Many young people don’t know their basic rights, officer says
— Photo illustration by The Telegram
Staff with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) say youth still don’t know what their rights are when it comes to relationships, sex and dating violence.
RNC Staff Sgt. Sean Ennis conducted dating violence seminars in junior high and high schools up until about five years ago. He says giving the students some of the most basic information — that they had the right to say no to sex, that nobody has the right to force themselves on them — was like turning on a light. In every session, there were students that didn’t know these things.
“Every time you would go into a classroom, there was always a case or they would be pointing fingers at somebody in their classroom saying, ‘Well, you know her boyfriend is abusive,’ or her boyfriend is this or her boyfriend is that,” he says.
What some of the students said surprised him.
As an example: “My boyfriend has the right or should be expecting that I would have sex with him because I’ve been going out with him for this long.”
Ennis says when he visited a school, he would allocate for time afterwards because he knew that a student would come to him with some complaint once they were enlightened as to what their rights actually were.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever done a dating violence lecture in a school that I didn’t come out and have a disclosure of abuse after the fact,” says Ennis.
And it certainly hasn’t changed in the five years since Ennis stopped doing the seminars.
RNC Const. Karen Hemmens works in community services and spends time in the schools. She says one of the most interesting conversations she ever had was last year with a group of teenage males around the issue of what constitutes “no” when in a sexual situation.
“You know that’s she’s gonna say no the first time anyway, so you gotta push it a bit,” was one of the comments she says she got.
When she tried to explain that a female doesn’t actually have to say “No” but can push a hand away or pull away to get the message across, the response was no better.
“You know she’s gonna pull away the first time you try anyway, but she doesn’t really mean it.”
“Wow,” Hemmens says, thinking back on it.
Why they don’t know
So, how is it that youth as old as high school students don’t know these things?
There have been many well-publicized campaigns on the issue, such as the “No Means No” movement, and TV programs started taking on issues of rape and dating violence back in the days of “Degrassi Junior High,” which initially aired in the late 1980s.
“We make the assumption that they’re getting the right information, and in a lot of cases they’re basing their knowledge on misinformation,” says Ennis.
And a lot of that misinformation comes from television and the Internet.
Ennis says if you look at relationships that exist on television today and analyze where they go and what happens with regards to sexual content, in the real world they would likely encroach on the criminal code. Having one conversation with your kids about what their rights are isn’t likely to get the job done anymore, he says, because that’s just stacked up against the immeasurable number of times they’re given a different message through television and the Internet.
“Our kids today are being subjected to confusing messages almost on a daily basis,” he says.
Unknown risks, crimes
Messages from television along with the accessibility of technology and social media makes for a particularly volatile combination, because of what young people can be talked into or what they can bring on themselves. Facebook, Twitter, email and cellphones are well documented as potentially hazardous when youth use them in a sexual manner.
But the problem may be more serious than parents know.
RNC Const. Terry Follett works with the child exploitation unit. He says his office gets a lot of complaints about kids “sexting” and taking revealing pictures on their smartphones. Youth really don’t know the risk they’re taking with the law when they do these things, says Follett.
Someone younger than 18 can take a revealing photo of themselves and share it with somebody they’re in a relationship with, and that’s fine, he says, but once it leaves the confines of that relationship, it becomes child pornography.
So if one or the other in the relationship shares the photos, the consequences can be severe. Even if the person who took it is the one spreading it around, if they’re younger than 18, it’s a crime, according to Follett.
Follett says youth don’t know when they’re making themselves susceptible to committing crimes.
“To my surprise, and to a lot of the parents, is that they (don’t) realize that if you’re under 18 years old and the content of a picture that you send to someone … shows the sexual organs of a person, it’s considered child pornography,” he says.
“If you take that picture and then you send it to someone, you’ve made child pornography, distributed child pornography, and then the person that gets it, they’re in possession of it, as well.”
It’s easy for these things to happen when young people are in relationships, says Const. Hemmens. They’re at a confusing time when they can easily make some bad decisions that really don’t seem all that bad to them at the time. They think the relationships they’re in are rock solid.
“To them it’s really real,” she says. “This person would never hurt them and then, of course, two weeks later this is what happens.”
And anybody assuming that it’s always males distributing pictures of females should think again, says Hemmens. It goes both ways.
Follett says police get a lot of parents showing up at headquarters with revealing photos of their children that they’ve found on their child’s phone, email or Facebook account. They want to know where they came from and usually it came from their child taking it themselves, he says.
They also want the pictures to be “untaken,” which is not possible once they’re spread around the Internet.
“There’s no Internet erase CD, and you start out from scratch tomorrow morning,” says Follett.
It’s not as easy to keep your eye on your kids these days, says Ennis. It’s hard to track all of your child’s online movements and that gives predatory people a level of camouflage.
“When I joined the police department 30 years ago, every parent was looking out for the guy dressed in black or the fella in the white panel van. They were the threats to your kids,” says Ennis. “Now, the threat to your kid is probably talking to your child while you’re watching TV right along side of them.”
So what should parents do? How do they let their kids know what their rights are? How do they protect them from themselves and from others who may be lurking in cyberspace? The solutions are still simple, even though the issues are scary, the RNC says.
Talk with your kids. Youth may be technology whizzes compared to what parents were like when they were the same age, says Ennis, but that doesn’t mean they have any deeper understanding of life. The conversations that parents had with their kids years ago about relationships, sex, violence, etc. are perhaps more necessary today because youth are subjected to so much misinformation.
Educating and protecting them also means monitoring them, says Follett. You have to respect a certain amount of their privacy, he says, but if they have cell phones, laptops, email, Facebook and Twitter accounts, you need to know what they’re up to.
Const. Greg Hobbs also works with the child exploitation unit.
“You basically need to be over the child’s shoulder, because how many parents out there will think that their little daughter or son will only have one Facebook account,” he says.
According to Hobbs, 99 per cent of kids out there now can have up to five Facebook, email and Twitter accounts. There’s the one that their parents monitor and then there’s the ones their parents don’t know about. One girl the RNC dealt with had nine Facebook accounts, he says.
Youth often think they’re getting the right information, but what they’re getting is just the opposite, says Ennis.
“And that’s the message that we’ve got to get out to the parents, especially.”
The RNC has started doing drug awareness sessions with parents, as well as youth, something Ennis calls a step forward.
But he adds that parents need to be hyper aware of what they’re kids are up to, because when an issue such as “sexting” comes up in schools, parents are often shocked.
They shouldn’t be, he says.