A study at Christchurch Girls' High School found more than half of the young women surveyed were sexually harassed and 20 of the 725 women who completed the survey were raped. Image: Screenshot

If we want to reduce Aotearoa’s sexual violence rates, we need to shift our focus from solely teaching young people about consent and instead work to dismantle harmful gender norms that have trapped our youth for generations

Expecting consent education to solve the problem of sexual violence is like giving your car a new paint job and tyres when what it really needs is an engine overhaul.

The car may look better and may even feel smoother to drive, but it does not solve the underlying problem lurking under the hood.

The release of the study conducted at Christchurch Girls’ High School was yet another stark reminder about how endemic sexual violence is in Aotearoa, particularly amongst our young people.

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More than half of the young women surveyed were sexually harassed and 20 of the 725 women who completed the survey were raped.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but this is consistent with findings nationally and internationally.

A study I conducted a couple of years ago found that 28 percent of university students had experienced non-consensual sexual contact.

This included 32 percent of women, 13 percent of men and 40 percent of transgender and non-binary students.

However, as the Christchurch Girls High School study shows, sexual violence is not just a problem students begin to encounter at a university age. Rather, many students are sadly all too familiar with it by the time they start their university experience.

It’s clear we have a problem. What is less clear, is the solution.

The premise behind consent education is this: sexual violence (or unlawful sexual connection and rape) are defined as sex without consent.

If we teach people to ask for and communicate consent, then we can reduce rates of sexual violence.

On the surface this might seem reasonable, if everyone asked their sexual partners for consent then no one would experience rape. There are two problems with this approach.

Firstly, is a problem with the logic of this approach. It is a bit like trying to solve the problem of theft by telling people not to take things that don’t belong to them.

While well intentioned, it does not address the realities of why theft (or sexual violence) happens in the first place.

Secondly, is the assumption that people don’t know how to communicate about sex. My own research on sexual consent along with research from communication scholars is quite clear. People consent to sex much in the same way they agree to other types of social interactions.

So, if the problem is not about communication, then what is it? Let’s take a look under the hood and identify the problems we need to address.

We have norms and practices that override knowledge of communication. These norms excuse and perpetuate all forms of sexual violence. Harassment is excused as ‘just joking’ or playing around.

The adage that boys will be boys minimises forms of harassment and the impact of it.

Pornography can glorify and normalise violence acts during sex.

The recently-published study on sexual violence by Professor Nicola Gavey and colleagues sheds further light on this issue. “Masculinity rules” dictate that boys should avoid showing emotion and refuse anything that may appear ‘feminine”.

These peer relationships can act as incubators for sexual harassment. Pressure to pursue sex focuses young people on impressing peers, rather than engaging and pleasing sexual partners.

Let’s not forget about alcohol. It’s not news that New Zealand has a problem with binge drinking, and we know that sexual violence is far more common in environments with excessive alcohol consumption. Often because drinking provides excuses for predatory behaviour.

Earlier this week Marama Davidson said she wanted to see consent education in all schools.

Consent education is not the solution, although I agree with her that we do need to do more, much more.

We need more funding that goes to primary prevention of sexual violence, including school and community-based programmes. But we need programmes brave enough to open the hood and dismantle the engine driving the sexual violence epidemic.

Associate Professor Melanie Beres is the Director of the University of Otago' Te Whare Tāwharau Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre.

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