TW: Explicit Discussion and Description of Rape and Sexual Violence
*Names of people who are quoted first hand have been changed.
“It was just a joke” “It was a prank” “Boys will be boys” “It was not that serious”.
Sexual violence against boys when the perpetrators are of the same age is consistently dismissed as bullying that has gone too far. When the reality is that it is rape regardless who the perpetrators are and who the victim is. Non-consensual sexual contact and any sexual contact with a person under the legal age of consent (16 years old in NZ) is a violation and should be treated as such.
This is not to say that we have created a system or a culture in our society which takes any victim of sexual assault seriously or treats those with any dignity or empathy. One of the most extensive rape myths that people have fallen accustomed to is that rape physically can’t or just does not happen to men.
The idea of sexual assault we have created often does not include a majority of what rape cases consist of. People often exclude coercion, threats, manipulation, taking advantage of an individual's vulnerability, the abuse of power and when rape is disguised under other labels. All of these things contribute to distorting the ability of an individual to freely give consent.
As we embrace the structure of how we view and accept what we believe rape is, it leads to the large dismissal of male sexual assault victims. Often the delegitimisation of male rape victims extends to the point of a joke and in some cases believe that it is justified because it is not a ‘real crime’.
Sexual bullying is a form of verbal or physical assault of a sexual nature. Targeting someone based on their gender and sexuality to perpetuate the bullying. There are various types of scenarios in which people are targeted by sexual bullying. Sexual bullying includes when people degrade, inflict harm and humiliate others in relation to their sex life (including slut/virgin shaming), people’s bodies (for example breast size), people’s sexual orientation or gender identity in a derogatory way, using sexual words in a degrading way (such as slut, whore, easy, skank etc.), threats or jokes towards others about things such as rape, spreading true or false rumors about someone else’s sex life or sexuality, touching people’s body parts where they don’t want to be (such as groping), putting any kind of pressure on someone in a sexual way.
Drawing attention to the severity of sexual bullying is important, as it highlights the extent of minimization and toxicity towards males who are subjected to this type of violence. Under Section 128, 128A and 128B of The Crimes Act states the definition of sexual violation with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. There is sexual violation committed if there is an unlawful sexual connection from or more people towards another, with consent expressed freely. Under the law, any sexual contact made regardless if there is a presence of genitalia used in the assault, therefore if an object is used sexually during the assault, this is a legal sexual violation.
When males fall victim to sexual violence in a bullying context, the severity of the situation is often undermined and not acknowledged for the reality of what it is. In these cases perpetrators abuse their power over another individual to degrade, humiliate, hurt, traumatise, intimidate and dehumanise through sexual power.
There have many circumstances of this taking place, particularly in single-sex boy schools. However, often these cases are covered up and attempted to keep victims quiet with the toxic attitudes of “boys will be boys” when justifying the behaviour and protecting the perpetrators. There have been three notable cases of this happening in New Zealand involving students sexually assaulting other students. The Taradale School case in 2001, the Pukekohe school case in 2011 and Christchurch Boys High School case in 2018.
In October 16th in 2001 a horrific sexual attack took place against an unconscious teenager which lead to the prosecution of seven other teenage boys. The party was held to celebrate the 18th birthday of one of the perpetrators, held at the venue of another student from the school. The assault which took place was against a student who was last minute invited to the party after receiving a text from one of the perpetrators inviting him.
The assault happened at around 3 am in the morning whilst the survivor had fallen asleep from intoxication. The survivor gave a description of the attack in court, he woke up to feeling his boxers and shorts being pulled down, he tried to pull them back up and could hear voices saying “hold him down, hold him down, keep him still, don’t move” and he then could smell a deep heat ointment as he continued to struggle to get away from the attackers. The survivor was then violated with a broomstick with Vicks VapoRub smeared on the end of the handle. He was then left struggling to walk. The victim was left with physical and psychological trauma from the vicious attack. The survivor suffered internal tears from the broom handle and grazes and bruises from where he was held down by the attackers. Father of the survivor stated in court that his son spent most of the following months alone, as he was too traumatised and afraid to venture out in case he ran into the people who raped him.
On the 24th of May 2002, overall seven teenagers were convicted on different accounts of sexual violation, attempted sexual violation, unlawful sexual connection and indecent assault.
The response from the legal system, including the judge of the case, the general public and the media’s handling of the case, displays how as a society people do not take sexual violence against males legitimately. The New Zealand Herald covered the incident, which made light of the situation and continuously praised the perpetrators as good boys who had made a mistake, rather than perpetrators of a sexual crime.
One of the articles which described the details of the attack and gave background information about all of the perpetrators. A quote from this article presents how there is admiration for those who cause harm, and play it off as a joke, “Among the 30 to attend were some of the school's most popular and respected students - who would be forced to use those qualities in their defence later in court when charged with sexually violating a friend with a broomstick.” This particular article also gave profiles of all of the perpetrators, highlighting all of their ‘positive’ characteristics.
This included highlighting their academic and sporting achievements, praising all of them individually for their natural sporting talents, how highly thought of by staff members at Taradale, their positions in student politics as deputy and head boy, involvement in school choirs and bands, as ‘a nice a guy’, had earned respect from others, Christian who never participated in substance taking, house captains who were honest and sensible and hardworking. When explicitly describing the assault, The Herald indicated that it was not as vicious or harmful as it was, “What he (the victim) didn't know at the time was that it was their (perpetrators) second attempt. An inconvenient belt had halted their progress the first time.
Their second effort was a success, and they sexually violated the youth with a broomstick that had Vicks VapoRub on the end. He was left struggling to walk, and a long way from home.” Displaying that all of the perpetrators were people who are respected individuals who have made mistakes, whilst never mentioning anything about the survivor or the trauma caused shows how this was never taken seriously as the aggravated, violent sexual assault in which it was.
The defence from all of the perpetrators exemplified their attempts to refuse to acknowledge the horrific assault which they had committed. They violated the victim’s autonomy, safety, sense of self and trust, in which all seven knew exactly what they were doing to the victim. This was a blatant sexual attack, which could not be construed as anything else. The perpetrators, however, attempted to humiliate and degrade the victim further in their explanations in court and to the police investigating. All seven of the perpetrators stated that they had never intended to sexually harm the victim, but only play a prank on him which then went too far. On the day of the trial, only one perpetrator pleaded guilty to the crime
Minimisation continued from the judicial system, from comments from the Judges and lawyers to the reduction of their sentences. The judge, Justice Gendall, who was presiding the case made a multitude of comments which reflected the same attitudes and dismissiveness which was exemplified in the media. Gendall stated that "It is extremely difficult for judges to sentence extremely decent young men when they do bad things ... it's easy to sentence bad men when they do bad things" and also confirmed at the retrial that he had regretted jailing the boys. Further quotes from Gendall during the trial stated that he took into account the boy good character, lack of previous convictions and the unlikeliness of reoffending, he also said directly to the perpetrators that "your future prospects look bright, I think they still are bright."
One of the lawyers for one of the perpetrators, Russell Fairbrother, attempted to get the charge reduced from sexual violation, arguing that the stigma for having a conviction of sexual violation would hinder his client’s employment and travel opportunities for the rest of his life. The request for the reduction was denied by Gendall. Through the reporting of this trial, it is clear that even through the criminal justice system, this was only treated as if they were bullying the victim in a school playground rather than gang-raping him, which is what they did.
Public attitudes are a large contributor to the minimisation and retraumatization for victims. Ben* grew up in Napier and went to high school at a different school a decade after the incident took place. Ben said that minimisation of the fact that the incident was a legitimate sexual assault was very predominate, even a decade later. The incident was always discussed in a threatening or joking manner throughout everyone around the highschool age, things were said, such as ‘don’t go to Taradale High, you’ll get broomed’.
Ben stated that he even heard many teachers make light of the situation and make jokes about the attack to claim that Taradale was not a good school. As observed in the many articles describing the assault, Ben also noted that the guys who did it were kids with considerable amounts of power and that it was purely a situation to force dominance over and individual because they knew they could get away with it.
The boys knew that they were able to get away with it, due to the involvement of homophobic toxic culture embedded in single-sex boys schools. Ben said whilst reading the articles about the attack, that the lawyers attempted to make the connection between the vicious assault and ‘typical’ stag night pranks or rituals for sailors. Ben acknowledged that the culture and public opinion surrounding this type of assault was largely dismissive and treated as a joke. No one took seriously that this was a sexual violation.
Another significant case which happened which also displayed the same attitudes of dismissal, victim-blaming was in Christchurch in 2018. A 17 year old was charged with sexual violation after sexual assaulting another boy with a toothbrush. The attack took place at a high school sports trip in The North Island, involving members from Christchurch Boys High School (CBHS). The victim was overpowered by students from CBHS, his clothing removed and then was violated with a toothbrush. When a complaint was raised, senior staff members from CBHS flew into the location of the tournament to help tend to the aftermath of the attack. The team, however, was not withdrawn from the tournament. The aftermath of the sexual violation resulted in the expulsion of one student and the suspension of three others. All of the school staff and the principal of the school declined to comment when approached by the media.
The minimisation in this scenario came by the majority from the school when they responded to media coverage of the case. The school were highly critical of the media coverage, but this was not in terms of protection for the victim, but concerning the school’s reputation. Taylor Shaw, Barristers and Solicitors lodged a complaint on behalf of Christchurch Boys High School against Stuff and The Press and then to the Media Council .
The main issue in which CBHS had with the article was that the article presented a comparison of this case to the Taradale case. The school believed the comparison was unjustified, due to the aggravating nature of the Taradale assault. The school claimed that they were worried about prejudicing against the school and the students involved . CBHS stated that the article created a contrary to the presumption of innocence that the perpetrators were entitled to.
The school’s attack on the article shows the intensity of institutional cover-up and maintaining a positive public reputation rather than the protection of the victim. If the school’s primary focus with the media publicity, was the protection of the individual’s privacy, it would have been more clear that there was a more empathetic motive behind the complaint. The complaint’s only concern was for the presumption of innocence for the perpetrator’s to be maintained rather than the safety and support for the victim. The issues that the school had with the comparison to the Taradale case, was because they believed the other assault was more violent and therefore a comparison is not warranted. Both incidents are incredibly harmful with lifelong impacts, regardless of the intensity of the violence, it is still violence. The ongoing trauma and impacts are still present in cases of sexual violence, as the act of a sexual violation is one in which dehumanises, humiliates and can destroy a person’s self-identity and worth.
The final case study in which is important to shed light upon is an attack which took place at Pukekohe School in November of 2011. All students involved were year 10 and the survivor of the assault was 15 years old . The Herald who reported on the incident understood that the student was held down by a group of students behind the school gym, whilst another student sexually violated him with a vehicle part. This was reportedly an attack on a student who was moving schools, which had homophobic undertones. The reporters on this article inferred that the student was moving to boarding school at King’s College and as the violation was being perpetrated comments such as "If you're going to King's [College] you deserve this sort of thing'' and "This is what you will get in boarding school.” Police investigated the incident and the school expelled the three students involved in the attack.
Unlike CBHS, school staff including the principal did comment when approached by the media. However, the minimization from the staff members was severe. Both the principal of the school and the Board of Trustees representative displayed a direct lack of empathy and blame on the victim rather than perpetrators. Pukekohe principal Ian McKinnon commented on the incident, describing the assault as ‘joke’ which had gone ‘too far’, a quote from McKinnon as a response to the attack, "Kids just don't know when to stop with some of their behaviours.''
The response of the Board of Trustees representative, Angela Clark, showed complete minimisation and did not acknowledge this as an assault at all. Clark completely dismissed this attack of sexual violence whilst also claiming that the impact on the victim was non-existent. Clark decided to take aim at the media reports of the incident as spreading misinformation when in fact this was not a sexual assault which caused any harm. Quotes from Clark, demonstrate the gross lack of empathy towards boys who have been sexually violated. Clark’s description of the assault, “I can confirm he was held down. I would not go so far as to say he was violated, I mean this is a group of friends who were playing a joke on a mate and have gone too far. Ultimately that's the sad part about it." Clark claimed that there were no physical injuries as a result from the assault, and therefore it can’t have been to the seriousness of the degree that it is being presented as, ‘She said she did not believe he was seriously hurt. "He was humiliated, I'm sure, no one likes to be held down especially by your mates I wouldn't have thought, but the physical injuries... to my knowledge there were none."
Clark’s main concern following the incident was not the welfare of the victim or those who had witnessed the assault, but rather her belief that misinformation was being displayed in the media. Her focus was that the assault was a target of the pupil transferring to King’s College and that as she understood it was not that serious. During her interview with Stuff (13 days after the assault) she also expressed that she was not aware whether or not the student had returned to school . The lack of interest in the wellbeing of student implies that sexual violence against males is not at all serious and when an incident like this does happen, people are overreacting, reinforcing the idea that this is just what boys do.
These are just a few examples of the side of rape culture and toxic masculinity which is completely ignored. It is NOT normal coming of age behaviour to rape another person, we need to stop treating it as such.
- "CHRISTCHURCH BOYS HIGH SCHOOL AGAINST THE PRESS / STUFF". 2019. Mediacouncil.Org.Nz. https://www.mediacouncil.org.nz/rulings/christchurch-boys-high-school-against-the-press-stuff
- Crimes Act 1961. 2005. Vol. 128. New Zealand: Parliamentary Counsel Office Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata
- Dupper, David R. School Bullying : New Perspectives on a Growing Problem New York: Oxford University Press, 2013
- NZ Herald, Hawkes Bay Today. 2003. "Home Detention For 'Broomstick Boys'". https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3513993
- NZ Herald, NZPA. 2002. "Broom Handle Attack Students Jailed". https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=2043037.
- NZ Herald, NZPA. 2002. "Night Of Madness Scars All Involved". https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=1793098.
- Otago Daily Times. 2011. "Boy Violated Over Planned Shift To Private College". https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/boy-violated-over-planned-shift-private-college.
- "Sex Alcohol And The Law - Family Planning". 2019. Familyplanning.Org.Nz. https://www.familyplanning.org.nz/news/2015/sex-alcohol-and-the-law.
- Stuff. 2011. "Pukekohe Pupil Sexually Violated". http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/6052789/Pukekohe-pupil-sexually-violated.
- Stuff. 2018. "Schoolboy Charged With Toothbrush Sex Assault At Sports Tournament". https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/109002273/schoolboy-charged-with-toothbrush-sex-assault-at-sports-tournament.
*Name Changed to Protect Individual’s Privacy.
Ailish Leydon-Lyons is a researcher and writer for Mosaic-Tiaki Tangata. She has recently completed a