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OPINIONSocietyFebruary 20, 2020

Emily Writes: The lies we tell ourselves about the sexual abuse of boys

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We need to challenge those who minimise the actions of rapists based on the gender or ages of their victims, argues Emily Writes.

Content warning: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault.

News out of Australia of another college supporting a sexual predator is as unsurprising as it is horrific. Victims of sexual assault, regardless of gender or age, are often subject to people of all genders and ages making excuses for (and covering up) horrific behaviour by offenders. It’s as common as… sexual assault.

Even when a rapist is convicted, we often see a platform given to rape apologists under the guise of “discussing the issue”. In December 2018, paedophile Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old boys and is still defended by commentators like Andrew Bolt. You’d think defending a paedophile would be grounds for a media organisation dropping you, but Bolt still has his column in Australia’s Herald Sun.

As uncovered in a Four Corners investigation, a former coach from St Kevin’s College, Peter Kehoe, was convicted of sexually grooming a 15-year-old boy. On a segment discussing the episode on Sky News, Bolt suggested the child had been “hit on”. Bolt then used his own column in the Herald Sun to further defend convicted paedophile Pell and support the principal of the school who gave a positive reference for Kehoe.

This is what these men call being hit on: the 15-year-old student told Kehoe, his coach, that he had a Japanese oral presentation due. Kehoe told him: “that’s not the only oral you’ll have to do.” He then asked this 15-year-old boy if he knew what “pre-cum” was and invited him to “lick it off any time [he] liked”.

As a mother of two boys – as a human being – this terrifies me. If sexual grooming is explained away as being “hit on”, then my god, we have so far to go.

In New Zealand last year, a Blenheim teacher who raped two schoolboys was jailed. Apparently Jaimee Marie Cooney is the first female teacher in New Zealand to be convicted and sentenced for sexual offending against students. That tells you something about the reporting and conviction rate for teenage boys when it comes to rape and sexual abuse.

Her defence lawyer claimed the sexual abuse of 15-year-old boys in a car was “not degrading”. The lawyer also claimed the boys were big athletes, which is a defence we’ve heard before (girls looking like women) which apparently makes them fair game for sex offenders. Thankfully, the judge didn’t buy any of that victim-blaming and actively challenged it. The teacher was sentenced to two years and six months in jail. Thanks to comprehensive coverage by the excellent Anna Leask, we know what happened and we know what was said in court.

Victim blaming in the aftermath of assaults like these adds to a culture that means boys are too afraid to speak out. Children, teenage boys, young men – they hear people when they talk about these cases. They hear the mental gymnastics, the jokes about being “hot for teacher”, or that you can’t really rape a man. They hear that it’s not degrading, that grooming is just being hit on, that it’s a compliment, and that they’re big boys.

According to the sexual violence eradication network Toah Nnest, the sexual abuse of boys is far more common than generally believed. Recent international research indicates that one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16 and New Zealand research suggests 9% of men, or around one in ten, will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime.

As Leask says in her important piece on the Blenheim case, statistics show that “only about 10 out of 100 sexual abuse crimes are reported and just three of those get to court. Only one of those is likely to get a conviction. Males are far less likely to report abuse than girls or women. And when the perpetrator of the abuse is a teacher and the victim has been groomed, told not to tell, led to believe they are loved and special, the chance they will report it is vastly slimmer.”

We need to change the way we talk about sexual abuse for all genders and ages. In particular, we need to challenge those who minimise the actions of rapists based on the gender or ages of their victims.

It seems astonishing to have to say it, but anyone under the age of 16 cannot give sexual consent. Children and teenagers can never give consent to teachers, coaches, priests, leaders, police offers and adults in positions of power. The power imbalance denies the possibility and mental illness is never an excuse for rape. That people want to defend these people is astonishing to me and it proves how prevalent rape culture is.

It also tells us a lot about toxic masculinity, shame, homophobia, and “boys club” mentality. Toxic masculinity is seen in the way men are forced to hide their emotions and never show weakness. So many young boys are socialised into believing that violence is a cultural norm within their gender. These can include messages like “boys don’t cry” or “boys will be boys”.

The desire for men to defend their mates at all costs, to appear dominant and incapable of victimisation contributes to a “boys club” mentality that sees men protect other men over children. The fear of being seen as “gay” if you’re a victim of male-on-male sexual violence is rooted in a homophobic society only compounded by organised religion supporting oppression.

Women also victimise women when they’re survivors of sexual assault. There are many mouthpieces for patriarchal violence who repeat The Rules over and over again and explain how victims were asking for it and men were trapped. These same people overinflate the tiny rates of false claims.

Bettina Arndt, the Australian sex therapist who claimed the 15-year-old victim of a sexual abuser displayed “sexually provocative behaviour”. (Photographed in 2009 by Andrew Meares / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

All genders can be, and are in some way, complicit in the minimisation of sexual violence. The insistence on complexity when there shouldn’t be any when it comes to the rape of children proves that. We’re so far from a collective response against sexual violence that people like Bettina Arndt, who said a 15-year-old girl who was raped repeatedly by her twice-convicted paedophile teacher displayed “sexually provocative behaviour”, can be given an Australia Day award.

But there are pockets of society working hard to push back on the constant victim-blaming narratives we see, like Newscorp boycotters Mad Fucking Witches. Vigilantly and relentlessly calling out victim-blaming comments by media talking heads is crucial. Apologists will scream bloody murder about deplatforming but can’t seem to muster up even the slightest bit of rage towards those who actively use their words to defend the indefensible.

But challenging the way we talk to each other is also crucial. If you’re ever discussing sexual assault or abuse, imagine your children or the children in your life that you love are listening. Because in a lot of ways, they are. Question what messages you’re sending them when you say they “shouldn’t have been out at midnight” or that you “would’ve loved it if my teacher hit on me”. What exactly would knowing that mean for your child if their teacher said something inappropriate to them after school?

Well, Dad thinks it’s a compliment. I guess what I feel is wrong. I should like this.

What will they say to you when they come home after being assaulted, trying to work out what to do and they think back:

Well, Mum said that girl who was assaulted asked for it. I guess I asked for it too.

Aunty said she was dressed like a whore. Am I?

Usually, it’s not even that overt. Young people I’ve spoken to have said that “boys are just like that” when they keep going when you say stop, when they put their hands down your pants as a joke, or when they grab your tit. Because boys will be boys. Where did they hear that?

And I know men who’ve taken years and a shit tonne of therapy just to be able to name their emotions because they’re constantly told to swallow it because boys don’t cry.

Comments like those by Bolt, Arndt, and other shock jocks contribute to the culture of silence and shame around child sexual violence. How we talk about rape culture is a big part of this awful web our kids are getting caught in.

It’s not easy to tackle violence. We all have a part to play. But what’s the alternative? How many more kids will suffer?


If you are affected by sexual abuse in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Help: Support for sexual abuse survivors


Women’s Refuge

Rape Crisis


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