13/09/2016 7:30 AM AEST | Updated 13/09/2016 7:31 AM AEST

When People We Love Do Awful Things, We Can't Excuse Them

If we want to end this toxic culture -- and end violence against girls and women -- then we must all refuse to look away, and we must call out this behaviour in the boys and men in our communities and in our lives.

"This must change."
"This must change."

I have spent the past 20 years working to combat sexism and gender inequality in our communities. I spent five of those years managing the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and responding to women and girls who had been subjected to sexual violence. The same toxic culture that fuelled the violence I saw at the Rape Crisis Centre has lead to the recent, disturbing reports of a pornographic website targeting young women in schools around the country.

For many, the most disturbing aspect of this report is that it is largely the male peers of these girls who appear to be sourcing and trading these images.

Last week, the ACT Greens announced that we will strengthen ACT criminal laws to specifically address the issue of non-consensual sharing of intimate images (commonly referred to as 'revenge porn'). There are currently limited avenues for victims of this practice to seek redress, and the new laws will empower victims by creating clear and appropriate criminal offences. The laws will also equip police to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice.

Don't get me wrong, introducing new criminal laws to prohibit sharing intimate images without consent will not stop the exploitation of young women -- but it does send the clear and unequivocal message that we as a community take this violation of women and girls seriously and it won't be tolerated.

Despite my own experience as a sexual assault survivor and the 20 years I have spent working with other survivors, every time I hear about groups of boys and young men engaging in degrading and violent behaviour towards young women I find it shocking. I certainly find it deeply concerning.

However, I do not find it surprising.

Over the past decade, we have seen little decline in violence against women. The number of women killed by male violence climbed to two every week in Australia in April. And attitudes that hold women to blame for the violence perpetrated against them remain widespread.

But changing our laws is only part of the solution. At the end of the day, the only thing that will protect women and girls from violence is tackling the toxic culture that has lead those young men to get photos of their classmates and swap them with each other -- as if those young women have no right to privacy, dignity or choice and as if they were objects.

This same toxic culture tells boys and men that they are entitled to do what they like, and get what they want, from the girls and women they know. That entitlement is the source of cat calling and wolf whistling, it's what makes the man in the car think it's okay to drive slowly behind you as you go for a run, it's why men will flirt with you at the bar and then call you a bitch if you're not interested, and it's why those boys think they are entitled to put private, sexual photos of the girls they know on the internet for other men and boys to view.

I have no doubt that there are teachers, parents, men and women who are shocked and devastated about this incident -- not just for the girls who have been hurt, but also for the boys who may have been involved in seriously harming their classmates and engaging in this disturbing behaviour.

When we love people who do awful things, it is easy to try and pretend that their actions were not as serious or as harmful or as wrong as they were.

To do that would be a mistake.

As a society, we do that every time a popular footballer, sports commentator or movie star denigrates, rapes or abuses a woman and we excuse it as a mistake. And, every time we do, we teach another young boy that when you abuse women you will still be celebrated and respected by your peers and community.

This must change.

It must change in our communities and on our streets. It must change in our sporting clubs and our schools, and it must change in our businesses and in politics.

If we want to end this toxic culture -- and end violence against girls and women -- then we must all refuse to look away, and we must call out this behaviour in the boys and men in our communities and in our lives.