Content warning: references to sexual assault, discussion of victim-blaming and rape culture
Last year saw a landmark win for young people in Australia. The government announced it will be rolling out mandatory consent education in all Australian schools, with a curriculum that will include looking at gendered stereotypes, power imbalances and coercion.
The trigger was a viral petition led by activist Chanel Contos, calling on schools to teach consent. Amassing over 45000 signatures, the petition was accompanied by over 6000 testimonies, many of which detailed harrowing accounts of sexual assault faced by young women who believe that their experience could have been prevented if their peers had received a better consent education.
And this petition was not the only event to shed light upon the need to better educate Australians in consent. The statistics are dire. A report commissioned by the Australian government found that 1 in 3 people working in parliament are sexually harrassed. In universities, the National Student Safety Survey found that 1 in 6 people had experienced sexual harrassment since starting university and 1 in 20 had experienced sexual assault.
Clearly, we have a widespread problem that requires a cultural shift, and achieving this starts with better education. If we want to better educate our students around consent, we need to start by training our teachers.
Consent education is a means to prevent sexual violence
When it comes to reducing instances of sexual assault, we know that primary prevention is a key priority. Primary prevention involves changing values, attitudes, social norms and behaviours in order to prevent an undesirable consequence.
It is well documented that changing social norms, empowering women, creating protective environments and teaching skills can help to prevent sexual violence.
We need to put a stop to non-consensual attitudes before they lead to sexual assault. This starts with educating young people. However, education will only be successful if it’s implemented well.
In Victoria, the Department of Education has already developed a primary prevention program aimed at reducing instances of sexual violence: Respectful Relationships Education in Schools. In evaluating the impact of the pilot of this program, the department found that when provided with appropriate training and resources, schools were able to shift the driving forces behind gender-based violence. Staff from participant schools within this pilot program stressed that a whole school approach was critical.
Their sentiments echoed the findings of an earlier report commissioned by the Department, which proclaimed ‘the single most important criterion for effective violence prevention and Respectful Relationships Education in schools is the adoption of a whole school approach’.
If we want help our young people better understand consent and prevent them from suffering sexual violence, schools need to focus shifting their culture. Teachers need an updated education in consent and specific, actionable strategies to help them drive this shift.
What we’re still seeing when it comes to consent education
Even in Victoria, which has been paving the way with its Respectful Relationships program, the understanding of consent amongst school leadership and teaching staff leaves a lot to be desired.
A report from the Australian Center for the Study of Sexual Assault found that successful education programs need to move beyond rape-avoidance training for women and avoid focusing on risk factors (such as drug and alcohol consumption). For years the research has called for a move away from risk avoidance for potential victims towards skills training to equip people to negotiate consent.
Yet when the Victorian school I worked at was named in Contos’ petition with historical allegations of sexual assault, prompting the principal to address the senior cohort, guess what she focused on?
She reminded students from Years 10-12 that “no means no”. She warned them not to get themselves into a state where they weren’t in control of their behaviour, not to go into the park at night and to make sure their parents knew where they were at all times.
When our school leaders don’t understand enough to address non-consensual behaviour without victim-blaming, clearly there’s a problem.
Teachers haven’t had a consent education themselves
It’s unsurprising that teachers can unknowingly make big mistakes like this when it comes to issues around consent. Most of us never received a consent education ourselves, let alone any professional development on how to encourage consent in the classroom.
Conversations around consent have been changing rapidly. Affirmative consent laws are being rolled out, meaning it’s no longer just about whether or not someone says no.
It used to be that the onus was on women to keep themselves safe, and sex was viewed as something for men to take from women. Thankfully this is changing.
You only have to watch a television program from before #MeToo to recognise just how far we’ve come.
Teachers need training in consent
As former teachers ourselves, we recognise both the power and the responsibility we have to change the attitudes and behaviours of young people. For up to 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, we have these young people in our care. And as the students go about their daily interactions in the classroom and the schoolyard, we’re also provided a unique window into the ways in which these young people interact with each other. We’re role models. We’re counsellors. We’re disciplinarians. We help our students grow and develop and this gives us a unique opportunity.
Unfortunately, many teachers shy away from teaching consent, or falsely believe it is solely the domain of sex education. And with very few teachers specifically trained in the domain of sex education, even those who do have to teach consent may find themselves uncomfortable and inclined to outsource ‘the hard stuff’ to external providers.
But it’s the classroom and subject-teachers, who interact with students every day that are capable of making the biggest difference when it comes to teaching students consent.
Consent is not just the domain of sex education. It can be practised every day, in day-to-day interactions. And if we want to create widespread cultural change, we need to train all teachers in consent.
All teachers need consent PD
Studies into sexual violence prevention have found that positive shifts in attitudes and behaviours are more sustainable when a capacity building approach is taken. The research suggests that empowering teachers to intervene and challenge incidents and attitudes that reflect gender discrimination through bystander interventions is a valuable approach.
In order to do this, we need to train all teachers to recognise the attitudes and behaviours that normalise a disregard for consent. Teachers need to be taught how they can role-model consensual practices and intervene when students behave in a way that isn’t in line with respectful relationships.
Those of use who’ve worked in schools will understand the flow-on effect this is likely to have. When students see teachers intervening in a restorative way, they internalise that certain behaviours aren’t acceptable and many even start to call out disrespectful behaviours themselves, essentially helping to educate each other.
And while explicit education for students around sexual consent is vital, building a culture of respectful relationships starts with learning to practise consent in day-to-day interactions. Checking whether someone is comfortable, hearing and valuing a ‘no’, giving and receiving direction are just some of the skills that can be fostered in every classroom, every day.
If we want teachers to feel confident and comfortable teaching students the skills related to consent and challenging non-consensual behaviours, we need to provide them with adequate training.
We need to invest in professional development for our teachers
Having spent years teaching in a secondary school ourselves, we recognise the extreme, seemingly impossible workload teachers face. Care needs to be taken not to add to this.
Victorian teachers, for instance, are already required to complete 20 hours of professional development each year, and are likely completing many more. Let’s dedicate some of that professional learning time to training our teachers in consent.
Surely, providing comprehensive training in practical strategies that every teacher can adopt to build a culture of consent within their classroom is far more valuable than another 90 minute session on how to use some gimmicky software to supposedly engage students.
Teachers are role models who interact with young people every day. When every teacher understands consent themselves, they can role-model good practices for children and teenagers, and intervene when they see incidents or attitudes that are damaging.
With the right training for teachers, schools can build a culture of consent that will set their students up to have more respectful relationships later in life. They can better respond to student reports of sexual violence, and can facilitate healthy discussions around the attitudes and behaviours that contribute to rape culture when these arise.
It is only by building the understanding and capacity of all teachers, through professional development, that we can help schools create a culture of consent.