When we don’t feel together

I’ve always loved working with young people. So much so that I developed a formula that engages and connects, seeing myself as more a conduit of the thousands of kids I have seen in counselling, telling their stories to help protect others. I’ve been working at the pointy end of trauma for 20 years, providing crisis and acute intervention for victims of sexual assault and medium and long-term counselling to assist them in navigating their way beyond trauma. A few years back, I realised the impact of this work on me, that vicarious trauma was not a matter of if but when. So I decided to go to the other end before trauma happens through early intervention and preventative education programs with young people in schools. Telling the truth, the reality that sexual violence is a genuine problem in their lives. That young people under 19 years make up 60% of all reported sexual assault matters. What if you are female? You have a one in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted, and it’s most likely by someone you know and trust. Overwhelmingly offenders are male. I am acutely aware that delivering this information is only one part of the story. Young people need to hear this without feeling shame or blame, despite the gender disparity. I want them to walk out of my sessions feeling empowered and excited for their future intimate relationships. I want them to have heard important content and feel brave that they have navigated this together and listened to each other, and connected as a group. I hold the space and facilitate the energy with safety and care. Telling stories of when consent goes right is really important. That the origins of the word consent means together, we feel. I talk about connection, self-awareness, and empathy. But one day, it didn’t go right for me.

I recently delivered my workshop to a Yr 7 co-ed cohort. As I walked into the school hall, I noticed a small group of young men in the front row. I thought this was unusual as often young men will do everything in their power to sit towards the back, particularly given the subject matter. What then followed was probably the worst teaching experience of my life. I was name-called and yelled at. They talked throughout the 45-minute presentation, made lewd remarks, and did not respond to any behaviour management. I felt threatened and disrespected. It was only a group of 6-8 boys, not the whole cohort, but their presence felt like they dominated every minute of the talk and all my attention. A part of me thought these were the boys who may hurt someone. These boys have not been taught about respect and probably have not been respected themselves. These boys could not tolerate complex information and a deep connective experience. They could not be seen, and they could not feel vulnerability. They were trapped in the male box of hyper-masculinity. They needed to feel power. Maybe they had experienced sexual violence themselves and were deeply triggered. Maybe not. After the workshop, a group of young women came up to me and apologised. They said they were sorry that these young men were so disruptive and harassing and experienced this often in class and the playground. In worrying and concerning voices, they said to me, “they need to hear this information.” This is not new. When I deliver my program to single-sex schools, young women will often name the numerous boy schools they know, encouraging me to contact their headmaster to organise sessions, saying along similar lines that “they need to know this….” For several workshops later in the day, the male headteacher had to set the “tone” with the threat of punishment if the students couldn’t behave. I realised the female students did not have the power to stop them, only to apologise on their behalf, to take responsibility for them. A micro experience of the bigger picture of a culture that struggles with gender violence and disrespect. I have to reach these boys, and they need to know this information may be more than anyone else. We together have to reach these boys. As a community. As parents, educators, and bystanders. 

So how do we do it?

 Create space for connection, both emotional and physical

Have conversations side by side (in the car!) or walk and talk

Keep the dialogue open and curious

Keep your mind open and expansive, be ready to be challenged, and remain non-judgemental

Know your relationship with consent, and share it with them.·

Be interested in their opinion.

Use topical events and real-life stories they are interested in·

Titrate information, drip-feed, and weave it into every day rather than one big conversation now and then

Remember consent in the everyday, name it, ask their opinions on lending and borrowing from friends, how difficult they find saying or hearing no, and ask for permission to publish their photos online

Call out catcalling, victim-blaming, and sexual harassment as contributors to non-consent culture.

Celebrate consent culture.

Be what you want them to see: Respectful, connected, regulated, non-judgmental, open, and curious 

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