The conversations with schoolboys that horrified Laura Bates

Laura Bates has witnessed the worst of male misogyny in action. For her book Men Who Hate Women, the British writer went undercover online and infiltrated a network of terror groups and incels (“involuntary celibates”) who advocated violence against women.

What led her there, however, is even more horrifying: it was the conversations she was having with schoolboys in her decade-long career as an educator on feminism, sex education and consent in British schools.

British writer and educator Laura Bates says a generation of young men have a skewed idea of consent and what constitutes a healthy, sexual relationship. Credit:AP

“In the last two years, I noticed a very real shift in the responses of teenage boys,” she says. “There was a hugely increased sense of hostility and resistance, a refusal to engage at all, a sense of preconceptions that this was a man-hating feminist coming in to bash boys.”

When the boys started quoting the leaders of some online extremist groups, which Bates had already been studying, and started repeating false statistics, such as false rape allegations being extremely common, she realised these extreme online groups “were very effectively radicalising and grooming boys”.

The result, she says, is a generation of young men with a skewed idea of consent and what constitutes a healthy, sexual relationship. “We know that 60 per cent of young people have seen online porn by the age of 14, we know that a quarter of them are 12 or younger when they first see it,” she says. “And the online porn that is very accessible and readily available, often shows women being hurt, being degraded, humiliated. It shows sex is something violent and powerful that is done by men to women.”

“I’ve been in schools where they’ve had rape cases involving 14-year-old boys,” she says. “And at one school, a teacher said to the 14-year-old boy, ‘Why didn’t you stop when she was crying?’ and he said, ‘Because it’s normal for girls to cry during sex.‘”

Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a website where women from around the world have been documenting their experiences of sexism since 2012. She is speaking at Sunday’s All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House and her appearance comes at the end of a harrowing few weeks, where stories about an alleged rape in parliament and online petition listing alleged sexual assaults by schoolboys have been in the headlines.

“It’s extremely inspiring that we have an amazing generation of women who are refusing to take this lying down,” she says. “But alongside that we also have a generation of young men being radicalised and groomed online by extremist groups that nobody is aware of, that counter-terrorist groups don’t even have on their radar, and that’s a very dangerous moment as well.”

She says sexual consent education at schools is woefully inadequate and needs to start when children are in primary school. “We can teach ‘this is your body’ and ‘that’s your body’ and we get to choose what happens to our bodies,” she says. “That’s basic. Instead of coming in at 17, when they’re probably already sexually active, and they’ve been watching online porn for the last five years and it’s far, far too late.”

And it’s not just at school that education needs to happen. Bates says parents have an active role to play in consent education and need to realise what their children are looking at online is not “the equivalent of Playboy centrefold or an FHM spread but on a computer”.

However, it’s not just online where young people form ideas of appropriate behaviour, it’s also seeing how men in positions of power treat women and how those actions are reported by the media, says Bates.

“When you see that somebody can be accused of sexual assault, or sexual harassment by multiple women and go on to become the president of the United States, you start to recognise that has an impact,” she says. “But also when the media turns on women, and when high-profile people turn on women who come forward with their experiences and accuse them of lying and making things up … then you have a really toxic mix.”

Laura Bates is appearing live via video link on March 7 at the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House.

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