Respect and consent

This article was published in the Parent Bulletin on 4 March 2021.

Since returning to Melbourne Grammar School last year I have been so very impressed with our culture - intelligent, warm, caring and respectful of one another.

In contrast, the reports coming out of Canberra suggest that the culture in Parliament is a long way from being humane or respectful, like the one we enjoy at Melbourne Grammar School. Brittany Higgins’ allegations are deeply concerning – not simply because of what she claims happened to her, but because of the way she was not cared for or taken seriously. 

You might also be aware of an online forum attracting widespread media. Young women have made allegations of being sexually assaulted by young men at various private social functions. Some high profile independent Sydney schools have been named. There have been subsequent reports involving Melbourne schools. We are not aware of any claims about current or former students from Melbourne Grammar School.

The statistics on sexual violence are deeply disturbing. Sexual assault is a heinous crime which is unacceptable under any circumstance. It must be dealt with the utmost seriousness, and where care and justice for the victim is the highest priority.

At Melbourne Grammar School, we want all our students – both boys and girls – to gain a deep understanding of the importance of respect for others and the need to behave with a strong moral code in all situations. This guides our core educational philosophy and approach. Respect is essentially the recognition of the independent reality of another person and the understanding that it is never right to use other people as a means to our own ends. Recognising the dignity and autonomy of every individual by virtue of their humanity is what it means to show them respect.

Developing strong relationships within the School community is one of the most powerful ways in which we nurture a respect for the intrinsic value of every human person. In addition, we provide specific programs designed to help students develop a deeper understanding of these ideals. These include involving them in thoughtful, calm, intelligent, progressive and age-appropriate engagement with issues such as this, and others, that are relevant to the broader Australian community.

Our work with our students to specifically understand and recognise ‘consent’ will continue to be a high priority. The legal age of sexual consent in Australia is 16 years. ‘No’ always means ‘no’. Consent can be withdrawn as people can change their mind, and consent is not possible if people are drunk, sleeping or unconscious.

Some stories in the media imply that the problem is only found in all male schools. As a former Headmaster of co-educational schools, and now a boys-only school at secondary level, I can tell you that I have not found that to be the case. Nor does it just lie within the independent school sector. Many young people find navigating relationships difficult regardless of their school setting.

The pervasive influence of distorted male and female stereotypes in pornography, entertainment and popular culture media, that has such a powerful impact on teenagers, does not help. Many of our teenagers will have been exposed to online pornography, sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental. Such pornography is cheap, readily accessible, often violent and certainly exploitive and demeaning of women. It treats sexual activity as transactional. Pornography is not consistent with the joy of sexual activity at the right time and place, that is consensual, enjoyable for both partners and respectful.

Many students will enjoy attending private social parties. These are an important part of growing up and social interaction. I encourage them, providing they are well run, well supervised and respectful.

I am confident that almost all our students can and do right thing almost all of the time. Sadly, though in the wider world there are too many cases of sexual assault involving alcohol or drugs where young women’s lives are severely damaged or ruined and young men spend decades in jail.

The School recognises that we are all the sum of our experiences at school, at home and elsewhere. All members of the School community have a role to play in in addressing all elements of disrespectful behaviour which pervades aspects of our society. I have addressed this issue at the Senior School and Wadhurst assemblies this week. However, I also encourage you to have open, frank and age appropriate discussions with your sons and daughters about respectful relationships, consent and appropriate conduct at private social functions.

We are all participants in what is, I believe, a welcome and hopefully permanent societal shift towards more respectful and appropriate behaviour towards others. We all play our part; more so us men. This is an important and challenging agenda. And we will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that we nurture, teach and model respect towards one another within the community, the people we interact with more broadly and our society as a whole.

Philip Grutzner