How can we deal with stories of those who prey on our children?
An article published in the Straits Times last month caught my eye, in particular its headline: Why aren’t we more outraged about social media predators?
At first, I was confused by the headline, because I believe, like many other Singaporeans, that as a society we are outraged by sexual predation, especially on minors. But then I realised that it was more a comment on how we grapple with social media and its effect on our youngsters in this day and age.
The article expanded on the experiences of three teenagers who shared their personal accounts of being attacked by sexual predators in the online space through the Straits Times video documentary, InstaSex.
One thing that struck me from both the article and the documentary was how teenagers don’t turn to their parents when they are preyed on.
When Kelly, at the age of 15, was raped by a boy she met on Instagram, she didn’t turn to her parents but instead to her tuition teacher, who helped to report the case to the police.
Polytechnic student Parveen Kaur, who has been targeted by men trying to groom her – by sending her pictures of their genitals and asking her for sex – since she was 17, chose to confide in her friends rather than her parents.
She explained in the video that this is so because “the one response I would get (from my parents) is, ‘Just stop using Instagram’.”
What caught me by surprise is how these teenagers seem to be accepting of such predatory behaviour as something common.
“After a while, it just doesn’t bother me any more,” says Parveen, “in fact, if I totally do not get any (dirty) messages at all, I would actually think that something is wrong, because it happens so often, how can it suddenly stop, right?”
Yet they are at the same time at a loss as to how to react to them.
Sadly, they are also not comfortable to share their situations with older, more experienced adults, such as their parents, to get the necessary guidance.
It should not be ‘normal’ to get sexual images and messages
The article pointed out that some girls have become so desensitised to the barrage of sexualised images and messages they receive day in day out, that they no longer view them as red flags from potential predators anymore.
“This is very normal,” Parveen’s friends tell her, so that too, became her mantra.
Social media, especially for the younger generation, has become a meeting place where many get their affirmation in the form of “likes” from friends, acquaintances and strangers.
This virtual popularity can be seductive, and can lull users to let their guard down and openly share information or worse, believe people they hardly know.
This leads to real-world consequences.
When Kelly was invited by a female friend to meet a 17-year-old guy she didn’t know, she scrolled through his Instagram feed. He looked “normal” and “not sketchy”, she said, even though he had earlier sent her an obscene picture – by mistake, he claimed.
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Despite that red flag, she still agreed to meet him (with her friend, who failed to show up). And it eventually led her to being assaulted and raped in his flat.
Now I’m not victim-blaming. It actually scares me a little that younger Singaporeans seem so blasé to being sent obscene pictures on messaging apps or social media.
Why is it that in the past, we would recount stories of flashers with a mix of horror and disgust, but these days, brush off obscene photos on social media (isn’t that flashing in a virtual form?) so easily?
If we allow this mindset to breed in our adolescents, how can we then steer away from the casual misogyny that is already an issue today?
Parents, talk to your children
It is all too common for our adolescents, both boys and girls, to be targeted by sexual predators on social media. And many find it difficult to talk to their parents about what they go through, no matter how deep or unconditional their love is.
Telling our children not to use social media is not a long-term solution.
Talking about social media usage with our children is a difficult but important conversation. And it is unfeasible to believe that parents will always be able to restrict social media access to their children. For example, how can parents police their child’s exposure to content shared among their circle of friends in school?
That’s why it is important for children to feel safe enough to share with their parents what their friends share with them. And that only comes when parents assure their children that while they may get upset or angry, it would be for them, but not at them.
On the legal front, there have been amendments made to laws for children to get more protection against sexual predators with new offences and harsher penalties to be implemented on offenders.
These include criminalising the production, distribution and possession of child abuse materials and proposed changes to give better protection to minors aged between 16 and 18 through examining possible exploitative sexual relationship involved.
Says Drew & Napier director Wendell Wong: “This is a signal by the Government of its enhanced deterrence against acts such as the use of child abuse materials. What is being targeted is the means by which such predators can perpetuate exploitative behaviours against children.”
Start the conversation early
More importantly, this issue has to be addressed through education on a national level. We cannot be bashful or embarrassed to talk about sexual mores and social media in the classrooms.
MOE already has a holistic Sexuality Education curriculum in place from students from Primary 5 onwards – covering both biological and social aspects. I suggest that it be expanded to cover the role of the virtual world and social media in our children’s lives too.
Early education and knowledge needs to be supplemented by strong legal penalties. Which is why I welcome the Government’s recent announcement on tougher laws regarding sexual misconduct.
How to develop healthy sexual values and relationships?
It is too simplistic to conclude that all men who commit sexual offences do so merely because of compulsion or perversion. If so, stronger criminal penalties may not be the most effective deterrent.
Rather, Singapore must nip the root of such crimes – sexism and misogyny – in the bud by providing young people with the support and resources to develop healthy sexual values and relationships.
As mentioned before, Singapore’s sexuality education curriculum should implement reforms to provide open and comprehensive resources that meet the needs of our youth. Otherwise, young people may simply turn to other sources such as pornography that often perpetuate problematic ideas of sex and relationships.
We also need more public forums to raise the issue of sexual predation.
An Alliance for Action on the online grooming of girls and sexual abuse of women had a recent session where participants spoke about websites or online businesses that entice women — particularly girls — to take part in vice, as well as the online publication of intimate images and footage without consent, with identifying details such as names and phone numbers.
They also discussed instances of one-to-one interactions over social media platforms, which can be hotbeds of sexual grooming and harassment.
A proactive approach to teach minors to protect themselves
Though education can help students identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations, there are still instances where victims of sexual harassment are unable to defend themselves or prevent an assault from taking place.
More emphasis must be placed to teach minors on the importance of consent, inform them about sexual harassment and assault, and help them learn how to treat one another with respect.
At the same time, the ultimate responsibility lies with both schools and parents to create an environment when minors feel safe enough to seek help if any assault does occur.
Even when dealing with seemingly trustworthy people that they may look up to, for example their educators, minors learn to have the courage to voice out and to fight back when they identify imminent danger. This knowledge will also be helpful even after they grow up and enter the workforce.
But we shouldn’t let that stop us from speaking up about what we see is wrong.
We should continue to tell our children that we should not accept unacceptable behaviour, be it online or off. We need to remind our younger generation that no one should be desensitised to sexual predation, whether it is in person or on social media.
It is not okay. We should be outraged. And we should say something about it.