Consent Education In Schools, Explained
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— Content warning: This article contains references to consent and sexual assault. —
Sex education – we’ve all sat through it in one form or another… but that doesn’t necessarily mean we really learned the right stuff, or even got across all the essential topics.
Delivering sex education that focuses on the topic of consent, for example, provides an invaluable opportunity to empower young people in Australia. Teaching what’s okay and what isn’t when it comes to sex, dating and relationships is a vital part of supporting young people as they navigate their first sexual and intimate relationships.
Our chats with young people across Australia have shown that there are still pretty huge gaps in knowledge on consent – and that knowledge varies depending on where you live and what school you go to.
The good news? There are moves being made to establish a more comprehensive and consistent approach to consent education around the country.
Why Consent Education Is So Important
After being sexually assaulted as a young woman, Elaheh didn’t know where to turn or what to do. She blamed herself for her experience, and it took her years to feel empowered to hold her abuser to account.
It’s an experience shared by many victim-survivors of sexual abuse, and one Elaheh feels is a direct result of never being taught exactly what consent is, and what to do when somebody ignores consent.
Elaheh – who’s now 23 and is a member of the Full Stop survivor advocate program – says inadequate consent education during her schooling and formative years made it difficult for her to hold her abuser responsible for what he did.
“For years I went back and forth on going to the police about what had happened to me. And I strongly believed that if I had been taught consent in school, I would’ve had the confidence to hold him accountable instead of sitting with self-blame,” Elaheh says.
Now studying to be a secondary teacher herself, Elaheh believes the new consent curriculum mandated in schools from 2023 could be the start of a movement towards empowering school aged people to better understand consent.
What Consent Education Currently Looks Like
While consent education has been in curriculums for decades, schools have had flexibility in how they teach it. Many students have missed out on learning about sex-positive, inclusive, and affirmative consent education that goes beyond just ‘no means no’. And this is before you factor in other issues, like the teacher shortage.
It’s why some teenagers receive fantastic sexual education, and why others receive little more than a few biological lessons involving condoms and period care products bandied around the place.
“In junior years, there was one topic that taught us about our bodies and how everything works,” an 18-year-old NSW rural student in her final senior year of high school tells Junkee.
“There was also a course in Year 8 where we were learning about how to say no and [say] stop … They reinforced that abstinence is the best,” she says.
For many, consent laws and the proper ways to give and receive consent were never taught. Instead, students had to find this information for themselves via the internet, social media and movies.
Hollie, a uni student in Newcastle, had never even heard the word ‘consent’ until she was in Year 11.
When the word did come up for Hollie, it was only after she and her friends were put in situations at parties while drinking and later reflected on the experiences they faced. “I never had a guy ask affirmatively, ‘Do you give consent?’ Or like, ‘Are you sure you haven’t had too much to drink?”.
Hollie’s quotes mirror the non-consensual sexual behaviours and incidents that many young people have been victim to, or even enacted, without realising. You only have to read the some 6000 online testimonies submitted by former and currents students to get a feel for just how often incidents of sexual assault are happening during school years.
It’s no wonder that both experts and students alike are saying that the recently introduced mandatory consent education and curriculum is pretty desperately needed.
So What Is Mandatory Consent Education, And How Can We Make It Effective?
Last year, Education Ministers around Australia unanimously agreed to mandate consent education in schools from 2023, after former Sydney high schooler Chanel Contos and her organisation Teach Us Consent called for mandatory consent education to be put on the national agenda.
With the introduction of the new curriculum in 2023, experts hope the national curriculum will provide an opportunity for holistic consent education.
According to several teachers who we spoke to for this story, consent education is now more vital than ever – especially at a time where masculine ‘bros’ like Andrew Tate are booming their toxic messages to students far and wide.
The teacher says that new consent education will be an important tool in combating those voices, but worries about whether it will be enough to cut through external influences. “Rather than just talking about how you actively show your consent, let’s talk about the negative messaging that’s already out there,” she says.
As members of the Full Stop survivor advocate program, both Elaheh and Hollie believe the new curriculum is a step in the right direction, but stress how important it is to create spaces for victim survivors of sexual assault.
“We need to place an emphasis on the role of accountability and responsibility when navigating sexual encounters. A nuanced conversation needs to be had so that survivors feel more confident in speaking out, without the fear of victim blaming,” Elaheh says.
Meanwhile Our Watch Chief Executive Officer, Patty Kinnersly, stresses the importance of consent education being part of a comprehensive and ongoing approach to respectful relationships education, rather than taught as an isolated subject.
Patty says for the curriculum to be most successful it needs to contextualise consent education within a broader program of teaching and learning about gender equality, identity and respectful relationships.
“Most importantly, schools cannot do this work alone. They need support and long-term commitment from governments to ensure they have appropriate funding and resources to embed a whole school approach. Schools have a key role to play in helping students understand and navigate issues around consent and relationships, and we need to ensure they are adequately supported to deliver the new curriculum so that we see a positive outcome for young people”.
Our Watch is the leading organisation in Australia working towards eliminating gendered violence, and runs a number of campaigns including The Line.
Editor’s note: Several of our interviewees spoke with Junkee under the condition of anonymity.
If this article has brought something up for you or a loved one, please call:
1800 FULL STOP (1800 385 578)
1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
Sexual Assault Helpline: 1800 010 120
Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
Lifeline (24-hour Crisis line): 131 114
Mensline: 1300 789 978
13YARN: 13 92 76, to speak with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Crisis Supporter