Respectful Relationships

Thursday, 25 Mar 2021

This article covers a difficult topic and one in which many community leaders are apprehensive to address. In recent weeks much has been written, in both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, about the issue of peer on peer abuse amongst teens.  Peer on peer abuse includes issues such as bullying (including cyber bullying), sexting, initiations or hazing, physical abuse as well as sexual harassment and sexual violence. Recent data suggests that peer on peer abuse accounts for 25% of all child abuse. As this figure would suggest peer on peer child sexual abuse is a growing concern and is the focus of this article.

I wish to note that peer on peer abuse in teens is currently a cultural issue and not related to any particular ethnic background or region or schooling sector and the issue can’t be dismissed as “boys will be boys” behaviour. This type of rhetoric is both dismissive and does not address the significant harm that is caused with these encounters. Other language that is of concern is “it takes two to tango” or “she must have done something to deserve it”. No person, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation deserves to be sexually abused. This issue can’t also be dismissed as boys behaving badly due to heavy alcohol consumption or peer pressure. These assaults reek of a culture that lacks social conscience and empathy.

As a society we need to work together to address this issue. It will take a series of efforts to institute change and this shift in behaviours will not occur overnight. Parents and carers together with schools and community leaders need to take the time to have these difficult conversations with our teens. A former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, stated that “all disrespect of women does not end up with violence against women, but let's be clear, all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”. This statement rang true for me. It is all about building respect.

Dr Arne Rubinstein, author of The Making of Men  and founder of the Rites of Passage Institute, has developed programs to create the shift in mindset and resultant behaviours from those of an egocentric boy to a healthy adult male. He states “Boys believe they are the centre of the universe, whereas Young men need to know they are part of the universe. They also need to know that Power is actually for the good of my community and not something to be abused. They have to be responsible and accountable for their actions.” At present this is not occurring and we are seeing Young men who are still acting like boys which includes believing that they are entitled to take and do what they want to girls and women. 

Dr Rubinstein believes that  it is critical for boys to develop a new mindset when they reach puberty or the problems will perpetuate into adulthood. They need to be having difficult conversations and exploring these issues before they are out in the world wreaking havoc. Parents, schools and mentors are critical influencers in the development of these respectful behaviours, we simply can’t be leaving the boys to try and work it out for themselves.

Contrary to many media reports, schools are being proactive in this area. In NSW, the Personal Development and Heath and Physical Education curriculum mandates that schools teach child protection in every stage of learning from Kindergarten to year 10. This process is supported with additional targeted programs such as the Love Bites program. Love Bites is a Respectful Relationships Education Program for young people aged 15-17 years. It addresses issues such as relationship violence, sex and relationships and the concept of consent. Many schools will also have a positive education focus within their pastoral care programs. At my school, for example, this program is built around our school values. These values foster the qualities of generosity of spirit, justice, courage, integrity, inclusivity, service and are designed to cultivate mutual respect. 

Dr Tim Hawkes, former Principal of King’s School in Parramatta and ambassador of the Fathering Project says that “we need to be outraged as fathers to the extent that we don’t allow these things to happen“.  Dr Hawkes explains the importance of talking to your children and teens about the various ways consent can be conveyed. He noted the importance of positive role modelling, the power of language, as well as non-verbal communication such as body language. When it comes to the very important issue of consent, he states, “what was once a ‘yes’, on one occasion, can be a ‘no’ on a different one, and that’s ok.”

Dr Hawkes, believes that parents should address the following issues with their children:

  • Consent should be; freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific 
  • Consent must be given clearly – for example, silence is not consent, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is not consent. 
  • You have every right over your body and to set boundaries.
  • Educate them about making the right choices, surrounding themselves with friends they trust and getting them to talk about these issues as a friendship group either at school or with their parents there to support them. 
  • Discuss drink spiking and ‘safe’ levels of drinking, for example the dangers of pre-loading. 

I encourage parents to be proactive in this area and also to praise and support their schools with the continual development of programs that focus on building respectful relationships. Finally, I wish to thank Natassia Chrysanthos, the journalist in the Sydney Morning Herald, who has given this issue the gravity that it required to be addressed.

If this article has triggered a negative response please utilise the support services below:

Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; Domestic Violence Line 1800 65 64 63; 1800-RESPECT 1800 737 732

Nick Johnstone


Hawkes, D., 2014. Ten Conversations You Must Have With Your Son. Hachette Australia.

Rubinstein, A., 2013. The making of men. Australia: Griffith Press.

Images: Getty Images & 

This article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Focus Magazine