Preparing for consent
11 July 2022
In early 2021 former Sydney private school student Chanel Contos invited her peers to share their stories of sexual assault when they were at school. The invitation created a deluge of responses. Within 24 hours, 200 Instagram followers had shared their stories, or experiences of someone close to them. At the time of writing, more than 45,000 people have signed a petition calling for consent education to be included in sex education in Australian schools to younger students. A further 6756 people have shared their testimonies via Contos's website, teachusconsent.com.
AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says the Contos-led campaign highlighted a previously hidden issue and the critical role that schools can play in preventing sexual harassment and violence in the community.
“Making homes, schools, and workplaces safer for women and girls should start with educating students about consent early,” says Haythorpe.
The student push for reform led state and federal education ministers to commit to mandating age-appropriate consent education from 2023.
While consent is not a new addition to the curriculum, there is scope to improve the way it is communicated to students.
A national approach that addresses some of the current gaps is critical, says Maree Crabbe, director of the violence prevention initiative It’s Time We Talked.
“One of the issues is that the nature, the quality, and the quantity of education around relationships and sexuality that Australian children and young people have received varies enormously across different states and territories, within different regions, even within any given school. To be effective, consent education needs to reflect the reality of students’ lives,” she says.
“Young people have been crying out, for a long time, for relationships and sexuality education that better equips them for their lived experiences, that addresses the influences that shape them and relates to the real world.”
Crabbe says teachers need to be supported to deliver consent education. “There needs to be curriculum standards that very clearly outline what should be addressed and curriculum materials to support teachers to deliver that content in age-appropriate, sequential ways.
“We know that teachers can deliver this content really well when they are properly trained and supported.”
Welcome to Consent, a book published in 2021, seeks to address some of the gaps in consent education for young people and develops a pathway for beginning conversations at an earlier age.
The book, co-authored by adolescent health experts Dr Melissa Kang and Yumi Stynes, introduces the concept of consent to young children by comparing it to borrowing or loaning a T-shirt. It also tackles topics such as sexting, horniness and consent, and power, gender, and consent.
The co-authors have written a nuanced guide to help students read body language and understand “mutual enthusiasm”, fortify their boundaries, and give themselves permission to be uncertain about whether they want to give consent.
Kang says it begins with building emotional intelligence and the micro-skills of self-awareness, so children are attuned to their bodies and their feelings from an early age.
“If we can do that from the youngest of ages when they first learn to talk and label things, we’d be giving our children a much better head start when it comes to consent,” she says.
Equipping children with those micro-skills helps build a feeling of agency, confidence in communication, and self-awareness, all of which are vital in navigating consent, Kang says.
Contos advocates consent education that is holistic and includes concepts such as slut-shaming, toxic masculinity, sexual coercion, enthusiastic consent, and queer sex education.
Both Crabbe and Kang believe that consent education needs to consider the age at which students are engaging with pornography and how that influences their ideas about sex.
An Our Watch study – Pornography, young people and preventing violence against women background paper, 2020 – found that, on average, young men view pornography three years before their first sexual experience, and for young women it’s two years.
Supporting content delivery
Crabbe says the delivery method for consent education also needs to be carefully considered.
She points to international evidence that consent content delivered by a teacher with quality pedagogy is preferrable to a lecture by an external presenter because students are given an opportunity to interact and discuss their thoughts and concerns in the classroom.
Kang believes effective consent education relies on supplementing knowledge and information in practical ways, which can include engaging students in role-playing exercises, writing scripts, or making short videos.
“Getting them to put what they learn into practice offers the best chance of changing behaviour,” she says.
Haythorpe says effective delivery of consent education relies on teachers being well-supported and well-resourced.
“That’s going to require the Commonwealth to step up and take a leadership role in terms of supporting the profession to deliver consent education.”
In March, Labor committed to investing $77 million on teacher training and professional development in consent education.
“We need to make sure that consent education is fully resourced, and that support is provided for ongoing professional development for teachers across Australia. This way teachers will be equipped to talk about sexual consent and respectful relationships in an age-appropriate way with their students and also support students who may be experiencing this type of violence to seek help,” Haythorpe says.
Resourcing needs to consider, too, that teachers may also be affected by domestic or sexual violence, she says.
In May, the Fair Work Commission gave its provisional backing to an Australian Council of Trade Unions proposal calling for annual entitlements of 10 days’ paid family and domestic violence leave for workers covered by the award system.
“Departments have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that appropriate support mechanisms are in place in terms of family and domestic violence leave and counselling provisions to assist any member who is experiencing this,” Haythorpe says.
“There also needs to be processes for dealing with any complaints by parents and, as consent education is embedded in the curriculum, resources to support its implementation in classrooms.”
This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2022