How Consent Education Fell Behind In Australia
Earlier this year, consent was put firmly on the agenda when a former Sydney schoolgirl posted a story on her Instagram, asking if any of her followers had ever been sexually assaulted by private school boys.
72% of the people who saw her story and voted, said yes. And now nearly 3,000 students have come forward with sexual assault or rape allegations.
The testimonies reveal a dark reality for Australian students, but this issue doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Over the past few weeks alone, our parliament has been surrounded by multiple allegations of sexual assault and rape.
And that initial Instagram story has now led to a national petition calling for consent to be included in sex education earlier. It’s already had at least 30,000 signatures of support.
The response to this story has been national.
It’s brought sex education into focus and forced people to examine if and how young Australians are being taught about consent – because if this many students have a first-hand experience of sexual abuse, then clearly something is going very wrong.
How Did We First Talk About Sex Education?
Throughout Australia’s history of teaching young people about sexuality and health, consent has never been a priority.
It’s actually quite hard to even pinpoint when sex education started being properly taught.
One of the first records is this pamphlet that was created by a group of male friends after the First World War.
They called themselves the Father and Son Welfare Movement, and one of their aims was to fill the gap that had been left in the lives of young men who had lost their fathers during the war.
That included teaching them about sex.
By 1969 1.5 million copies of these pamphlets had been sold, and the Father and Son Welfare Movement had laid the foundations of sex ed for young Australians.
But this education was more of a public health discourse than a school one, and the content being taught was more biological than anything else.
More broadly, young people learnt about eggs, sperm and fertilisation but not about intercourse, pleasure or orgasms.
Masturbation was on the agenda, but only for men, and the broader narrative was mainly concerned about creating happy marriages and making babies.
Over time it was a wave of social movements – not educational policies – that helped expand the boundaries of our rigid sex education.
Like in 1961 when Australia made the contraceptive pill available, which became a huge moment of sexual liberation for women.
A sexual revolution throughout the 1960s in the US spurred a further movement for sexual liberation, because it enforced change around same-sex rights.
And when the HIV epidemic hit in the 1980s, part of the response around the world focused on education about disease transmission and protection.
When Did Consent Reach The Curriculum?
But one thing that just wasn’t talked about that much, was consent.
While young people were beginning to learn about biology and anatomy, there was limited discussion about consent violations like rape, or any form of abuse.
For decades the focus remained on how sex worked, with little attention given to someone’s right to choose whether they wanted it or not.
And there was one simple reason why: the school curriculum.
Teachers didn’t know that consent was something they should have been teaching because there wasn’t a sex education program for them to teach. It wasn’t part of the curriculum.
When sexual health was brought up in schools, it was done without there being any sort of support or training for teachers, who would pull resources from anywhere they could.
They’d recommend books and movies to each other, like this movie Shame that one teacher told me she used for her lessons on rape and consent.
But that was more because consent was something she wanted to try and teach at her school, rather than something she had to teach.
Associate Professor Debbie Ollis (Deakin University): “You won’t believe this, but it was taught in home economics because home economics back then, was not just about cooking. It was about persistent practical problems that impacted on young people and families.”
It wasn’t until the early 1990s when Australia started drafting its first national school curriculum that there was a mandate for every school to teach some kind of sex education.
DO: “Over time what’s happened is the responsibility for sex education has fallen onto the PE teachers.”
But having something in the curriculum, in writing didn’t mean teachers were suddenly qualified, or that they had any guidance on what to teach and how to teach it.
Australia was, and still is, a patriarchal and religious society. So, what was ‘morally right’ (that is, whatever discouraged promiscuity in young people) was what was taught. The boundaries of consent did not have a place in these lessons.
And sex education has largely remained this way all the way up to today – just a murky grey area for both teachers and students.
Dr. Jacqui Hendriks (Curtin University): “There are some fabulous schools around the country who do address this issue quite comprehensively. There are classroom teachers who prioritise it and they know that it’s an important lesson and a conversation to have. But unfortunately, the way our curriculum is written for our teachers in our schools, it’s quite open-ended and vague.”
Teacher training programs across the country do not routinely give new teachers content related to relationships and sex ed. The vast majority of them don’t really even get given many skills in how to teach health. Frighteningly, this means teachers often just have to bring their own experience to the classroom.
Chanel Contos’ National ‘Teach Us Consent’ Petition
This all feeds into the context in which Chanel Contos started her recent petition.
She wrote that it wasn’t until she was in year 10 that she received life-changing education on consent for the first time.
But by that point, she said that nearly half of her school year had already been raped or sexually assaulted.
It was one of the things that made the petition so shocking, and yet not surprising; Australia’s current rate of reported sexual assault is one of the highest in the world.
In a 2020 national survey, almost two million (overwhelmingly female) Australian adults reported that they had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15.
And by now, it’s hard to remember a time when social media wasn’t full of survivors’ stories and allegations of sexual abuse.
Education in schools has been identified as one key area where Australia can make change here.
Victoria has already mandated a program in all of its government schools, that heaps of sex education experts helped design.
But advocates think our current national system is failing students on its goal to fully educate people on all aspects of sexual health and consent.
People want to see a total overhaul of the curriculum to make education about consent mandatory, and also early.
JH: “It’s a conversation that needs to happen early in childhood. It’s about understanding as a young person that you are in charge of your own body. And you get to say if you’re happy with something and you always have the right to say no. Just because you’ve agreed to do something doesn’t mean you have to continue, you can stop at any point in time.
It’s something where you’ve got to check in with your partner all the time. You’re really wanting an enthusiastic yes from your partner. It’s not a case of blindly going forward and hoping to get away with a few things until you hear a no.”
Chanel herself has acknowledged this is a big issue to tackle. She said that we don’t just need to educate students, “we have to educate a whole generation who have a patriarchal mindset ingrained in them”.
That first post-war sex ed pamphlet was, after all, written by men for men.
But the world has changed since the time that pamphlet was first published.
Landmark moments in our recent history, like the MeToo movement, have created more of an understanding about what consent looks and feels like.
So has pop culture, and so have the stories of sexual assault survivors like Chanel, Brittany Higgins and this year’s Australian of the Year, Grace Tame.
This story of how sexual health has been taught in Australia’s past, and how consent has never had a national education strategy built around it, gives some context to the huge response Chanel’s petition has received.
Now we just have to wait and see if the government will hear that response and act on it.