It is not enough for schools to address sexism after the scandal

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Instagram scandal: Brighton Grammar suspends students

Cyber safety expert Susan McLean on the students who voted on the 'slut of the year' on Instagram, speaking to 3AW's Neil Mitchell.

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 Somewhere between being born and being expelled last week, two private school boys created an Instagram account featuring sexualised photos of girls as young as 11 without their consent. Followers were asked to vote for the 'slut of the year' and sex acts they could engage in were itemised. The account sparked outrage in the community, particularly from the girls' parents. Women's bodies commodified and objectified, their humanity and agency extinguished in the pursuit of male pleasure.

Brighton Grammar - the exclusive Melbourne school the boys attended - has acted, expelling the two boys who created the account (they were initially suspended). But this is only the beginning of a crucial conversation we need to be having as a community.

Obviously these actions were abhorrent (not to mention illegal), but I don't want to talk about the boys or their school in particular. I want to talk about the society-sized alarm bell they are ringing for us.

There needs to be a conversation about the culture which led the boys from Brighton Grammar to create the offensive ...

There needs to be a conversation about the culture which led the boys from Brighton Grammar to create the offensive Instagram account in the first place. Photo: Penny Stephens

The government's latest campaign to tackle domestic violence highlights the relationship between the disrespect and aggression girls face from boys and the violence women experience at the hands of men. You could say, we are finally beginning to understand what Tom Meagher (husband of murdered Jill Meagher) was talking about when he reminded us violence is perpetuated by ordinary men, not 'monsters'.

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Rather than calling for these boys' heads, the conversation we need to have is about the culture that led them to create such an Instagram account in the first place, and what such a culture is likely to lead them to in future.

We need to ask why these boys have absolutely no regard for the agency and dignity of women. We need to ask this because we now know where these attitudes lead us and the impact they are having today on many women, myself included.

Having been to a private girls school, these boys are all too familiar to me. They are the boys who chanted that I kiss a girl in the middle of a circle of leering teenagers, because kissing a girl was apparently about their sexual pleasure and not mine.

They are the boy that begged me to cheat on my boyfriend with one of them so they could use it to bully him in the schoolyard. Who saw me as nothing more than a bargaining chip in the fight for male status. They are also the boy who spent years labelling me a slut whenever my name came up in conversation after refusing to kiss him in year 9. Because he felt entitled to me and what I wanted was irrelevant.

And they are the boy who sexually assaulted me while he thought I was asleep. They are the boy who explained that his friend trying to get his fingers into my underwear while I stood at a bar in a skirt was just making a drunken joke. You see where I'm going with this and you probably have your own stories to add. It isn't about these two boys. It's about so many boys - boys who are just a few years away from being men.

These boys learnt by cultural osmosis that my body and sexuality were intended for their pleasure. They learnt that if they wanted it, they should take it. When I denied them what they believed they were entitled to, I was often met with ridicule or anger, and sometimes that anger was violent. While the boys learnt these lessons, so too did the girls. It's not hard to see how these are strong foundations for our endemic culture of violence against women. And why it's so terrifying to see boys of high school age still playing out this dangerous but all too familiar pattern.

It's not brave or commendable for a school to expel two students over something that could not be more obviously wrong - it's a band aid on a festering sore. By expelling the boys and everyone patting themselves on the back and going home, we shirk responsibility for our role in this cultural problem. It's hard to look at those boys and see ourselves, but we must. Rather than congratulating the school for taking disciplinary action, we should be asking them what they are doing to stop this happening again. And not just Brighton Grammar, but every school.

So what would be brave? 'Brave' might be a boys' school equipping teachers with tools to tackle sexism wherever they see it – be it in the staff room, the classroom or in the structures of the school itself. It's an investment in ongoing primary prevention of sexual assault education that begins in primary school and continues all the way through to Year 12. It's about placing as much importance on respectful relationships with women and consent in sexual education as there is in preventing STIs and pregnancy. It's tackling the myth that only "bad guys" hit and rape women, and being honest about where this violence starts. It's making an ongoing commitment to being part of the solution.

In preparation for this article, I spoke to a number of current students and recent graduates of different Melbourne private boys' schools, including Brighton Grammar. Each told me they did not receive any in-depth formal instruction on issues around sexism, women's rights, rape culture, or consent. One student said it was only discussed as his school in an "emergency assembly" after porn was discovered on the school computers.

It is not enough to address cultures of sexism after the scandal. If school is a training ground for a child's future, then the attitudes towards women that they form there will inform their relationship with women long into adulthood. If we don't see our role in changing a culture we are a part of, women and girls will continue to bear the brunt of it, sometimes with fatal consequences.