real” man.
What we aren’t doing nearly successfully enough in an evidence-based way is to give young men and women an opportunity to talk openly. And getting them together to talk about their fears and desires.
A successful model trialled by a Sydney school involves bringing in year 11 girls to talk to year 9 boys and giving them permission to ask questions about what girls like and want. Simple but brilliant.
It’s not sexually explicit imagery that’s the real problem. It’s the attitudes and values young men bring to what they watch and what they post. And that’s what we need to engage them on – early.
Without raining down judgments. Just allowing them to speak honestly and allowing them, and young women, to start challenging deeply entrenched ideas about sexuality and gender.
This article was first published in The Guardian