Sarah: There was this thing where, if he was talking, and I didn’t say “Excuse me” then he would make me be silent for five minutes. He would time it on his phone. He would say, “You can’t say another word until after five minutes. Then you have to say, ‘Excuse me,’ and then you can say what you wanted to say.”
And it’s like, I’m your girlfriend. Not your daughter. Don’t treat me like that. But at the time, I just thought that he was teaching me good manners. That it was fine. And I mean, I guess I knew it was wrong. But I still also thought that he was kind of doing it for me.
NARRATION: This is Sarah. She’s 19, and she lives with her mum and dad, and her adoring younger brother and sister. We’ve modified her voice slightly just to protect her identity.
Sarah started dating a boy we’ll call Alexander when she was 15. He was a year older.
Sarah: Straight away, it was really intense. It was just hours and hours of talking a day, constantly on the phone to each other. If we weren’t messaging, we were on the phone calling, or Facetiming, or planning to see each other very soon. It was very, very sort of fierce very fast. I was only 15, I was very new and I thought that’s how these things happened.
At this point of Sarah’s relationship with Alexander, we have the very model of teen romance. Passion, obsessiveness, we’re thinking hormones, we’re thinking Romeo & Juliet. When we think of domestic abuse, we think of people who are, at the youngest, in their 20s. We think of people who are married with kids.
THEME MUSIC PLAYS
But statistics tell us that at Sarah’s age, perpetrators are already hitting their stride. Teenage girls are already making excuses for them. The adults around them aren’t necessarily considering that domestic abuse could be laying down its roots in these first new relationships.
In this episode, we’re going to look at the particular phenomenon of abuse and coercive control involving teenagers. For me, even saying this feels like an affront to all my notions of romance but it’s precisely our attachment to romantic notions and the idea of young innocence, that stops us from seeing what is all too often going on.
MY NAME IS JESS HILL AND THIS IS THE TRAP
Sound of school auditorium…
(02:29) JESS: Thank you so much. Some of you came from Bundaberg?
JESS: Is that? Represent, Yeah. And where are the rest of you coming from today?
NARRATION: I’m in a huge school hall at Somerset College on the Gold Coast, with around 70 senior high school students in front of me, from all over Queensland. Some have even travelled through the night to be here.
These students have driven across the state to attend a big writers festival here at the school. I’ve spoken in front of magistrates, police, psychiatrists, – but hardly ever in front of teenagers. I’m actually really nervous.
JESS: I just really want you to open your minds to maybe thinking in a different way today. And maybe some of this will be really familiar to you. Maybe you will have never heard about it before. When I was your age. I had never thought twice about domestic abuse. It wasn’t talked about hardly at all. I’m going to reveal how old I am by saying that it was like 1999 when I was your age. It wasn’t even this century.
It’s stuff that’s been in the news a lot, but often it’s not talked about directly to you guys, it’s talked about to older people… and yet you’re probably some of the most important people to talk about abuse in relationships.
NARRATION: The best protection we can give anyone, but particularly young people, is education on what coercive control actually looks like.
Jess: The red flags are: your partner acting really jealously and accusing you of things. In teenage relationships, you can get jealous because it’s like the feelings are so strong that you just want that person all to yourself. It’s very intense. But if that person is accusing you of cheating constantly or saying that because you liked a Facebook post from a boy or a girl that proves that you’re cheating with them or that you should delete certain contacts from your phone or your social media that is crossing over into dangerous behaviour.
Calling you names or putting you down, but like doing it as a joke.
Explosive temper or severe mood swings, threats, possessiveness, making false accusations about you and especially spreading rumours about you. Embarrassing you in front of other people, Insulting you or your family. Making you feel responsible- so like never apologising in an argument or apologising but still making you feel like it’s your fault, you know? Or like breaking down and crying but expecting even though they’ve just done something to you, that you you need to comfort them. You know, that you need to care for them.
Tells you what to do, what to wear, or how to act. Stalking you and like by that, I mean, it can be things like just happening to show up. Like every time you go to see friends. You know, not just once or twice in a romantic way, but like every time.
NARRATION: But before all these red flags appear, it’s all about the lovebombing.
Sarah: I also remember, he told me that he loved me like, two weeks into knowing me which is pretty insane, and I knew that that wasn’t normal, because I had experiences with boys. Just not long relationships, just like, what we call tuning.
Jess: So after that sort of initial period, how did you feel about the relationship? When was it starting to look like this is something that was making me feel uncomfortable? Or, can you even pinpoint a moment when that happened?
Sarah: I think that I can pinpoint it, retrospectively. But at the time, it was such a natural progression from so happy to so controlling. Even when it was controlling, there was still good moments, of course. I wouldn’t have stayed if there weren’t.
NARRATION: That pinpoint moment was when she went away on a six-week holiday with her family. It was the first time they’d been apart for more than a few days, and Alexander just would not stop texting her.
Sarah: I thought that was nice. I thought that he wanted to talk to me. But now I realize that it was just like, so crazy. So controlling.
It really got much worse when we came back to Sydney. I was seeing him every day, for probably 12 hours a day, and Mum had to pull me aside, so many times, and say, “This is not natural. You need to go and spend more time with your friends. You can’t just keep seeing only him.”
Jess: How did you feel about your mum saying that to you?
Sarah: I felt so hard done by, because I was like it’s fine. You know, I’m having fun with my first boyfriend so I was really excited to have someone who, I thought, really cared about me and wanted to spend a lot of time with me and just wassuper desperate to spend time with him.
NARRATION: Sarah was excited to introduce Alexander to her friends. Everything was fine, at first, but then things started getting weird.
Sarah: Well he flirted with all of them. I just didn’t believe them when they told me that he was doing that.
There were times when my friends told me much later on that he would like, touch their thigh. Touch their bum. Message them, a lot of them sent nudes to him. They wouldn’t have just done that, it wouldn’t have been unsolicited.
(07:35) Jess: Yes, that’s some heavy duty flirting.
Sarah: Yeah, it must have been. I would always bring it up with him. In the early stages, I would always say, “So and so’s told me that you’ve done this.” and every single time, without fail, he would make me believe that they were lying, and that they were just doing that to get me to break up with him. That my best interests were to listen to him because he was the one that knew what was best for me and all that kind of stuff.
NARRATION: What Sarah didn’t know was that Alexander was alienating her from her friends. This was his way of isolating her – and pretty soon, his behaviour was ticking all the boxes for coercive control.
Sarah: He would say, “Oh, you shouldn’t be eating that. You’re so fat. Look at you.” He’d pinch me and say, “Oh, but I love you anyway.’ He would say, ‘There’s more to hold.” and he used to slap my thighs and watch the ripple and joke about that.
NARRATION: These comments were coming from a guy Sarah was really in love with. It devastated her self-esteem, and as she became more insecure, Alexander became more brazen.
(08:48) Sarah: When we would drive past Maccas, he would say, “I bet you want a cheeseburger, fatty.” I would say, “Well actually I don’t, I’ve already eaten. I’m fine.” And he’d be like, “No, I bet you do.” And he’d pull into Maccas and then he would like buy me food. Put it on my lap and just like tell me to eat it and just like, watch me eat it. It just didn’t make any sense to me at the time, I had no idea what was going on. He would then twist it and say that he was the only one that would ever love me because of how I looked and how I was. I was just a terrible person who was terrible and looked terrible, and would never be loved by anybody else.
NARRATION: It’s easy to say hindsight and looking from the outside, in that these comments were obviously degrading and unacceptable. Sarah is a smart and emotionally intelligent young woman. The fact that this didn’t make her want to break up with Alexander straight away shows just how effective coercive control can be – especially in first love relationships.
(09:55) Jess: When you hear all those sort of behaviours, you just think, well, why would anyone stay with someone who did that to them?
If I came up to you and I just like punched you in the face, what would you do to me? What would you say?
JESS: Ow? That would be a good first reaction. Would you want to be friends with me? No. Would you want to date me? Hey ladies. So that’s not how it happens. You don’t get punched in the face on the first date or the first time you guys hang out. They don’t call you names the first time you hang out. They don’t even make little degrading comments. This happens slowly. It happens really slowly.
(10:42) Sarah: He would make really, really awful jokes about my friends. About their families, the way that they live and their accents and just some really awful things.
NARRATION: In the beginning, Sarah felt brave enough to tell Alexander that this was not ok. But when she’d confront him, he would punish her.
Sarah: And there were times when he would be driving and just leave me. Put me onto the road and say, “Walk home. How dare you? How, how dare you talk about these things? How dare you call me out on that? I’m just joking. Can’t you take a joke?” It made me feel really awful, because sometimes I’d let him get away with it.
Back to school…
(11:25) Jess: It’s like, you get so used to how you’re being treated your standards just go down, down, down because your self-esteem is going down, down, down. Your connections with other people are being pushed away. There are fewer people to say to you, hey, this is not right. Or like, you look really unhappy or why don’t you see us anymore? Because often you or your partner has pushed those people away.
Kayla: Around 70% of young people identify experiencing past or recent family or intimate partner violence with around 22% identifying current violence.
NARRATION: This is Kayla Astwood, a dedicated domestic violence worker with the Brisbane Youth Service. She says the vast majority of young people who come to the service are victim survivors of either coercive control or family violence.
I wanted to learn more from Kayla about what she was hearing from these young victim survivors. Like these secret surveillance apps that have become so common… were teenagers using them too? Kayla said not from what she was hearing – because they don’t need secret apps.
(12:42) Kayla: You don’t need any you know, surveillance apps or specific monitoring apps because you can do it all on your day to day platforms. For example, looking at Snapchat, there’s the setting on there to have your location accessible at all times. And often friend groups will do that. They’ll have a little avatar of who they are as a person. And then a little map as to where everyone is. And I’ve had young women who have been told they have to have that on at all times.
The same thing, you know, with Instagram, constantly posting photos and tagging and checking in as to where the location is.
The ongoing texting, and the level of continuous texting throughout the day, all of these things combined and put together create a constant timeline, and recording of where you are at every given moment. So you really don’t need any sly surveillance apps when everything’s at the tip of your fingers anyway.
(13:42) NARRATION: As I was putting this episode together, I actually had someone approach me in a cafe to tell me she was worried about her daughter and her friends, because it was just normal for them to track each other’s location using Snapchat. Surveillance was normal? How would they recognise when an abusive person demands to know where they are at all time, that that is an early red flag? If it’s just normal to share your location with your friends, why wouldn’t you agree to constantly share it with your partner – particularly if they’re telling you they don’t trust you?
Kayla: You are then in an intimate partner relationship, it’s so hard to set those boundaries in place and stop sharing that information. Or say, No, actually, I don’t want to, I don’t want to have my location on at all times. I don’t feel comfortable with that, or I don’t need to, because that’s when the accusations start. The accusations of you’re cheating on me? Well, if you’re not cheating on me, then why wouldn’t you share all of your locations? And if you’re not doing something bad, then why wont you share that with me?
Jess: And to have any level of privacy…
Kayla: The whole concept of privacy is almost becoming a foreign concept.
NARRATION: Sarah tried to manage Alexander’s escalating behaviour for two years. After a slow build-up of coercive control, Alexander began to use physical violence.
Sarah: There was a time where he choked me and he put the full force of his body down onto my neck. I knew that it was really bad. I knew that it was really wrong, but I didn’t realise until after we’d broken up that I could have died. That he could have killed me in that moment, or that he could have broken something in my neck. Or done something to my neck that would mean that I would die days, weeks, months later from the effects of it.
NARRATION: By the time Alexander had choked Sarah, he was subjecting her to many other forms of physical violence.
Sarah: He would bend my thumb, or my fingers, back so hard that they would touch my wrists. Close to breaking, pretty much. He would push me off the bed, really violently. He pushed me down a set of stairs. He anally raped me once, and sexually assaulted me many times.
He used to pinch me. He would leave bruises on me. He would get tea towels and twirl them up, and whip my legs and leave marks. He’d slap me, he would leave handprints. Like, really, really clear handprints on my leg.
The smaller things would be regular, but they wouldn’t be regular enough for me to realise exactly what was happening. Then, if I was upset, he would make it seem as though it was a joke. That it was my fault for being upset about it.
(16:29) Jess: I was going to ask, how was his demeanor when he was doing this? I just had this picture of him somehow laughing about it.
Sarah: He was laughing, yeah. When he pushed me down the stairs, I was in pain but I didn’t break anything. I had pretty bad bruises on my thigh and my butt. But I looked up at him, and I just saw him laughing.
NARRATION: But it was the look on Alexander’s face when he was choking her that most terrified Sarah.
Sarah: I looked up into his eyes, and I so vividly remember that he just did not care. He just showed not any emotion on his face. He just was like, staring at me. His eyes looked blank. It was almost like he didn’t even realize what he was doing, like it was somebody controlling his body but it’s just so hard to forget something like that.
Jess: Yeah, especially someone that you’ve been intimate with for quite a long time. To see them almost look vacant like that, at a moment that is incredibly life threatening.
Jess: The idea that someone could just shift like that, in a moment, is, like, terrifying.
Sarah: Yeah, and I was like screaming. Crying, begging him to get off me. Telling him that I couldn’t breathe. And I could feel the blood rushing to my face, my face was getting hot. Like when you have a hair tie that’s too tight, or something like that. He just did not care. He didn’t even respond to me. He just kept, he was so angry. I still don’t even know what he was angry about.
NARRATION: Sarah didn’t know what to do – she’d told her parents she was going to stay at a friend’s house, and she didn’t know how she would explain things if she went home.
Sarah: So I stayed, but it was weird. I think I made him sleep on the floor or something like that, because I just couldn’t be near him. I was terrified of him.
NARRATION: Sarah did try to break up with Alexander, several times. She’d tell him it was over, but it wouldn’t stick. He always found a way to get her back
(18:27) Sarah: I don’t know how he was so good at it, but he was very, very good at getting me to change my mind. He would cry or apologise or beg or cuddle into me and he was not physically affectionate, at all…. I don’t think he ever cuddled me. I was thinking about that the other day, for years of sleep overs, he wouldn’t let me touch him in the bed. Not even like our fingers or our knees or something touching, it was crazy.
Sarah: Yeah, so he’d be physically affectionate. I obviously craved that, after years of not having any of it. Then he would say, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I would start to believe that he was sorry and then after I believed that, he would then go, “But you do know you caused it anyway, because you’re putting all this unnecessary stress on me, I’m in the middle of my exams and you’re accusing me of cheating.” And, “I’m in the middle of my exams, and you’re trying to hug me? How dare you touch me!” All that kind of things.
And there was always an excuse. It was his exams, that was what he was stressed about. Then it was some work thing that he was stressed about. Then it was university that he was stressed about. Then it was another assignment, it just kept going and going and going. Everything he would explain everything to me, this is why I’m angry. This is why I’m acting this way. I just kept thinking, it’ll be better. Maybe once he’s working, and he’s not got stress, and all of that. I just kept explaining it to myself.
Jess: So many women will say, “If this had happened in the first week, I would have run a million miles.” What do you feel is the effect when that just happens bit by bit, like you know, 1000 little cuts? What’s the effect on you, in terms of what you then come to expect?
(20:11) Sarah: It’s really hard to explain… it’s so normal. Everything’s so good in the beginning. Then things start to happen, but they’re so normal because they’re so incremental.
Then, by the end, it’s almost like you’ve invested so much into that person and that relationship. I suppose people would look at the outside and think, “Oh, she’s only 17. She hasn’t invested anything into it.” But, for me, I really felt as though I had. Like, I really, really loved him.
NARRATION: Two years into the relationship, in the middle of her HSC, Sarah decided she’d had enough. She was leaving.
Sarah: He didn’t take that no for an answer. So he would come over to my house, he would beg me to give him another chance. He would cry. He would just be sobbing out the front of my house, during my exams and I felt bad for him, and I did feel as though I had a part to play in that.
I was frightened to tell him that I didn’t want anything to do with him, because I knew that he’d be violent and when I did tell him, that was the night that he raped me for the last time. That was the last time I saw him, actually. Yeah, so he took it really badly. Obviously. He just didn’t want to lose control over me.
NARRATION: Once upon a time – certainly back when I was at high school – Sarah’s story would have sounded like an aberration. An abnormal type of relationship to have so young.
But the #MeToo movement has shattered that naivety. It wasn’t abnormal then, and it’s not abnormal now.
News archive: Some of Sydney’s most prestigious private schools rocked by allegations of sexual assault. 22 year old, Chanel Contos helping bring those stories to light.
News archive: Chanel Contos is a former Kambala student in Sydney and she’s started a petition for female students to share their stories of sexual abuse. The petition as of this morning has over 16,000 signatures and more than 2000 testimonies.
NARRATION: In February 2021, former private school student Chanel Contos started a callout for stories of assault from other private school students. She was overwhelmed by responses: to date, more than five thousand testimonies from high school students past and present.
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These are pages and pages of disclosures: from rape and sexual assault, to ritual humiliation and coercive control. This one stood out: it’s from a young woman who graduated from MLC in 2019.
“I was assaulted by my boyfriend despite him knowing of my previous sexual assault and claiming to have morals and respect for women due to his upbringing and education at an all boys school. It took three different occasions of him sending me into a full blown panic attack while he yelled at me about how he was entitled to my body before he broke up with me.”
NARRATION: That word: entitled. You see it mentioned time and again in these testimonials, like this one, from a former private school student, now in her 30s:
“I went to one of the schools listed on these pages. These extraordinary fees but not a single second was spent on teaching us about consent. But it is bigger than consent. It is about entitlement. A pervasive social message that men are special, different and ultimately entitled. It is just amplified by private schools. It isn’t just about consent because even when you say no, say no loudly, repeatedly, shout and scream, they continue. Why? Because they thought that they were entitled to it, and because they view you as less than human.”
NARRATION: The sheer number of testimonials is staggering. Chanel Contos has read all of them. She’s become a lightning rod for truth-telling about just what goes on in the private schools across Australia that are educating the next generation of political and business elite.
(24:19) Chanel: men in these situations gain their social power from how much sex they have. How much money they have, how good they are at sport or physically fighting. It’s the same way that girls get their social status from how much boys like them, because that’s what’s valued, because they’re valued. It’s not just how much any boys like them, it’s how much the boys who play into this toxic masculinity like them.
NARRATION: Chanel grew up in Sydney, and went to the private Kambala Girls High School. She moved to London after university, to do a masters in education, gender and international development. She also lives just down the road from our producer, Georgina Savage. So George went to her house to speak to her in person.
Georgina Savage: Yeah, so maybe you can just tell me a little bit of what it was like, to go to a private girls school in eastern suburbs Sydney?
Chanel: Ultimately, overall I loved it. I had a really good time there. I made friends that are still my friends today, my closest friends. … but upon reflection there were lots of toxic behaviors that were just normal including rape culture being the biggest one. I think, in an all girls school, the thing that was prominent in our day to day lives and in our lunchtime conversations was slut shaming. You know, like, I engaged in that, I was slut shamed. I slut shamed other people, because you don’t know any better. You don’t really know the weight of the word slut and how many negative implications that has on an individual and in the culture in general.
Georgina Savage: And how do you think the guys felt about the women, or young women, in their lives from other sister schools?
Chanel: I think it’s really similar. The fact that if the only time you get to interact with someone of the opposite sex is on a Saturday night when the purpose is to have something to talk about, like the goal is to have something to discuss on Monday morning with your friends. I think it really contributes to this objectification of women and using women as sex objects. And you know, using them as like experiments of sexuality in a way that’s often really negative, especially in those younger years.
Georgina Savage: Can you talk me through the Saturday night? So going from the afternoon into the evening, what would be a typical Saturday night at one of these parties?
Chanel: *laughs* Okay so I’m aware that not everyone went to these parties, with the parties that I went to, you know, you’d go to a friend’s house for pre’s. That usually meant getting dressed with them and we’d be like in a big group of girls and it’d be lots of fun, we’d all be texting our respective boyfriends or love interests and things like that. Then we would usually go to some public space to get drunk, pretty much. We would also spend the day trying to source alcohol.
There was almost always someone who would either not know their limits (because they’re so young) and drink too much, or someone is forcibly encouraging them to continuously drink alcohol. When they’re in this vulnerable state, it was quite often that people would take advantage of them. I mean, I saw girls be passed out and boys be kissing them or putting their fingers in them. I’ve seen… my friend was passed out and this guy in the year above, as a joke in front of like a group of us and most of his friends and I was there watching as well, put his dick in her mouth and they were all laughing about it, while she was literally passed out in front of us. And you know, like, I got angry at him. I was like, “Don’t do that.” But I had no idea what that meant, I didn’t know the weight of that action…
Yeah then we would all go home, everything would be fine. We get to Monday at school, we’d talk about who got with who. Often, we would slut shame. We wouldn’t really slut shame within our own group of friends because we were all really close but we would definitely like you know, project our internalized misogyny onto other groups of girls that we felt competitive with that went to other schools. Or like, my group of friends used to get called frigid compared to like other girl’s schools and things like that. We would be like, “Oh my god, they just liked them better because they put out” and things like that. Horrible, horrible conversations the next week at school. And often the slut shaming that we did to people in hindsight was probably sexual assault. And they probably didn’t want to be in that position and if they were in that position and wanted to be in that position, then they shouldn’t be slut shamed for it anyway.
Georgina Savage: Do you think that any of the guys from your experience when you were in highschool were thinking about what women want sexually? How to please women? Was that anything that was in their consciousness?
Chanel: Definitely not in the early years, definitely not for one time hook up thing.
The clitoris was taken out of our biology diagrams in like lots of these things. It’s as if female pleasure shouldn’t be a thing. We’re not told that. We’re not told that females should experience pleasure. Boys openly talk about porn, wanking and talk about their pleasure all the time. It’s so normal to hear boys talking about that. Then girls continue this fake narrative that we don’t masturbate, that doesn’t happen, because for some reason it’s taboo. If we keep portraying this narrative to these young girls, that sex isn’t meant to be good and that they’re not meant to admit that sex is good. It makes it really hard for them to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual situations.
NARRATION: There’s a lot going on here – entitlement, privilege, misogyny; patriarchy – and it’s this generation of high school boys who are in the spotlight. For some, Chanel’s petition and the whole #MeToo movement have been a big wake-up call.
(29:57) Mason Black: It makes me feel sick and it makes me feel embarrassed that out school is featured in the testimonials of young women who are victims of sexual assault. I feel so ashamed that this issue is a part of our history and our culture.
NARRATION: In March, School Captain Mason Black, from the elite Brisbane Boys College, delivered this speech to his school.
Mason Black: I feel ashamed when the action of some reflects poorly on us all, but realistically it isn’t just those who are mentioned in the media.
If you have ever objectified a woman based on her looks, talked about females in a misogynistic way, or taken advantage without consent, you are part of the problem.
Boys, if a woman wants to say no, and she says no, we have to listen, understand and accept this.
This rape culture is so deeply ingrained into today’s world, and it needs to be addressed. As good as this message is coming from public speakers or staff, it’s up to us: the boys. They need to accept this injustice against women and stand up for what is right.
NARRATION: It’s great to hear influential young men like Mason speaking so passionately about this.
But there’s also a growing number of young men and boys who are sick of feminism, sick of talking about toxic masculinity. And that’s fuelling a phenomenon called ‘backlash’.
(31:25) Richie: Susan Faludi wrote a book called Backlash, which you might be familiar with. And she talks about how when, I guess second wave feminism really started making breakthroughs, there was a backlash against that. And I definitely have seen that with our young men today. And it’s really made me change how I talk about these issues, both online, and in person when I’m presenting at schools.
NARRATION: This is Richie Hardcore. Richie is an educator, keynote speaker and activist, working in violence prevention, masculinities, mental health and wellness. He goes into schools, and talks to boys and girls about porn, relationships, consent and masculinity. He’s noticed a change in the boys he’s speaking to since the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017.
Richie: I’m like, Yo, this is this thing called toxic masculinity and afterwards, I have a queue, not of all boys, but of some boys, who will really you can hear them, you can hear the 4Chan in their voices, you know, you can hear the men’s rights activists jargon in their language, you can hear them rejecting what I’m talking about, because they’ve been so indoctrinated by that ideology.
NARRATION: Richie says he’s seeing a growing resentment towards the focus on ‘toxic masculinity’ and that young guys are finding solace in the so-called ‘manosphere’. If you want to read more about this, you should look up Laura Bates’ Men Who Hate Women. She describes the manosphere as an interconnected spectrum of different but related groups, each with their own rigid belief systems, lexicons and forms of indoctrination.
We’re talking incels, pick-up artists, men’s rights activists and the truly weird community of ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ – men who basically no longer want connection with women at all. What all these internet subcultures they have in common is that they believe women are responsible for their feelings of rejection and alienation.
These online forums are drawing in boys and teenagers, and radicalising them into acts of violence, hatred, and self-destruction. Like Richie, Laura Bates has also been speaking to schools virtually every week for the past eight years, and she’s also noticed since MeToo that some boys are angry and resistant to even having a conversation about sexism.
Laura Bates spoke to the ABC’s Life Matters program in April.
Laura Bates: and most worryingly of all, a lot of myths and misconceptions about women. So a lot of very firm beliefs that there is a great feminist conspiracy at the heart of our government, that white men are the real disadvantage victims of today’s society. And they kept repeating the same statistics, for example, about false rape allegations being extremely common, or about men being the vast majority of victims of domestic violence. And it led me to recognize that there was a kind of radicalization, a kind of grooming happening online.
And it’s very, very gradual. It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s not a sudden jump to ‘women are the devil’. It starts with sexist jokes and memes and viral YouTube videos. And it becomes a very gradual, slippery process of radicalization. until you reach the point where there have been so many websites and so many posts, and so many memes and clicks, and likes and comments over so many days with hundreds of 1000s of other users alongside you so that it doesn’t feel particularly unusual, it’s very much normalized, that you finally get to the point where suddenly this rhetoric becomes quite normalized. And suddenly, you reach the end point, which is communities like incels or involuntary celibates where men are openly posting and there are hundreds of 1000s of these people and hundreds of 1000s – millions – of these posts, about women being evil and about men needing to rise up and crush them; to rape women to force them into sexual servitude, and to murder them.
(35:14) NARRATION: These boys are drawn to these communities not because they’re misogynists or sexist necessarily, but because they provide a type of community, of solidarity.
Laura Bates: We don’t provide young man with offline spaces where they necessarily feel that sense of community that sense of sort of fellowship, and many of these young men were very vulnerable you know, it’s important to say that this is not about maligning or accusing teenage boys, many of these boys are very, very vulnerable. And these online communities are extremely adept and clever at preying on them. It is a form of grooming, a form of radicalisation.
(35:55) Richie: The problem with the polarization that social media creates around these conversations, is that we completely remove humanity from one another. It’s like, woke cult over here, manosphere over here. And like, it’s this black and white spectrum of good versus evil, you know.
We need to stop making sexist jokes. We need to encourage boys and men not to wolf whistle. We need to help them understand the female experience and what it’s like to be scared to go for a run at night. Empathy is a wonderful, wonderful teaching tool in a way that shame isn’t. We need to help those have those conversations, but at the same time, we need to keep our language realistic and grounded in reality that that, that gets people on board and doesn’t make them go ‘all those crazy lefties, that woke cult.’
The further we push each other apart, the more likely we are to commit violence to one another. And it’s what we see to bring it back to topic this conversation when, boys and men are so conditioned to objectifying and dehumanize women through a whole range of media tropes like the memes you’re talking about the online chat that they’re involved in, the porn that they’re consuming like ubiquitously… Yo, women aren’t human anymore and it’s easy to commit violence against them.
NARRATION: Richie just named the elephant in the room: porn.
There’s a quote from Nicholas Sampson – he’s the headmaster of Cranbrook boys’ highschool. This is a private school that came up time and again in the testimonies on Chanel’s petition.
He said, “We are aware of the… potential for damage brought by a combination of forces… perhaps most pernicious and undermining of all, readily accessible pornography, which displaces love and distorts impressionable views of relationships, respect for others and self-worth.”
This is something the domestic violence sector has been talking about for years. When I first started writing about domestic abuse about seven years ago, I read this quote from Di McLeod, she’s the Director of the Gold Coast Centre for Sexual Violence and it really stopped me in my tracks. She said that, over the past few years, she had seen a huge increase in intimate partner rape, of girls as young as 14 and women as old as 80. She said, ‘the biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender … We’ve seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent,’ she said. ‘I founded the centre 25 years ago and what is now considered to be the norm is frightening.”
So why is porn still the elephant in the room? Why isn’t it central to our public conversations about sexual violence and domestic abuse?
(38:56) Maree Crabbe: Obviously, any topic about sexuality is sensitive and difficult for people to communicate freely about. But, pornography is also something that people often have very strong personal views, and they actually might be views that are in conflict with thier own practices even.
NARRATION: This is Maree Crabbe. She’s been talking about porn for over 12 years now – she coordinates the violence prevention project ‘It’s Time We Talked’, and co-produced and co-directed two documentaries, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography and The Porn Factor.
Maree Crabbe: So, people can be regular consumers of pornography, but also feel that pornography is problematic and not be comfortable with their own use or its impact on them. People often bring strong mixed emotions, or invested sort of positions on pornography. Those things add to the difficulty in being able to have conversations, but I do think we’ve improved enormously. There’s much more openness to having conversations about what porn is like, how often young people are exposed for example. The kinds of impacts that it might have and the need to address it in schools, homes and community settings.
Jess: Just thinking some people might think that claiming that porn is affecting the way that young people have sex, or think about sex, is maybe akin to the way that young people could play violent video games and be more likely to go and shoot up a school. That was sort of discredited, that whole idea that violent video games create violence in young people. Why is it that we’re seeing a link between porn and a type of violent or aggressive sexuality? Or, presumptive sexuality in young men?
(40:45) Maree Crabbe: One of the differences between pornography and action movies (for example) is that young people generally don’t have very many counter reference points for their sexual understandings. While they might watch a fast car driving on an action scene, in a movie, the next day they get in the car with mum or dad or whoever, and they don’t drive like that. Young people often don’t have very many realistic counter-reference points for their understandings of sexuality so that’s one component. I think another component is that if people are masturbating to pornography and reinforcing those neural pathways that create patterns for our pleasure and arousal pathways, even content that young people are not actually liking, if they are regularly watching it and masturbating to it then it can shape sexual tastes at a physiological level that’s different from watching it and then thinking, “Oh, yeah. I’d like to do that.”
Jess: What are we actually talking about these young people seeing? What type of sex are they seeing, generally speaking.
Maree Crabbe: A prevalence of focus on male pleasure and women being sexually subservient to male pleasure. High levels of gendered aggression so the rates of aggression found in porn varies across different research studies, depending on things like definitions that they use, and what kind of porn they look at.
(42:16) NARRATION: I want to jump in for a minute, because there’s an example of this I cite in some of my talks and I reckon really exemplifies what Maree is talking about.
In a recent study* of the top fifty most popular pornographic videos, or clips, 88 per cent of scenes were found to include physical aggression (acts like gagging,
slapping or choking), and 94 per cent of that was directed at women. But then there was another Australian study that shows virtually the opposite: it found the rate of aggression to be as low as 1.9 per cent. Why so low? Because the researchers defined ‘aggression’ as something that was clearly intended to harm and was resisted by the female performer. But that’s just the point: women in pornography don’t resist their degradation. As the narrative goes, they know they’ve been bad, and deserve to be punished.
Maree Crabbe: Things like gagging, choking, slapping, spanking, spitting on, acts of degradation and humiliation and when I’ve interviewed people in the industry, they also have said that content that shows material that might be sort of softer, it just doesn’t sell. There’s not the same market for it. What producers, directors and performers told us is that what sells is rough sex, by which they mean, porn that shows aggression towards women.
NARRATION: That’s not necessarily what boys go looking for when they start searching for porn, of course.
Maree Crabbe: They don’t look it up because they want to see a woman gagging, or being choked, spanked or called abusive names. And yet, if that’s what they see, then it can start to be normalised as how men and women relate sexually. What sex is sort of meant to look like for them.
NARRATION: The need to confront this is urgent. Porn is changing the way young people have sex, and it’s changing what many young men think they should expect from the women they’re intimate with. Sarah went through this with Alexander – he would force her to watch online porn and act out what they’d just watched.
The most insidious way porn is changing sex between young people, though, is the prevalence of choking during sex.
(44:41) Kayla: Ah and strangulation has almost become normalized.
NARRATION: Heres Kayla again from the Brisbane Youth Service
Kayla: it’s a constant topic of discussion, there’s a lot of research going into it at the moment in terms of the impact on pornography, and the normalization of, I guess, the extremities, when that’s all that’s put out there, on those platforms that become so normalized and expected. And just like, in any situation, the level of peer pressure, that’s there, you know, wanting to be like your friends and feeling like you’re abnormal, or if you don’t like something, then there’s something wrong with you. Not respecting each other’s boundaries.
NARRATION: This is a really big problem that we’re just not dealing with. As soon as the oxygen is cut off at the neck, every second without oxygen is damaging brain cells. Holding your breath doesn’t do that. But choking does.
(45:34) Kayla: And that’s really, really concerning, you know, 50% of strangulation cases will not have any outward signs, no bruising, no bloodshot eyes, anything that we typically attribute to it. They may not be any symptoms of dizziness, or anything else. But strangulation in any form can be deadly.
I had a young woman I was supporting and if her partner didn’t leave bruises afterwards, he would say it wasn’t hard enough, it wasn’t enough and he’d go back. And so you know, later on, over a year down the track, when she’s then been able to have these conversations and discussions and really understanding the impact that it can have on your body, she has been able to go in and get a full medical scan and realise there’s actually an artery tear as a residual that was picked up. and stuff like that, you know, years down the track can result in strokes, or massive health impacts. And it’s not actually attributed back to these previous cases of strangulation, because there’s no medical history or record of it. Because it’s not reported.
Jess: With the girls that were coming through, or the young women who are coming through the service. Were you hearing them once they felt, you know, obviously comfortable enough to talk about sex? Were you hearing them talk about choking a lot?
(49:54) Kayla: Yes. Just dropped in conversation. One thing we, I saw, come through a lot is the use of alcohol and drugs within relationships as well. And the way this can be used for in coercion.
Things like the drug franc, which is a GHB, kind of like a date rape drug that you as used alongside it, and woman waking up with the, you know, lost memory and pain and unknown of what’s occurred, that it’s happened in the intimate partner relationship, and initially started as consenting. And so it becomes such a taboo and something to be ashamed of, to, to talk about it. You know, and so they’re not getting the help or support that is out there.
NARRATION: We’re talking about the kind of social forces that are influencing the way we behave in these first relationships. But everyone we’ve spoken to so far has come from a pretty conventional background: good parents, supportive environment – in other words, a lot of privilege. What we haven’t talked about is how our upbringing can shape what we will expect in our relationships – and even set us up to be more vulnerable to either being controlling, or being controlled.
(48:11) Claire: My life has been troubled since the day dot. Yeah, all I’ve known is violence.
NARRATION: This is Claire. We’ve just met here at the office of the Brisbane Youth Service. She has a gorgeous baby boy who is waddling around, charming everybody.
Claire: I was basically brought up like a slave, like, literally 24/7, cleaning the house, you know?
Jess: From what age?
Claire: Since I was five.
NARRATION: As a child, Claire was removed from her family, and taken into care. It was her foster mother who first subjected her to coercive control.
Claire: And that’s all I knew, you know, like, was to be obedient. You know, if, if I’m told to do this, do that, I do it straight away you know what I mean, and there’s no questions asked, even if I didn’t want to do it. It was I know that I was still going to do it. Even to ask to go to the toilet, you know, I mean, like, to ask for permission to go to the toilet.
Yeah, so it was very hard. If things weren’t, how she liked it, I’d get, I’d get dealt with accordingly.
And, yes, I’ve got belittled, got beaten up every day. And that’s all I’ve ever known, and control. And it really changes the way that you think about yourself.
(49:27) NARRATION: The family who had taken in Claire, and was being paid by the state to look after her, had children of their own. They turned Claire into a modern-day Cinderella, treated her like a slave, and excluded her. She was not a real member of the family – not like the other kids.
Claire: They would, you know, Easter time, they would go out to the Easter shows and stuff. And I’d be at home cleaning the whole house, you know what I mean? Like, I’d watch them and I’d be so sad, you know? I never got to experience all that kind of stuff, you know? Yeah, so it was it was very challenging. Um, just little things like that.
Jess: Yeah. And this is someone who was supposed to be caring for you who was supposed to be…
Claire: Yeah, and I used to think, you know, like, when are these child safety people gonna come You know? I’m gonna I can’t wait to tell them everything ya know
Jess: did they?
Claire: Nah they never did.
NARRATION: Every day Claire spent in that family’s care, she was degraded and controlled. She remembers particularly how sick she’d get from all the chemicals she’d use to clean the toilet – she would literally pass out, and have to sleep. But there was never any sympathy from her foster mother.
(50:41) Claire: And Yeah, she’ll just come up to me and just start smashing me like, because she’s yelling out to me and I didn’t realize. Yeah and I remember waking up to a radio to my head, you know, like, I fucking told you to get up, don’t act like you fucking sleeping, you know. And I was like, Whoa, you know, it was a big wake up call, but it definitely put fear in my heart, you know, like, to also obey, you know, that’s part of the control is implementing fear in somebody by, like, hurting them physically.
NARRATION: Despite living through hell at home, Claire says that little by little, she was finding herself, and as soon as she got to school, she loved it.
Claire: I was a social butterfly, you know, and it was just inevitable for me to I yeah, you know, like, I just loved people and feeding off the energy, it brang me joy within myself. And also just like, goofy, I’m just goofy. And yeah, and always, like, making people smile, because I didn’t get enough of that at home, you know? And so I was just kind of balancing it out, when I think about it, reflecting. But when I got home, I was like fuck I don’t want to go home. You know, like, I just want to run away, you know,
Jess: Did you ever tell anyone, like, did you ever tell anyone at school? What was going on?
Claire: Nah never really. Because, like, I did tell people that I didn’t want to go home, you know, like, but I never told them why.
NARRATION: Claire had nobody to run to, and nowhere to go. But she knew she had to get away.
Claire: And, yeah, I went to a different state to start my own life.
Jess: Wow, that is so brave holy shit!
Claire: yeah that’s how much I want to get away!
Jess: Jesus. What a thing to do. What were you? 16?
Claire: Yes. 16, yeah.
Jess: and so you just got on a train? Or?
Claire: Ah yeah, a 12 hour train. Brisbane it is. Let’s go.
Over time, I was just enjoying it for I was, because you meet new people you meet, you know, the up there people you meet the junkies, like all different walks of life, you know. And then when it’s Friday, Saturday, clubbing, you know, it’s the number one hotspot to be clubbing and doing this doing that, you know, so it was always active.
NARRATION: All of that was fun, kind of a relief, for a while. After a month though, Claire got sick of it. She didn’t want to live like this. And that’s when she met her partner.
Jess: Was that a guy or a girl?
Claire: Yeah, it was a guy
Jess: It was a guy and was he homeless as well.
Claire: Yeah. So yeah. Yeah, he he stayed on the streets. For me actually.
Jess: Yeah, right.
Claire: Yeah. And um it didn’t go too well. Because I was basically carrying him. Yeah. So. Um, yeah. And I managed to stay with this person for quite a substantial amount of time. And because of the whole domestic violence and things like that that was happening. And, yeah, it really challenged me as well.
Jess: You’d been trained to do that your whole life look after people.
Claire: Yeah. Apparently the guys are very good at picking them. The ones that can be manipulated, like that are most vulnerable. Apparently, but yeah, for me, I was like, you know, a movie. You know, like you want to go see a movie and you see the trailer, you know, it looks really nice. But then when you actually watch the movie, it’s actually pretty shit. You know? Like and that’s like guys. Well, the relationship that I was in anyways.
Jess: And how long did it go for the relationship?
Claire: Six years?
Jess: Six years?
Claire: Yeah. Yeah six years of constant….Yeah. So it basically all just unfolded again, you know, like the the same things, you know that I went through.
But then, I’m not gonna lie, I used to question, I think, how am I attracting these kinds of people in my life? I mean, like, and, yeah, I just kind of want to prevent it.
NARRATION: Claire eventually got her own place to live, her own furniture. A place she might be able to feel safe. But the abuse from her partner was escalating, and again, her home became a site of fear and threat. One night, everything came to a head when her partner started attacking her and smashing up the house. Claire was screaming, and her neighbour heard her. They ran over, and told him…
Claire: get off her, you know, get away, get out, you better fucking leave her alone. And he ended up running away because they said that they called the police. (baby makes sound). Yeah they ended up calling the police and he ended up fleeing the scene, and um I remember just sitting out the front full of embarrassment. Like, every time this happens, it’s embarrassing.
Jess: Even though, you know, it’s like, he’s the one who should be embarrassed.
Claire: Yeah. And I remember my neighbor telling me you know, like, it’s not love, you know, and that really hit me and I was like, yeah what am I doing with this person, you know (baby cries) Sorry, sorry. Yeah.
I was beating myself up. I was like, Why do you keep enabling this behavior?
But yeah, so back to the DV like it really f’d up my whole life again, you know, back into the cycle again, you know, like, trying to have good things, you know, TV, you know, like, live a good life, you know, a humble but good life, you know, and then to see is just some idiot, you know, that I love, just walk waltz in there, you know, and just start lashing out and breaking things, knowing that it means, like a lot to me. But just to see someone just like want to see you fail.
It became motivation for me to just keep pushing on… You know, of course, there’s going to be times in your life where you feel like a victim. But I think at the end of the day, it’s like, what got me through was challenging my story and the way that I perceived myself within the journey of life that I was going through.
Jess: And how so with your little boy, you know, how does this sort of, sort of sit in you? Like, how do I how do I raise him so that he, you know, is able to stay in that tenderness and, and that love?
Claire: So for me, I’ve been like, I don’t think I’m like, I don’t know, for me, I just as long as he’s happy, and I love him. You know, like, his first word was, thank you.
And so I’m still learning as a mom, you know, like, how to implement certain things within his life. But I think for me, the main thing is accepting him for who he is, and being able to just grow alongside of him, you know, and not mould him into something that I want him to be because, you know, we’re all unique individuals, you know, and I want to know what kind of personality he’s going to have, you know, and what kind of but of course, I’m gonna like, you know, if I feel like you need the tune up here in there, I’m not afraid to give him a little.
Jess: (laughs) That’s beautiful though. My kids first word was cockroach so you know (both laugh), thank you. That’s, that’s, uh, you know, maybe we should swap
Claire: Thank you
Jess: thanks so much!
NARRATION: The vast majority of young women who are abused or raped don’t go to police. Sarah didn’t go to police, either – they came to her.
(58:05) Sarah: I found out when I was at work, I got a call. My mum said to me, “The police are going to call you about something.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I know about it.”
NARRATION: Sarah was convinced the police were calling about a violent domestic violence incident she had witnessed the night before: she’d seen a man push his girlfriend in front of a car.
Sarah: And my mum said to me, “It’s not about that. This is really hard, but it’s about your ex.”
NARRATION: Unbeknownst to Sarah, several other victims – all underage girls – had come forward to press charges against Alexander. When police contacted her, they thought she might act as a witness for him. They had no idea that Sarah was another one of his victims.
Sarah: One of the police officer, said to me “Can you please describe your relationship?” and I started describing it. The more I was describing, the more she was saying, “This is really wrong. Do you know this?” And I said that I knew that it was wrong, but I didn’t know how bad it was and she said to me, “There are several criminal offenses here. Do you want to press charges?” And I said to her, “Will it help the other victims?” And she said, “Yes.” So I said, “Okay, press the charges.”
NARRATION: There were several charges, including physical and sexual assault. That of course, didn’t go close to showing the magnitude of Alexander’s abuse to the court.
The case went for a month, and Sarah was on the stand for two days. Alexander was convicted on just two of the charges.
When I was at Sarah’s house taping this interview, her parents and siblings came home just as we were finishing up. We had a long and candid conversation about what Sarah had been through, and what it had been like for them as parents to watch her go through it.
They are a close, loving and highly intelligent family, and Sarah was obviously comfortable talking about anything and everything in front of them. She’d already told me that her parents had the best and most loving relationship she had ever seen.
And yet, Sarah was drawn across into coercive control, into keeping secrets from her parents, into years of abuse and sexual violence. This tells us so much about the nature of coercive control – it really works on anyone, not just the most vulnerable.
I wanted to know if she had any advice for other parents who are worried their teenager might be in an abusive relationship.
(1:00:42) Sarah: Forbidding me from seeing him would not have worked. Um and they could, they could have tried anything. They could have told his parents to not let him come near me. They could have tried anything, we still would have seen each other. It wouldn’t have mattered and even though I know it would have been so hard for my parents to watch all of this happen, it was so spiraling and destructive, I needed to learn the lesson for myself and I know that not everybody has the ability to do that, or the fortune to be able to do that because the reality is, he could have killed me. Then I would have learnt my lesson, but way too late. But I really needed to learn that it wasn’t a healthy relationship and that I wasn’t happy and that I wasn’t safe. I needed to learn it myself, because nobody could have told me what to do in that situation and so many people did, probably close to 50 people, maybe more than that would have told me. All of my family members, everyone would have told me that. I just did not believe them. I did not listen to them. It didn’t matter to me.
NARRATION: It sounds bleak, what Sarah is saying – that no matter what anyone did, they couldn’t have got her to leave earlier. But that is what I hear, time and again. But that doesn’t mean that friends and family are helpless.
If someone you love is being subjected to abuse, or coercive control, from a partner, you have to play the long game. Remember, this person is conditioning your friend or loved one to be loyal. So if you start condemning that person – even if it’s deserved – you may find your loved one pushing you away.
I want to end this episode on some advice from Jane Monckton Smith who lives in London, and is internationally renowned for her research into homicide, coercive control and stalking. Jane’s own daughter met a controlling narcissist, and was transformed pretty quickly from a cheerful, motivated person to a woman who was clinically depressed and severely traumatised. Jane, of course, could see what her daughter’s boyfriend was doing, could see that it was escalating, and wanted to just swoop in and rescue her. But she knew her daughter would resist.
She couldn’t simply tell her daughter what to do. So instead she focused on keeping her place as an influence in her daughter’s life. As she writes, she ‘needed to be consistent, reliable and trustworthy: the opposite of him.’ She had to be kind, strong, non-judgmental; even when she actually felt frustrated and angry, or just wanted to cry. While other friends and family pulled away, frustrated, Jane hung on, clinging to her daughter by her fingertips. She had to make it clear that there would be an escape route available when she wanted it.
Jane’s daughter did leave, just like Sarah, and thankfully she is now safe. There is no formula for this. Some of it comes down to luck. But staying in contact and modeling love and respect is the best thing you can do.
Next Time on The Trap: We’re going to hear from perpetrators and those who work with them, and attempt to answer probably the hardest question of all: Why Do They Do It?
TRANSITION MUSIC BEGINS
You’ve been listening to The Trap, proudly brought to you by the Victorian Women’s Trust and it’s harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls. We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors. Special thanks to Equity Trustees & the Phyllis Connor Trust, the Bokhara Foundation and a private donor.
Our Creative Producer and editor is Georgina Savage. Co producers are Ally Oliver Perham, Maria Chetcuti , Mary Crooks and Lucy Ballantyne. Special thanks to Leah McPherson and the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. The Trap was mixed by Romy Sher and Pariya Taherzadeh. I’m your head writer, producer and host, Jess Hill.
This podcast was produced in Sydney and Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation and the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
We would like to acknowledge the victim survivors and others who have generously shared their stories and expertise.
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