Editorial: how far have we come?

by The Listener / 07 November, 2013
The question New Zealand must ask itself is how a generally civilised society produces youths who take pleasure in the humiliation of young girls.
The Roast Busters scandal is a Mazengarb-style moral panic for our times.

In 1954, New Zealand was shocked by revelations coming from the Hutt Valley. Young men on motorcycles – “milk bar cowboys” – had been meeting schoolgirls on Sunday afternoons and pairing off for sex in local parks and picture theatres. The disclosures led to the Mazengarb inquiry, which pronounced that moral delinquency, encouraged by unsavoury films and literature, had taken root among the nation’s teenagers.

The Mazengarb Report – delivered to every New Zealand home.

It has become fashionable to ridicule the Mazengarb Report as a high-water mark of moralistic pomposity and stifling social conformity; a perfect example of what has come to be known, rather derisively, as moral panic. But here we are, nearly 60 years on, and the country is gripped by a similar sense of moral outrage. Once again it involves young men, younger women and sex – but in circumstances that make the Sunday afternoon assignations at Elbe’s Milk Bar in Lower Hutt’s High St look quaintly innocent.

The Roast Busters scandal is a Mazengarb-style moral panic for our times. The participants are of similar age but the behaviour of the young men involved, who reportedly indulged in group sex with intoxicated girls then bragged about it on Facebook, is far more predatory and contemptible. And it seems pertinent to ask: how much progress have we made?

The feminists of the 1970s must be especially disheartened. The society they envisaged, in which women would be forever liberated from male exploitation, must sometimes seem as distant as ever. Feminist academic Deborah Russell says New Zealand has a “rape culture”; an attitude that women are “here to be exploited”.

It’s an overstatement, of course, because the male attitude she describes – that women exist as chattels for men’s amusement – is not the norm among New Zealand men. But it does exist, and not just among boastful young hoody-wearers from West Auckland. Louise Nicholas proved that when she courageously exposed a culture of sexual exploitation among Bay of Plenty police officers. And before that there was Christchurch doctor Morgan Fahey, whose serial abuse of female patients remained hidden for years, largely due to his status in the community and his certainty that no complaint against him would be believed.

The ideal of sex as a consensual and mutually pleasurable undertaking has, to some extent, been thwarted by a rampant pornography industry that portrays women as fair game – and even worse, as willing participants in their own degradation. Technology has proved an obliging accomplice of the porn merchants: graphic images of sexual exploitation are never more than a few clicks away. In fact, the internet has a doubly harmful influence, on the one hand promoting unhealthy notions of sex, while on the other enabling exploiters to exacerbate and prolong their victims’ humiliation by placing images and details on social media sites.

For the police, the activities of the so-called Roast Busters present frustrating challenges. They say – and legal authorities concur – that they cannot take action unless one of the victims lays a formal complaint. Vulnerable young women are reluctant to take that step for a variety of reasons: fear of further public humiliation, fear of punitive action from parents who were ignorant of the company they were keeping or what they were getting up to, fear of ostracism by their peers.

Counsellors say women who have experienced sexual abuse are often reluctant to press charges because they risk being re-victimised in court – a concern addressed earlier this year in a Law Commission report that examined the rules of evidence in rape cases.

Coincidentally, the Roast Busters scandal dominated the news in the same week as Parliament considered the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which Justice Minister Judith Collins says will “stop cyber bullies in their tracks”. Once passed, the Bill may indeed have a deterrent effect on people who indulge in Roast Busters-style gloating and other forms of victimisation on social media sites.

But it does not address the deeper issue: namely, how an otherwise generally civilised society can produce young men who take pleasure in the humiliation of vulnerable girls. That suggests the need for society to undertake a deeper and more searching self-appraisal – though perhaps not in quite the same overheated puritanical climate that characterised the Mazengarb inquiry.


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