As a father of two boys and one girl, my heart breaks when I think about any of them navigating today’s world of relationships. Never have I felt more strongly the desire, common to all parents at some time or another, to bind them in bubble wrap and keep them away from a world impossible to understand.
An assembly was held recently at Brauer College, a school in rural Warrnambool, in southwest Victoria, Australia, during which its boy pupils, some as young as 12, were made to stand up and apologise to the girls for crimes of rape, sexual abuse and harassment committed by men against women. Despite the boys in question not being accused of any wrongdoing, they were asked to stand up and accept their share of collective guilt on account of their having been born male. What the girls made of it all, far less the boys, can only be imagined.
That affront to normal behaviour happened at the other end of the world, but that it was sanctioned anywhere at all means it was too close to home. Parents complained and — surprisingly, you would have to say in the present climate — the school apologised.
Principal Jane Boyle described the spectacle, the public shaming of the boys, as a “symbolic gesture of apology for the behaviours of their gender” but conceded it had been out of line. Speaking on behalf of the event’s organisers she said: “In retrospect, while well intended, we recognise this part of the assembly was inappropriate.”
One of my boys is 12. The thought that anyone might one day presume to have him stand in front of an assembly and apologise — to have him thereby accept responsibility — for the crimes of others, crimes of sexual violence, makes my blood run cold.
There is a line I hear more and more, in relation to all sorts, that goes: “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” Within the scrambled grammar is a pearl of truth. That debacle in rural Australia might purport to have been about supporting women and girls, but those pushing the agenda worldwide seem to have selective blindness.
In England and Wales police forces will soon begin to record misogyny as a hate crime. Any crime of violence against the person, including stalking and harassment as well as sexual violence, will be recorded as such whenever the victim perceives it to have been “motivated by hostility based on their sex”.
If that concern were extended to the wellbeing of all girls, then there would have to be a full and frank discussion, for instance, about the uncounted thousands, tens of thousands of rapes and other crimes of sexual violence committed against young girls by so-called grooming gangs in towns and cities all over England.
Young, working class and often lost in the wasteland of the care system, these victims are apparently the wrong sort of girls for anyone to feel responsible for, far less feel bad about their treatment past and present. No one is making much of anything like a wholesale apology to those poor souls, and likely never will.
The internet and social media are awash with dangers for the unwary child — grisly pornography of every sort. Whatever variation you might think of, there is surely stuff out there to exceed even your wildest imaginings, and yet all of that and more is freely available on the phone in every child’s pocket. No one is apologising for that either.
My wife and I, like parents everywhere, stand shuddering in the force of the torrent of it all. We cast our minds back to the world in which we met, more than 30 years ago now, and it’s like recalling the 1980s as some lost idyll. I invited her to join the Archaeology Society at Glasgow University, gave her a ticket to the cheese and wine — and now we have three children, two wolfhounds and a mortgage. How could life ever have been so simple?
We watch our teenagers and our 12-year-old and the mere thought of them confronted by the seeming hideousness of the business of meeting others — far less establishing relationships — leaves us gazing helplessly at one another. The road upon which we are travelling leads inexorably to segregation and division, to atomised individuals feeling sure that no one is to be trusted.
Soon the day may come when behind closed doors seems the only safe place, and where will the species be then?
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