In 2021, brave voices have raised the country’s consciousness about the alarming prevalence of sexual violence in Australia. The sexual assault and harassment allegations currently consuming Australia’s Parliament have highlighted that this is an issue occurring in the nation’s most powerful institutions and workplaces. However, problems of gendered violence are not confined to politics, nor to workplaces. An online petition, in which thousands of current and former students shared stories of the sexual violence they experienced as school students, demonstrates that this is a serious problem at all levels of Australian society.
This national attention on the pervasiveness of gendered violence has resulted in a push – especially from young people – for greater education about safety, consent and respect in Australian schools. According to The Educator, the aim of improving consent education in schools is clear: “craft young people into respectful [individuals] so that disrespectful attitudes and behaviours do not materialise once they become adults”.
Over the past month, schools all across Australia have demonstrated that they are listening to the concerns of young people and are taking this issue seriously. Schools cannot, and should not, be solely responsible for teaching young people about consent and respectful relationships. Parents, and the wider community, also need to be very much involved in this process. However, schools could certainly play an important role in shifting the way that young people understand and think about sexual consent through a thoughtful and formal approach to consent education.
What Has Happened So Far?
On 18 February 2021, Chanel Contos, a former student at an independent girls’ school in Sydney, began an online petition demanding change in Australia’s sex education curriculum. Ms Contos launched the petition after discussions with female peers led her to realise young women had “unlimited rape stories” to share from their time at school. The petition, published on TeachUsContent.Com, calls for holistic sexuality education to be taught earlier and more comprehensively in schools.
The petition now has over 39,000 signatures and is accompanied by nearly 4000 testimonies, which detail experiences of sexual assault and harassment that young people, mostly young women, had while they were school students. Although the testimonies were initially focused on the sexual violence experienced and perpetrated by students at Sydney independent schools, they have grown to include schools across all sectors and around Australia. It is clear that this is an issue that must be addressed by all schools.
There have been a variety of responses to the petition:
- NSW Police Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Commander and Detective Superintendent, Stacey Maloney, met with more than 100 independent school principals and representatives from the government and Catholic school sector to discuss the sexual violence issues raised by Ms Contos’ petition.
- The Association of Independent Schools NSW announced the creation of a new Student Safety and Consent Unit that will work collaboratively with schools and statutory authorities, including the NSW Police. AISNSW chief executive, Dr Geoff Newcombe, said the Unit will enhance the support that AISNSW currently provides to member schools and their leaders to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students.
- The NSW Catholic school sector plans to lead its own review of how it delivers sex and consent education in a religious context. The review will be undertaken by a three-person panel and will look at how the sector can approach issues of peer-on-peer abuse and student harassment.
- The Federal Government announced that they will be rolling out new teaching materials on consent and respectful relationships through the Respect Matters program. Schools will be able to use this new suite of information as they see fit.
- Several states and territories have announced new programs that go beyond the scope of existing sexuality and sexual health education, in a push to ensure meaningful change in students' education about these issues. For instance, in Victoria, all government schools will now be required to provide mandatory consent classes,which will explicitly teach students about power imbalances, the relationship between alcohol and sexual abuse, and how to provide and receive consent.
- On Friday 26 March, the Australian Human Rights Commission held a ‘roundtable’ with representatives from the independent, Catholic and government school sectors. A statement of intent was signed by all three education sectors, acknowledging the key role that schools and teachers, in partnership with parents and parent organisations, will play in addressing sexual assault among students. It commits all schools to taking “concrete actions” to strengthen their students’ ability to form healthy relationships and prevent harmful situations.
Clearly, this is a watershed moment for the Australian community in recognising the importance of addressing sexual violence among young people. For some people though, there continues to be questions around how we can best address these issues and the role that consent education has to play.
What Do We Know About Teaching Consent to Young People?
In working towards the prevention of sexual assault, consent education is crucial. Young people need to be equipped with information and skills that will enable them to navigate consent respectfully. Jonathon Crowe, professor of Law at Bond University and Co-Director of Research at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, says that young people need to be explicitly taught “what consent looks like and how they can make that a reality in their own sexual encounters”.
Teaching consent can be approached from a variety of different angles, in order to ensure that it is age appropriate for children. Young children do not initially need to be taught about consent in the context of sexual encounters. They can learn about what constitutes a healthy relationship between individuals, which may include learning about communication, trust, mutual respect, asking permission and abiding by the answer. Young children can also be taught ‘protective behaviours’, which includes teaching them the proper names for body parts, what is private and how to respect their bodies.
There are various opinions about the age at which it is appropriate for children to learn specifically about sexual consent. By way of example, according to Schneider and Hirsch (2020), a key principle of consent education is that students should receive the education before the onset of risk behaviours and at a developmental moment where the information provided is relevant and appropriate. In other words, young people should be learning about the nuances of sexual consent and its communication before they become sexually active.
A survey of 13,000 adolescents in the UK suggests that intimate activities such as holding hands, kissing and sexual touching is normal for children in the 11 to 13 age group. Many of the adolescents reported having kissed by age 12 and having been touched or touched a partner under clothing. In other words, many young people are engaging in intimate and sexual behaviours in the early years of adolescence. Delaying sexual consent education until the mid to later years of high school, as has been the approach in Australia, means that many young adolescents engage in sexual behaviours before receiving any kind of formal teaching about consent.
Hence, the current research suggests that starting consent education earlier and making it more comprehensive are important steps that Australian schools should consider taking.
What Should Schools Do Now?
It is encouraging that so many schools have been engaging in conversations about consent education. Although there has been some concern about the perceived rush to respond to the issues raised by Ms Contos’ petition, it seems undeniably positive that the education sector is taking the concerns of young people seriously.
Many schools are thinking about actions that they can take in the short-term to address concerns around sexual violence among their students. Some measures schools can take include:
- continuing to engage in conversations with government, expert and regulatory bodies about how sexuality and consent education in schools can be strengthened
- providing avenues for students to participate in decisions that affect them, including decisions and discussions around consent education
- involving parents and the broader school community in discussions around sexual violence and consent education
- reviewing, in collaboration with their students, the school’s current approach/curriculum in relation to sexuality and sexual health education, including the way consent is dealt with
- ensuring that students have, and are informed about, safe ways to disclose incidents of sexual assault/harassment. This should include an anonymous pathway for students to report incidents and concerns
- ensuring that students have access to appropriate support and counselling to discuss any concerns related to sexual assault/harassment.
The current prevalence of sexual violence experienced and perpetrated by young people is unacceptable. If schools wish to more effectively prevent and respond to sexual violence, there needs to be a continued dialogue about the best approach to consent and sexuality education. There is no quick fix to this issue but having these conversations is an important first step.
Schools are uniquely placed to respond to the challenge of sexual violence among young people. While the burden of teaching young people about respectful relationships and consent does not fall to schools alone, the role of schools should not be underestimated. Providing consent education in schools has the potential to fundamentally shift attitudes and behaviours around gendered violence.