It was the conversation Australia needed to have and many were applauding Q&A's discussion on Thursday night of sexual violence and consent.

The show was praised for presenting one of its best programs ever, with those on social media praising the respectful panel and compelling debate on issues including pornography, non-verbal consent and whether single-sex schools were problematic.

Saxon Mullins, director of advocacy at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, set the tone for the show by opening the discussion with a speech on her story.

Ms Mullins had previously appeared on Four Corners in 2018 where she gave up anonymity to tell the story of her 2013 sexual assault.

Her search for justice ended after two trials, two appeals, an acquittal and "no resolution for me", Ms Mullins said.

"Coming out of a four-year ordeal without closure left me feeling dejected, untethered and determined to tell my story," she said.

"I did not give consent. But the court found there was the mistaken belief that consent was given.

"I was labelled an unreliable witness to my own story.

"My case triggered a landmark review of sexual assault laws and reignited an ongoing conversation."

Later in the program Ms Mullins was asked whether she advised people to come forward to share their experiences given the personal costs many women faced and the low conviction rate. She said she tried to gauge how each survivor is feeling.

"It's really personal to every survivor, what they see as justice," she said.

However, she said she didn't think she would be a massive advocate for going through the police and court process.

"It's a brutal system," she said.

RELATED: Case that sparked a national debate on sexual consent

 

Saxon Mullins went through a four-year court process over an alleged sexual assault.
Saxon Mullins went through a four-year court process over an alleged sexual assault.

Ms Mullins said reforms such as specialist courts or trauma training for police and others could help but that a full-scale reform of responses was needed.

"Just as an individual, I think most people can never know what you went through. How close does it come to breaking you?" host Hamish Macdonald asked.

Ms Mullins answered: "I don't think it comes close. I think it just does."

Her emotional response seemed to hit a nerve with Macdonald, who said: "I'm really very sorry to hear that, Saxon. Thank you for sharing with us tonight".

2021 Youth Influencer of the Year Yasmin Poole said the experience of women like Brittany Higgins showed how those in power "close ranks".

Ms Poole said the "lying cow" comment, reported backgrounding around Ms Higgins' partner and even comments about "trial by media" were "all putting the onus back on survivors and punishing survivors".

However, broadcaster and author Yumi Stynes made a powerful statement to Ms Mullins about why women like her should keep coming forward when it's so "thankless and horrible".

"Because Saxon when I saw you step up and tell your story on national television that was so raw and harrowing, and painful to you, what you did was, you lit a fire in me and I felt it go through my sisters, through our mothers, through women all over the country, and we're on fire now and we're thankful to you.

"So you didn't get the court justice that you wanted but we're going to keep fighting and we're not going to give up."

Yumi Stynes teaches her children about consent through tickling.
Yumi Stynes teaches her children about consent through tickling.

RELATED: Share your experiences of sexual harassment or assault

'SAFE WORD' FOR TICKLING

The program began with discussion about the NSW Police chief's idea for a consent app, of which Stynes said: "It stinks".

"If you can be coerced into sex, you can easily be coerced into ticking a box," she said.

Stynes, who is writing a book about consent, said children should be given information early, before puberty hormones begin mucking with their brains.

She explained how she uses a "safe word" - a concept more often associated with BDSM - when tickling her children, to help them understand the concepts around consent.

Stynes said tickling was intimate, involved touch, was fun, and done between two people, which is similar to sex.

"There's always a point with a kid when they start to go 'I'm kind of hating this. I'm terrified, I'm going to vomit, I'm going to pee myself'.

"And they want to call stop but a lot of their body language is confusing because they also seem to be enjoying themselves.

"In those instances that's a really good opportunity for the people who are doing the tickling, which is generally a carer or an older person to say, 'Do you want me to stop?'"

She said this helped the child to realise they had agency over their body and if they say stop, you'll listen.

 

Her children also use the words "pineapple" or "eggplant" so she knows for sure they need a time-out.

"A safe word conversation in a sexual context is really good because it means at the start of an intimate encounter you're already talking about consent and setting something up that gives you an escape hatch," she said.

Stynes also shared her own experience of kissing a boy she thought was cute when she was an inexperienced 15-year-old.

"Next minute his penis is at my mouth. So I was really surprised. I had never done that before," she said.

"I communicated non-consent verbally and physically. And then we resumed making out.

"And I was back into loving it … and the penis arrives at my mouth again.

"So this is an incident that was a non-consensual, technically an assault, but at the time I didn't rate it as a thing."

 

 

 

 

The panel was also asked about non-verbal consent and how this could be communicated.

UNSW Associate Professor of Criminology Michael Salter said there was often talk about verbal consent, particularly for young people who were having casual sex.

"So it's a stranger. I mean you can't rely on non-verbal cues with someone that you don't know," he said.

There could be a segue into non-verbal cues in longer term sexual relationships but it was important in a casual encounter to be very clear, especially when alcohol or other substances were involved, he said.

Stynes said there should be a cycle of "ask, listen and observe".

"You ask the person if they're into it and continue to ask," she said. "You listen to their answer because sometimes they might be saying, 'yeah …' and it's clearly a yes but it's not a clear yes.

"And observe. Observing is all about the non-verbal cues and they occur the entire time."

She said if someone wanted to communicate non-verbally, for example if there was a preference for sign language or there was a language difference, then there may need to be a conversation about what means stop.

 

Q&A’s program this week was on sexual violence and consent.
Q&A’s program this week was on sexual violence and consent.

'BOYS COULDN'T INTEGRATE WITH GIRLS'

Prof Salter said there was a lot of pressure on boys to engage in sexual acts, not for sexual pleasure but essentially to prove themselves to themselves and to their mates.

"We see young boys crossing boundaries in exactly the way that Yumi's just outlined," he said of Stynes' experience.

"And partly because he's anxious, he's worried and there's all sorts of things going on and then there's the additional violation after these acts, where they go back and tell their friends."

Former NRL player and mental health advocate Joe Williams said people needed to get to the point of having deep and honest conversations with their boys.

Asked how young men could be taught to deal with the rejection, Williams said it had to start in the family home.

"It starts in the family home and how we educate men and how we raise strong young men to be able to sit in that uncomfortable space, to be able to call out, especially bad behaviours but also feel confident enough to be able to have those conversations in front of their mates," he said.

Williams also spoke about his experience attending an all-boys school from years 7 to 10, and then a co-ed school in year 11.

"What we found was that boys couldn't integrate with girls in normal friendships," he said.

"To the point where we started actually having parties with just the boys because we found it uncomfortable to talk to girls in any type of friendship-type setting.

"I thought it was completely normal at the time but looking back it is super toxic - to the point where we can't have open and honest conversations with girls as mates."

He said as a man who went to a boys' school and who played in the NRL, "a lot of the time unfortunately females are seen as objects. And it is super toxic.

"So what we need to do is start to have these conversations with our boys at young ages, talk about consent, talk about respect before consent, respecting people's views."

 

Former NRL player Joe Williams went to a boys school and now realises it was toxic.
Former NRL player Joe Williams went to a boys school and now realises it was toxic.

Wenona School principal Briony Scott said it would be wilful blindness to think the problems were limited to independent and single-sex schools, as issues had also been found in the army and hospitality industry.

"If there is poor leadership in this area you will absolutely see that behaviour," she said.

She said ultimately, young people looked to adults around them for their cues on how to behave in situations where they don't have much experience.

"If you're not in their ear teaching them, somebody else is," she said. "So you've got to make a call about who will be educating your child, and if it's not you it's someone."

PORN BEING OFFERED UP 'ON A PLATTER'

The panel also discussed porn and Stynes noted that young people were seeing porn and it may be the only kind of sex they were seeing.

"If you're doing what they do in porn, guaranteed someone is not enjoying that," Stynes said.

She said this made it important to have those "gross conversations".

"There's so much fear about the conversations we have with young people about sex that we think it will make them horny," she said. "The research shows the opposite. The more you are open and frank the less they want to do it."

Prof Salter went a step further and said legislation may be needed, and decisions needed to be made about what was good for kids to see, rather than just accepting that porn was "out there".

"I think putting the onus on young people to change, or parents or schools, and actually frankly ignoring the role of technology firms and companies in just providing this to young people on a platter," he said.

"It's a really serious problem because it's not just the porn that kids are accessing, it's the fact that young people, adults are now making their own material, non-consensually sharing other people's material.

"There's all sorts of harms that are emerging in this environment.

"The adults need to be adults, we need to start putting structures in place in the online environment.

 

 

 

 

 

Originally published as 'You lit a fire': Powerful Q&A; hits nerve


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