Mel Brush (he/they) and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs (she/they) are former high school teachers who now work in sexuality education.
In 2021 the issue of sexual harm between students was thrown into the spotlight with the #TeachUsConsent movement. Over 45,000 people signed the petition, which called for an earlier and more holistic consent education in Australian schools, and spurred the Australian government to mandate the teaching of consent across all Australian schools, from Foundation to Year 10.
What was most impactful were the thousands of testimonies added to the petition, by young Australians who believe that inadequate consent education was the reason they suffered sexual harm during or soon after secondary school. Their experiences shed light on a widespread social problem that spans across schools, postcodes and social class. They personalised statistics that should have been too alarming to ignore.
TOO MANY AUSTRALIANS LACK AN UNDERSTANDING OF CONSENT And What respectful relationships look like
The National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) conducted in 2017 found that Australia’s attitudes towards sexual consent are concerning, with a lot of the focus still being placed on the behaviour of survivors of sexual assault, rather than on the perpetrators (victim blaming). The survey also found several other damaging misconceptions, including beliefs that people are at least partly responsible for being assaulted if they are under the influence, or that sexual aggression is a natural part of men’s sex drives.
Our own Australian parliament has a long history of sexual assault that started to come to light after Brittany Higgins spoke up at the start of 2021 about her own sexual assault. Later the same year, a report commissioned by the Australian government found that 33% of people working in Australia’s parliament experience sexual assault within the workplace.
The Australian media very often reports incidents of sexual assault in ways that explain away the assault, victim blame, or reports occurrences of rape in ways that are sensationalised, ignore the experience of the survivor and don’t address the fact that these occurrences are part of a bigger picture.
Undeniably, the issue at hand is societal, it is systemic and it is deeply ingrained - part of a wider problem often referred to as a rape culture.
CONSENT LESSONS ARE ONLY A PART OF THE SOLUTION
The move to mandate consent education nationwide is a positive step in the right direction. But regardless of how good a sex education lesson might be, and despite how well a teacher may cover the topic of consent within a classroom, the issue at hand is far bigger than consent education within the classroom.
As teachers ourselves, we know first-hand how frequently there is a discrepancy between what students might be taught and what they actually learn. In building our online Consent Crash Course for Teachers, we sought out and interviewed a range of recent high school graduates to gain insight into their experiences of consent education while they were at school. We listened first hand to students who came away believing they’d been taught nothing from schools that we know have been teaching consent for years.
While this was disheartening, it was by no means surprising, and many teachers will be familiar with this. We’ve both had experience teaching film terminology and had students profess they don’t know what any of those camera angles are, despite each of us knowing that we’d taught them to that specific student in a previous year. The fact of the matter is, students are inundated with new knowledge every day, and many need to be taught things over and over, year after year before they eventually remember it. That’s one of the reasons it’s so vital that we now have consent education mandated at every year level, but this still doesn’t go far enough.
Ask a group of Year 11s if they remember the difference between a dependent and independent variable and most of them will look at you like it’s a completely foreign concept and not something that’s explained in Maths and Science classes year after year. Ask the same group if they remember how worried Mr S was when they fell behind and the sun started setting on that hike in Year 9 and every student will know exactly what you’re talking about.
Students learn experientially and they pick up on the attitudes of those who guide and care for them. And while at the time, a few of them may have still been wondering what the big deal was, and why he was hurrying them to catch up with the group when they were having a great time, even those kids will understand a few years later. They know that there’s more risk of injury if you’re hiking in the dark and that Mr S wanted to make sure everyone got into camp safely. When he took Jessie’s pack and carried it in his arms because she was struggling to move quickly with so much weight, they learned the value in helping one another. They’re proud to recall how challenging it was as they all took turns to step up and carry the extra bag.
A consent education that is confined to yearly lessons in the classroom is likely to be ineffective in creating the deep change in attitudes that is necessary to reduce the high prevalence of sexual harm in this country.
SO MUCH OF THE DEEPEST LEARNING HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL LESSON
We’re by no means saying that learning doesn’t happen in the classroom, but students learn so much from more than solely the actual content being taught. Those classroom interactions with teachers and other students are pivotal in shaping a young person.
The way behaviours are managed or stressful situations are dealt with will inform a students’ views and values down the track. This provides an incredible opportunity to help students understand consent through more than just lessons each year.
And so if we want students to receive a holistic consent education, we need to be utilising moments outside of the sex ed class as well. Teachers from all Learning Areas have a role to play when it comes to educating young people in consent.
If we want meaningful change when it comes to the way consent is understood and practised in Australia, we need to be creating a cultural shift.
We need to foster a culture of consent.
WHAT IS A CONSENT CULTURE?
Before we unpack what a consent culture looks like, we need to first consider what it opposes. We need to look at the root of the problem and acknowledge the ways in which our culture is contributing to incidents of sexual harm. We need to look at the ways in which sexism still pervades, and train people to stand up against it. We need to acknowledge that schools, much like the rest of Australia, have a rape culture.
You may bristle at the term, and many people do, but the term “rape culture” does not attempt to say that we live in a world where everyone condones and encourages rape. Rather, it’s a means of describing a setting in our society where sex is viewed as something that one person takes from another. Rape culture describes a society that makes it hard for people to say no, and equally hard for people to respect a 'no'.
And if you really think about it, it’s really no surprise that these are issues within our society, because the media is filled with examples where not respecting or considering someone’s consent is normalised.
Rape culture also refers to a wide range of “lower level” behaviours like sexist attitudes (“don’t be a pussy”), victim blaming (“you shouldn’t have gotten so drunk”) and making/laughing at rape jokes, that send harmful messages to young people.
If we want to combat rape culture, we need to be working towards fostering a consent culture. Our consent education needs to be proactive rather than reactive. We need to be intercepting harmful messages that young people internalise about sex before sexual harm occurs.
In a consent culture, individuals feel able to express what they are and aren't comfortable with, and people are considerate and respectful of what others are and aren't comfortable with. This applies particularly when it comes to people's bodies and physical contact.
In a consent culture, rather than normalising not considering consent, it is normalised to ask for consent before hugging, kissing or touching someone in any way, for example. There is also a focus on making people feel comfortable to say no by asking in a way that is open-ended (“how would you feel if I held your hand?”) rather than leading (“are you happy for me to hold your hand?”). In a consent culture, people learn and practise strategies to respect one another’s wants and boundaries.
Of course, the newly mandated consent lessons, which require schools to examine the way in which gender stereotypes and the related power structures contribute to sexual harm go a part way towards doing this, but we need to go beyond this.
THE DET ADVOCATES FOR A WHOLE SCHOOL APPROACH TO RESPECTFUL RELATIONSHIPS
The Victorian Department of Education and Training’s Respectful Relationships initiative encourages schools to adopt a whole school approach to embedding a culture of respect and gender equality, not just through curriculum, but through practices in the whole-school environment.
“We know that changes in attitudes and behaviours can be achieved when positive attitudes, behaviours and equality are lived across the school community, and when classroom learning is reinforced by what is modelled in our school community.”
It’s an approach that is researched-backed. If we want to reduce instances of sexual harm, all teachers have a role to play in breaking down the attitudes and values that enable that harm to occur in the first place.
We need to go beyond delivering consent lessons to students and ensure that the learning doesn’t stop the minute they step out of the lesson.
“To drive real change, classroom learning needs to be reinforced by what is modelled within the school community.”
- Victorian Department of Education and Training
SO WHAT CAN TEACHERS DO TO FOSTER A CONSENT CULTURE OUTSIDE OF RESPECTFUL RELATIONSHIPS LESSONS?
Schools have a duty to provide students with a holistic consent education, and the Department of Education makes clear that this goes beyond the curriculum. Basically, every teacher has a role to play.
But in the face of a daunting task, where do we start?
Here are some steps that teachers can take:
1. Update your own consent education
If we want to help our students understand consent, we first need to ensure we have an up-to-date understanding ourselves. How can you know what misconceptions to challenge, if you aren’t aware of the misconceptions you and others hold in the first place?
Make sure you understand affirmative consent and the changes to Victorian law, as well as what we want our students to be learning when it comes to sexual consent.
2. Challenge sexism TO ENCOURAGE MORE RESPECTFUL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN STUDENTS
The research is clear on the link between gendered power structures and sexual harm. If we start to break this down, through challenging sexism amongst students, we can help to disrupt the conditions that enable sexual harm to occur. For those looking to build their skills and confidence in recognising sexist comments and attitudes, and challenging these in a productive way, our seminar Fostering a Consent Culture will teach you classroom specific strategies.
3. Promote consent in everyday classroom interactions
All teachers - including principals - have the ability to model the behaviours and communication skills that pave the way for young people to grow into respectful, consensual adults. But in order to do this, teachers need to be given the resources and skills themselves.
When our teachers are equipped with practical tools and resources to embed consent practices into their everyday schoolyard and classroom interactions, we will start to shift our culture to be one that teaches and values consent and respect in all situations.
Because at the end of the day, if young people aren’t seeing consent modelled in day-to-day scenarios, how can we expect them to know how to practise consent when it comes to sex?
Want to know more about everyday consent? Let’s Talk About X provides training in consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion for teachers. Contact us to find out more.