Consent Matters

The complex, sometimes dark nature of boys’ thinking and behaviour explored in new book.
Susanne Gervay OAM
Mar 7, 2023
What is it that drives boys to behave in the often destructive ways they do?

A crowd of boys were rampaging along Bondi Beach. Girls moved to the other side of the road. It was like the ‘night of the broken glass’. Windows smashed. It was an out-of-control peer group, fuelled by alcohol, following the leaders blindly and without personal responsibility. Afterwards, boys were suspended from school. Has it changed?

Today, the media is awash with stories about ‘boys’’ clubs – from grammar schools to catholic, state schools, universities, Parliament and sports. A private school had a boys’ muck-up day of activities including kissing girls under 15 and having sex with a woman deemed to be a "3/10 or lower".

Boys at a selective co-educational state school ran a campaign of attack against an 18-year-old girl who was sexually abused from four to ten. A boy betrayed her trust and initiated a twisted challenge for his mates of crushing attacks saying that she deserved abuse.

Students at a private school set up a chat room where vile child abuse material, antisemitism, racist and homophobic videos were posted.

The Australian curriculum now supports ‘respect’ which is good. Academic papers on gender equity proliferate. Schools have CONSENT programs and tick the boxes. But do they reach their male young adult audience? Are they listening? Focussed? Or are they on their devices as teachers instruct?  What do they hear?

The Edge of Limits is a game-changer. It goes into new territory. It challenges boys to become critical thinkers, to consider their actions and consequences. It challenges girls to understand them.

When a story is not didactic, doesn’t tell readers what to think, it is a successful way of connecting young people with ideas and choices and creates powerful learning experiences. Stories are central to human cognition and communication. When we empathise with characters and their journeys, we walk in their shoes. It empowers young people to make positive decisions.

I read Catcher in the Rye when as a teenager. We see 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he’s expelled from school. It’s three days. Confused, disillusioned, depressed, Holden struggles with loneliness and feelings of suicide. He searches for truth against the ‘phoniness’ of the adult world. He uses the language of boys.  

After Catcher in the Rye, the next step is The Edge of Limits. It is the essence of male young adult experiences. It speaks the secret language of boys. At times girls understand it. Adults? Maybe they know, or not. The real life of boys is challenging. What is the relationship between mates? What do girls mean? Is identity determined by parental expectations? What is the impact of alcohol, drugs, ego?  Within this context, there are deep questions such as, how to deal with death? values? what is courage?

As an academic specialising in child growth and development, I recognise that during male young adult years, reasoning, planning and problem solving are developing. Why is Edge of Limits different? It engages in real-life story, choices and critical thinking. My son worked with me to delve into the real world of male psychology.

So started the journey. A survival camp is familiar territory. There’s the rough and tumble jostling, as the boys board the coaches. Sarah the ‘spunky’ guide and Mr Seaton the teacher tells them to settle down. I went camping, caving, rock climbing, found those thousands of flies. My future is not as a rock climber. However, I began to understand male identity.

The Edge of Limits explores sexuality, mateship, the wisdom of the grandfather, leadership, humour, the way boys speak, or don’t speak. The journey is eight rugged days on a school trek into the wilderness. There are no showers, sleeping on rocks, hard trekking, abseiling, rock climbing, wild rivers, wilderness and there are the flies, thousands of them, and the freezing nights and the sweaty days. There are scenes of exhaustion as the boys collapse after the rock ledge climb. Hilarious scenes at the leech invasion. Great mateship. Great betrayals. It’s about girls too - getting them, discarding them, wanting them where consent is subjective or coercive or distorted through peer group pressure or real love or the Rave Party and the rape. Ultimately, the camp winds towards the final place of initiation deep in the mountains. It goes to the heart of consent in modern society and challenges the boys with hard choices of courage.

Testosterone, peer group pressure, alcohol, drugs, parental expectations, identity crisis can lead to disastrous action. Sexuality is the trigger, but search for identity is the journey. The Edge of Limits throws choices to the boys. Through story, they can seek who they want to be. Story is a safe place to think, relate, break the walls of silence, intimidation, risk of speaking. They can test themselves in imagined real-life scenarios and make decisions.

S.J Gervay was the recipient of the School Library Association of New South Wales Maurice Saxby Award for 2022. Gervay is keynote at the School Libraries Association NSW conference speaking on Consent.

‘Respect Matters’ Australian Curriculum