Why a good consent curriculum is about much more than yes please. Here’s what we need to do now

If, like me, you weren’t glued to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee proceedings recently, you might have missed the announcement that Ministers of Education around the country are supporting the latest version of the national curriculum.  In any other year this may have been unremarkable – but this year, one particular inclusion was of significant public and political interest.  Consent.

The new curriculum includes improved content about ‘consent’ in Health and Physical Education from foundation grades to year 10, and support for this inclusion was specifically mentioned in the Senate Committee.  The issue of ‘consent education’ has become increasingly politically relevant over the past year or so in Australia.  While young people and advocates have been clamouring for better comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) for decades, sounding the alarm that it is a key protective factor in safeguarding sexual wellbeing and preventing sexual violence, over the last year the wider community has become newly alive to the issue.

In early 2021, Chanel Contos (pictured in header) conducted a poll on her Instagram which asked whether her friends had experienced sexual violence.  The volume of replies in the affirmative was overwhelming, and it transformed into a petition for better ‘consent education’ – in recognition of the connection between the deficiency in their education and their experiences of sexual violence.  The media interest in the story meant the Australian public began discussing this issue at a national level, and the political pressure this generated did not dissipate.

Inclusion of consent in the curriculum was one of the express goals of Chanel Contos and her Teach Us Consent initiative, and for good reason.  Recognition that the stuff of RSE is a non-negotiable part of every Australian’s schooling life is a huge milestone, and the curriculum gives educators around the country an imprimatur to teach their students more about consent from an early age.  So can we, as a community, rest easy now?

Now more than ever, we must not lose momentum.  It will be a fatal blow to ensuring every young person is fully equipped with the information and education they need to safeguard their sexual wellbeing, if we were to sit back now and say: ‘job done’.  Quite the contrary: the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has done its job – now it’s time for all of us to do ours. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say what I have said many times before: a good curriculum is like a life-saving vaccine.  It could be a brilliant product, but without the means to store it, transport it and get it into people’s arms, it will spoil on the shelf.  This is where we have always stalled on sex-ed in Australia: implementation.  Australia has produced some of the best RSE researchers and providers in the world, and yet it has never crossed over into classrooms, into changed attitudes, into changed statistics about the rates of unwanted sex for young Australians.

This is what prompted me to go overseas on a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 in search of answers to the question of sex-ed implementation: traipsing across Europe and North America, I wanted to understand the secrets to success in sex-ed.  I learned that comprehensive RSE is a complex issue of implementation, expertise and oversight, and I identified six success factors: advocacy, institutional/government support, expertise, equipped educators, engaged parents, and evaluation.  Putting consent in the curriculum is only one small piece of the puzzle. 

First of all, framing this education through the lens of consent is dangerous: we must be teaching young people to expect sexual experiences that are not just free from violence, but far from violent.  It needs to be much more holistic, which is why advocates in the sector tend to use the language of relationships and sexuality education rather than zeroing in on the issue of consent.

Secondly, a new curriculum does not magically endow teachers with the expertise and confidence they need to deliver RSE effectively.  This really matters, because the nature of RSE is such that getting it wrong can be ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst.  Subliminal messages that come through a teacher’s phrasing, their demeanour, their answers to the curly questions these lessons inevitably prompt, can actually serve to reinforce some of the attitudes that drive sexual violence and harassment.  For example, as someone in Canada said to me, even well-meaning teachers will find themselves resorting to abstinence only messaging because of the taboo around talking about sex.  I have spoken to many educators who worry they are not confident or expert enough to deliver what is a very nuanced subject, and they are right to identify this need for professional development.  We need to invest in ensuring teachers are equipped to deliver RSE effectively, and are truly supported by school leadership to do so.

So too, we know that these lessons can’t begin and end at the school gate.  This is a whole of community effort, and parents and caregivers are a key part of that.  In the Netherlands, it was described to me as a triangle: education of children, of teachers, of parents/caregivers.  Many parents want to understand what their young people will be learning in RSE and why, and more still wish for greater literacy and confidence in continuing the sex-ed conversation at home around the dinner table.  This new curriculum does not do that, either.

The new curriculum is something to celebrate.  It recognises that young people have a right to learn about this important issue from a young age – and it has not been easy to get here, for sex-ed has long been plagued by community and political apathy, ignorance and opposition (which will not have disappeared with this new announcement).  But if we want comprehensive RSE to reach its full potential, so that our young people can reach theirs, we cannot afford to stall again.

Katrina Marson practises as a criminal lawyer in the area of sexual offences.  She is the lead researcher for primary prevention at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, and the president of the Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance ACT. She is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, exploring whether there is a right to sex education through a human rights framework.

Why bizarre milkshakes will never replace world-class consent education

The Government would only have had to go as far as Victoria to do better, writes Amanda Keddie.

Education academics, women’s rights campaigners and many in between have criticised some of the material in the government’s new respectful relationships resource for schools.

Particularly controversial in the Good Society resource is a video of a girl asking a boy to try her milkshake. When he says he’s happy with his own, she smears her milkshake all over his face. 

While well-intentioned, the video is simplistic and likely to be viewed by secondary students as condescending. The video is designed to be a lesson in decision-making when someone crosses the line in relationships that may be abusive.

I reviewed the entire Good Society resource from a gender-justice perspective and found problems beyond those in the milkshake video. These include that gender-based violence isn’t addressed in the materials for the primary school years, and harmful gender norms are perpetuated in some of the materials around consent. The resource also overwhelmingly focuses on heterosexual relationships.

What is this resource?

The Good Society resource is part of the Australian government’s Respect Matters program, which aims “to support respectful relationships education in all Australian schools” and to “change the attitudes of young people towards violence, including domestic, family and sexual violence”. The Respect Matters program itself is part of the government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children

The resource includes more than 350 videos, podcasts and activities for children in the foundation year of school, up to year 12. 

It’s divided into year levels (foundation–year 6, 7-9 and 10-12) with a series of activities for students to explore topics, including:

– positive relationships, inclusion and exclusion, friendships and identity (foundation-year 6) 

– peer influence, social power and gender (years 7-9) 

– sexual consent and sexting (years 11-12).

There are positive aspects to this resource including teacher guides for each topic with clearly stated learning objectives. All content is linked directly to the Australian Curriculum and there are links in the resource to extensive professional learning support for teachers. 

The resource draws on some powerful video material that foregrounds the voices of young people to stimulate students’ interest in, and discussion about, each of the topics. Some topics, like sexting, are addressed comprehensively.

But there are several serious issues.

Nothing on gender-based violence for young children

The government launched The Good Society after Chanel Contos’ viral petition for sexual consent to be taught earlier in schools. But the resource does not mention issues of sexual consent until years 11 and 12. 

Children live in a very gender inequitable world and absorb its messages. And the unfortunate reality is young children experience unwanted sexual contact. They need the language and strategies to challenge these experiences and protect themselves.

There is strong evidence attesting to the significance of supporting young children in the early childhood and primary years to critically analyse harmful gender identities. 

And we know young children are capable of understanding gender-based violence. In a recent study my colleague and I observed a teacher in a year 1 to 2 class eliciting comments from students who defined different forms of gender-based violence including “when someone says girls can’t play soccer” and as “when boys are teased when they cry”. 

This teacher was drawing on the teaching materials in the Victorian Respectful Relationships Education curriculum. These materials focus on defining gender-based violence and examining its effects through age-appropriate playground and school scenarios.  

But such defining and analysis are absent in The Good Society materials from the first year to year 6. Gender identity features in some of the cartoon stories and there are some gestures to what gender respect might look like. But the materials are quite childish and condescending. 

Of concern, some of the the stories reinforce gendered messages. One features a soccer game, where the male character outperforms the girls who “struggle to get the ball”. The girls are angry about the unfairness of the game and force him to pass the ball to them. Without proper critique, this story leaves gender binaries (boys as physically strong and in control and girls as less powerful) intact. 

Young women presented as sexual gatekeepers

For years 11-12, The Good Society’s materials explore issues of sexual consent under the headings of influences (like social forces and technology) and situations (such as alcohol and drugs, and parties). These are important focus areas and there are some powerful videos in this section that could open up transformative conversations about gender justice. 

But several of the videos about sexual consent reinforce the notion of females as sexual gatekeepers and males as sexual initiators. 

One year 11-12 resource video called “Kiss” involves two teenagers engaged in a passionate kissing session that, for the young woman, is getting out of hand. She halts the process and is relieved when her male partner agrees to “keep it above the clothes”. 

The teacher guidance associated with this video recognises tensions of ambivalence around sexual consent. But the decision-making centres on the sexual objectification of the woman. For instance, there are questions about whether the young woman should allow the young man to “squeeze her butt” or “squeeze her boobs”. 

There is no real critical engagement with the gendered dimensions of sexual consent, such as the hetero-sexist presumptions that position boys with the power to sexualise and dehumanise girls, and girls with the responsibility to police boys’ excessive sexual appetites. 

There’s a good resource available

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has said the resource was developed in consultation with experts, such as the eSafety Commissioner, Foundation for Young Australians, and parent, teacher and community groups. 

I am surprised this consultation did not draw on the Victorian Respectful Relationships model currently being taken up in more than 1,850 Victorian government, Catholic and independent schools. 

This program’s curriculum resources draw on an extensive evidence base. And it situates teaching and learning within a whole school approach, where gender respect and equality are examined and monitored in relation to staffing, school culture, professional learning, support for staff and students and community connections. 

Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie

This work is being co-published with The Conversation.

Main image from the The Good Society