When activist Chanel Contos’s petition, Teach Us Consent, prompted hundreds of students to share experiences of sexual assault, the need for schools to play a central role in educating young people about consent became clear – further emphasised by the federal government’s botched handling of rape and assault allegations against politicians and parliamentary staffers, not to mention its ludicrous ‘milkshake’ video.
Most parents and teachers grew up without any form of education on this issue. So, how to tackle consent in ways that are engaging for young people? That question was front of mind for broadcaster Yumi Stynes when she set to work with Dr Melissa Kang on a teen-friendly resource.
“Nobody smells a rat quicker than a young person if you’re bullshitting them or trying to get down to their level,” Yumi says. “We can’t speak ‘youth’, but we can speak the truth. One of the things that we did in our book was include a lot of first-person voices. Reading a peer talking about his or her experience of consent is actually incredibly powerful to read as a 16-year-old.”
The book, Welcome to Consent, is a fun, accessible guide on sex and relationships, with illustrated sections on “golden rules”, “what’s awesome about consent”, setting boundaries and, of course, healthy relationships. Although most teens are likely to jump straight to the juicy bits, Yumi says it was important to look at consent in a broader context, including the workplace and the playground.
“Power dynamics have a huge impact in one’s ability to consent,” Yumi says. “When you’re 12, it’s really tricky to understand that somebody has more social power than you and therefore may be able to convince you to do something you don’t want to do.
“Once they’ve got their head around, say, ‘Well, if they can convince me to lend them my favourite item of clothing, even though I really don’t want to’, then you can extrapolate to say, ‘How would that work if it were an intimacy issue?’”
Deanne Carson, founder and CEO of Body Safety Australia, is actively working to change the culture of consent from one in which the onus of responsibility is primarily on the person with less power to say ‘no’ to one in which the person with the power ensures they have their partner’s consent. Her program explains that consent operates on a continuum; and that there are both structural and individual reasons that might lead people to behave in certain ways.
Earlier this year, acting premier James Merlino made teaching consent compulsory in all Victorian government schools under an expansion of the Respectful Relationships program. Deanne says that while backlash from some quarters of the community has made some principals risk averse, once schools find the courage to get on board, the response from parents and students is overwhelmingly positive.
“This kind of education is essential – to create an opportunity for children who may have been sexually abused, or teens who may have been assaulted by peers, to seek support. A lot of problematic sexual behaviours happen in schools, whether on or off campus, and so school communities need to take responsibility. Kids who feel unsafe at school are not free to fully participate in learning.”
Michael Fawcett, principal at new school Homestead Secondary College, is one of the school leaders tackling consent education head on. “For us, it was an opportunity to make sure consent and respectful relationships were part of our curriculum from day one.”
He believes schools are in a unique position to address these issues.
“When you work in senior colleges, you understand the level of behaviours that go on. It’s not always something families can see and discuss and educate their kids on, so I think the responsibility falls to schools. You’re filling that gap in a child’s social education. As a school, we can equip them with strategies and an awareness of their rights and responsibilities.”
Deanne has been deeply concerned by reports of some schools holding assemblies to discuss consent, which she says is not a safe approach. “We go into this work with the assumption that, in any classroom, there are likely to be young people who are survivors and others who display problematic behaviours,” she says.
A trauma-informed approach involves small group work, assuring that there’s a classroom agreement which staff and students uphold, an anonymous questions box, and that children have the right to express any opinion unless it harms somebody else. Some schools are not adequately equipped to run sessions, she says – partly because staff are already overworked, but also because there may be staff members who hold beliefs that could be damaging, or because such conversations could pose an OH&S risk.
“The advantage of using groups like ours is that we’re specialists,” Deanne says. “For some staff, their personal experiences mean it’s unsafe for them to lead this conversation. We can also identify patterns of behaviour across all schools and alert staff to what they need to look out for.”
Her organisation can also support schools with mandatory reporting procedures. “It’s difficult for schools to have young people coming forward with cases, which can result in the welfare team being swamped.”
While the lessons in Yumi’s book might be most applicable to older students, she says it is crucial that conversations about consent begin before kids begin experimenting with intimacy. Her book, aimed at kids aged 8+, takes pains to challenge entrenched gender stereotypes, including the notion that girls are less interested in sex, or that the focus should be on male pleasure. “I think when you look at the facts, it’s mostly male behaviours that need to be addressed and challenged,” she says.
These ideas can become more complex when dealing with queer, gender diverse or trans students. At a recent Minus 18 forum, one of the key demands from LGBTQIA+ students was for more inclusive sex and consent education. While data shows these students are often better informed than their peers, they are also at greater risk.
Deanne says studies confirm that the most effective sex and consent education starts in primary school and requires a whole-of-community approach. “We hear from parents that they want to have these conversations with children but didn’t know how to start. Coming to a parent session is an opportunity to have those fears addressed and to be supported.”
Michael Fawcett also believes that it’s never too early to start becoming informed. “I can’t think of an age when it’s not right to have these conversations. Respectful Relationships is delivered in a way whereby you can access materials appropriate for all ages – so why wouldn’t you be using it?”
He says the impact of his school’s approach becomes most clear when students transfer from colleges where consent has never been discussed. “We’re pretty overt about our expectations and our requirements. When we get kids coming in from Year 10 who haven’t done the Respectful Relationships curriculum and compare them to our kids, the gulf in maturity is incredible.”
Deanne agrees. “It’s all about empowerment, especially for girls, so young people can understand their rights and the actions they can take – how to be assertive, or how to be better bystanders or upstanders. And how to navigate future relationships.
“Recently, a Year 9 boy told me that this training meant he understood his girlfriend so much better and, if they did start having sex, he would now know how to ensure it was consensual.”
FUSE consent education guide (DET program)
Respectful Relationships (DET program)
Body Safety Australia
Talking the Talk: Sex and Health Education
The Better Health channel
Catching On Later: Sexuality Education Resources
Talk Soon. Talk Often.