For everyone’s sake, let’s talk about sex

Our Watch, CEO, Mary Barry
Our Watch, CEO, Mary Barry

Meeting hundreds of new people during Orientation Week and parties marks the start of the university year for many from next week.

But it is terrifying to think that these social gatherings may come with the threat of sexual assault.

At the end of last year, the discovery of hordes of internal police documents revealed reports of rampant sexual assaults and harassment in university dorm rooms, corridors, libraries and car parks.

Female students reported being grabbed at random, raped in bushes and molested in university swimming pools and bathrooms.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising. New research released this week by Our Watch’s youth campaign, The Line, reveals that 1 in 5 young people (aged 12-20) think it’s “normal” for a boy to put pressure on girls to do sexual things.

Of the 1000 young people surveyed, 1 in 5 also believed that if a young man wants to have sex with a young woman, it’s up to the woman to make it very clear she doesn’t want to.

In addition, we know that if a woman is sexually assaulted, 1 in 5 of the same young people will hold the victim at least partly responsible for the unwanted sex if she is drunk or affected by drugs.

A total of 15 per cent believe the same thing if the woman is wearing revealing clothing.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – there is some good news in all of this.

Young people are telling us that they are craving reliable information about sex and relationships. 

However, with a lack of guidance from parents and family members, they are instead turning to popular culture to get it.

I’m sure most people will agree that many music videos, online games and pornography do not portray women in a realistic manner.

Nor do they show the value of respectful relationships.

For example, a review of the most popular porn uncovered that 88 per cent of scenes included acts of physical aggression.

And in 94 per cent of those cases, the aggressive acts were directed at female performers.

Young people may also feel pressured to live up to certain outdated social expectations of being a man or woman.

Many young men believe they must be the ones who initiate sex, be sexually active and even aggressive. 

Meanwhile, many young women believe that they are expected to be passive, nurturing and do what they can to “make boys happy”.

So, we need to step up. We need to have awkward conversations about sex and consent with the young people in our lives.

Yes, they might squirm. We’ll probably do the same.

But the fact remains that parents, carers and family members are some of the most trusted sources of information young people will ever have access to. 

A few years ago, the National Union of Students indicated that 67 per cent of female students suffered an unwanted sexual experience. And 31 per cent had sex when they were, or felt unable to give consent.

It’s up to us to try and change these statistics. It’s up to all of us to help make university a safer experience for the people we know and love.

►Mary Barry is the chief executive of Our Watch, the national organisation to prevent violence against women and their children.