10 WAYS to make sure we get consent education right for high school students
Consent is vital to many aspects of life, and it is essential that young people learn to practise it if we want them to be able to form healthy, respectful relationships. In Australia, we already understand and accept that consent education should be an integral part of any school's curriculum, and it is a topic that needs to be discussed in an age-appropriate manner. That’s why the government mandated it in all Australian schools from Foundation-10 last year.
Teaching consent in schools is crucial because it can help prevent sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. But consent education is not just about reducing sexual harm. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of teaching consent in schools and the ways in which it can be effectively incorporated into the secondary curriculum in order to equip young people with tools for communication and respect that will help them throughout their lives.
What is Consent?
Consent is a willing agreement between all people involved in something. When it comes to sexual consent, most advocate for establishing a clear, specific and enthusiastic "yes" given freely by all parties involved. But sex isn’t the only instance where mutual agreement, and the tools to establish it, are important. Consider some other instances where an enthusiastic yes might be important, such as when a friend asks you if they can borrow your car, or if you’d like to go to get a piercing together, or whether they can tell their colleague one of your private stories.
Consent means that all participants are fully aware of the activity and the risks involved, and that they are free to change their minds at any time. Consent cannot be given if someone is coerced, threatened, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Again, this is important for everyone to understand in the bedroom, but equally so in other situations. Pressured into a tattoo while drunk? The artist definitely isn’t practising consent. Told to take medication without being warned of some serious risks? Again, not good practice on the part of the prescriber.
Why Teach Consent in Secondary Schools?
If those examples sound like something you don’t think a decent human being would do, then you’re already getting the point. Teaching consent is all about teaching young people to consider and respect the rights of other people. And this is particularly important in secondary schools. As young people navigate the formative years of teenagehood and the influence of their parents gives way to the influence of their peers, schools end up doing a lot of heavy lifting, simply because students spend so many waking hours there. That’s why it’s so important that schools have meaningful consent education programs, to be building on and reinforcing the concepts and values that good parents and primary schools have worked so hard to instill.
In a world where it’s all too easy to fall into the wrong social media bubble, pornography is more accessible than ever and Andrew Tate is spewing misogyny to teenagers on Tik Tok, a comprehensive sexuality and relationships education is more vital than ever.
Teaching consent in schools is crucial because it can help prevent sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment in society, particularly among young people. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five women and one in fourteen men reported experiencing sexual violence before the age of 18. The most recent National Student Safety Survey reported similar findings, while also highlighting the disproportionate effect of sexual harm on members of LGBTIQA+ communities, people of colour, and those with disabilities. In short, we can’t ignore the high prevalence of sexual harm, and we also have to accept that those from marginalised groups are most vulnerable.
That’s why it’s so important that secondary schools teach a comprehensive Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum, that examines the way in which social power structures contribute to the ongoing prevalence of sexual harm. By drawing attention to the cultural norms and expectations that contribute to a lack of respect for certain groups of people, as well as explicitly covering the ins and outs of sexual consent, we can help reduce instances of sexual harm suffered by young people.
Additionally, teaching consent in schools can also help young people develop healthy relationships. Because consent is an essential aspect of any healthy relationship, not just when it comes to sexual activity. If we teach young people the right communication skills, we set them up to build positive and respectful relationships in the future. We help them understand the importance of communication and boundaries, which are essential skills in so many aspects of both public and private life.
Many teachers find consent in schools to be a sensitive topic, but research shows that parents overwhelmingly support sexuality education, and when supported with proper training, teachers can have a huge impact on those in their classrooms.
And while we acknowledge that a small minority of parents believe that consent education should be solely the domain of the home, we ask those parents to consider what they know about teenagers and see the danger in this. Sure, your kids listen to you and you probably do a great job at teaching them to respect others, especially when it comes to any form of sexual activity, but what about those kids who lack positive role models in their lives?
You might be able to educate your own children, but this doesn’t protect them from the harm that can be caused by others who lack an understanding of consent.
How to Teach Consent in Secondary Schools?
When it comes to primary prevention of sexual harm, the research is clear. An authentic, whole school approach is needed to create an effective cultural shift. It’s not enough to cover consent in one lesson, or simply tick a box by bringing in an external provider to run a one off session.
We have to dedicate the time and resources to providing a detailed, comprehensive and ongoing Relationships and Sexuality Education. Young Australians have been calling for it, and we owe it to them.
Here are some effective ways to incorporate consent education into the secondary curriculum:
1. Start consent education early
Many young people we’ve spoken to, as well as those who signed the petition to mandate consent education, believe that it was too little too late when it came to the consent education they did get.
Many schools don’t start explicitly discussing sexual consent until Year 10 or VCE. And yet working in schools as teachers, we would hear reports of non-consensual sharing of explicit photographs amongst Year 7 students almost weekly! Clearly we need to be doing more.
We need to meet the students where they are at, explicitly teaching them to communicate consent and boundaries. We need to go beyond just telling them what the law is. Yes, this is important, but so is teaching them tools to navigate when that law is broken.
We can address the illegality of sharing nude photos when underage, whilst also teaching and normalising the communication around this kind of behaviour. Think about it, what’s the harm in teaching a young person that it’s perfectly reasonable to simply tell someone you’re texting that you’re not up for sharing photos like that. What’s the harm in explaining that it’s illegal to share nudes of anyone underage, while also teaching them that it’s also simply immoral to forward on any photo of someone, in any situation, without checking whether the person is comfortable with that first?
What’s the harm in explaining that when you are old enough to be sharing pictures like that, it’s a good idea to never put your face in them, and you should check the person on the receiving end is up for that sort of photo before you hit send! I reckon if we taught teenagers this from a young age, adults would encounter far fewer unsolicited dick picks on Tinder.
2. Create a safe secondary school environment where consent is practised every day
If we want students to understand consent, we need to create a safe and supportive environment where students feel comfortable, and where consent is modelled in day-to-day interactions. Within classrooms and schoolyards, there are so many opportunities for teachers to help foster a culture of consent amongst students and fellow staff. This first step towards this is to acknowledge the attitudes and values within our culture that contribute to a lack of understanding of and respect for consent. We need to be calling out sexism and toxic masculinity, and challenging the conceptualisation of sex as something that those with more power take from those who are less powerful.
Teachers and others working in schools also need to learn to identify everyday non-consensual behaviours and to address these in a way that teaches the importance of establishing consent. For instance, a common non-consensual behaviour that teachers come across in the classroom is one student taking another’s things without asking first. With gentle, non-confrontational reminders to students that we need to ask first in order to be considerate of the other person and what they may or may not be comfortable with, we can start sending the right messages.
It’s messages like this one, that it’s important to consider the other person and how comfortable they are, that become internalised and lay the groundwork for healthy sexual relationships later in life.
3. Be clear and explicit
In developing our Consent Crash Course for Teachers, we consulted with a number of recent secondary school graduates who mentioned that their consent education consisted almost entirely of a video about making someone drink tea.
If you haven’t seen the Tea Video, it uses the metaphor of forcing someone to drink tea in order to explain sexual consent, and is as outdated as you’d expect for a video of over 7 years old. In 2015, the year this video was made, it did a pretty good job at reinforcing dos and don'ts of sexual consent. Unfortunately, so many schools are still using this, a video about consent released before the #MeToo movement and long before #TeachUsConsent, as their primary means of explaining consent to students.
As one student we interviewed put it: “They sat us down and said ‘If someone says no to something, don’t do it. Here’s a video.’ and they showed us the Tea Video…and that was the entirety of our consent education.”
This is problematic not only because the resource is outdated, but because a video that is meant merely to supplement is often being used to provide a primary explanation for students. We love metaphors at Let’s Talk About X - they’re super useful for driving a point home, but a metaphor cannot form the main explanation for students, because by nature, metaphors are unclear.
Ask any English teacher and I’m sure they’ll agree there are many students who struggle to understand figurative language. To teach consent through vague, figurative language in a video isn’t good enough. We saw that in the uproar that followed the Morrison Government’s Milkshake videos. Students deserve better.
4. Use classroom consent resources that are inclusive of a diverse range of high school students
Another important thing to note when providing resources for your high school consent education lessons, is to seek out materials that come from a diverse range of voices. We’ve heard from recent high school graduates who identify as LGBT+ who have come to realise through their own personal learning about consent, that they experienced sexual assault during high school.
These students remember receiving a consent education at school, but no matter how clear and explicit a consent that consent education might have been, because it was taught through a heteronormative lens, these students did not know what sex would look like for them as LGBT+ people, let alone how to practise consent during sex.
There is a reason that marginalised groups such as LGBTIQA+ people, people of colour and people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by sexual harm. If we want to do something to change this, our consent education needs to be informed by as many voices and experiences as possible, so that we can best prepare all of our students - not just Jack and Sally - to be having consensual sex.
5. Cover consent more than once - secondary students need key concepts reinforced year after year
As secondary teachers turned consent educators, we have a unique insight into both schools and the experiences of students. Through our consultation with recent secondary school graduates we were disheartened to hear that many students from schools that we know were already explicitly teaching consent, reported not receiving a consent education.
While this was disappointing, it was not at all surprising. Students are bombarded with so much knowledge in every classroom, every day, so of course they only absorb a small portion of what is taught to them in any one lesson. And if we’re only covering a concept across one or two periods, or getting an external provider in to tick a box once a year, do we really think they’re going to come away with the deep understanding of consent that is so vital?
That’s why it’s so important that we revise the ins and outs of consent, and particularly best practice when it comes to sexual consent, more than once.
At Let’s Talk About X, we recommend introducing the concepts and communication tools to establish consent in the junior years, while still focusing on non-sexual examples, and then revising and building on these each year. By the later years, while it’s obviously still appropriate to focus on non-sexual examples when we get students to practise these communication tools in the classroom, teachers also need to be helping students make the connection that these tools also apply to sexual scenarios.
6. Go beyond just defining consent and focus on why it’s important
Students need to understand what consent means and why it is important. While there are many resources out there that focus on defining consent, we need to ensure these are updated to reflect the recent adoption of affirmative consent laws in Victoria. We also need to go beyond just laying out what consent means and what the laws are.
If we really want to influence secondary student behaviour, we need to ensure young people understand that it’s actually not just about following the law. It’s important for students to understand how consent relates to personal boundaries and respect.
Practising consent is all about keeping people safe and comfortable. It’s about preventing harm. At the end of the day, we’re teaching empathy and consideration - qualities I’m sure all parents would like to foster in their children. When we discuss consent with students, we need to shift away from simply focusing on the legalities and consider why these laws actually exist in the first place.
7. Get high school students practising consent in day to day scenarios
Teachers can use every-day, non-sexual scenarios to help students understand how consent works in different situations. This can include discussions on how to ask for consent, how to recognise when someone is not comfortable, and how to make space for someone to say no.
Scripting responses is also a strategy that we employ a lot here at Let’s Talk About X. Think about it, how can we possibly expect someone to be comfortable asking for something, if they don’t actually know what to say? If we can get students planning ways to phrase things, then they’re far more likely to be comfortable communicating in the moment.
8. Discuss what healthy boundaries should look like between teenagers
Boundaries are essential in any healthy relationship, and students need to understand how to communicate their boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. We need to be equipping students with the emotional literacy and vocabulary to be able to understand and articulate their own boundaries.
Media examples are a fantastic resource to help build students’ understanding around this. By examining and analysing examples of unhealthy relationships within a TV show for example, we can ensure students have the vocabulary to discuss boundaries and both the moral and emotional impact of crossing them. Once students have the language, personal reflection tasks can get them thinking about scenarios in their own lives.
Additionally, through hypothetical scenarios and role-playing exercises, teachers can provide students with the opportunity to practise setting boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others. Activities like this are important, as they provide a safe, controlled environment for students to practise a vital skill, ensuring they’re more prepared for when they eventually need to use it, in a far more emotionally vulnerable environment.
9. Address misconceptions around consent
There are many misconceptions about consent, and it is essential to address them in the classroom. A throwaway comment, like “She was asking for it”, can be turned into a teachable moment where a teacher has the opportunity to provide accurate information and dispel myths.
We know from our own experience that teachers often find it difficult to know what to say in the moment. That’s why our Consent Crash Course for Teachers has a whole section on myths and misconceptions, to help teachers get comfortable identifying and addressing them in a productive way.
10. Seek support with professional learning programs
In such a rapidly changing consent landscape, we can’t expect teachers to be confident and comfortable delivering consent lessons without the support to do so.
While the DET has provided some guidance on mandatory Sexuality and Consent Education, how schools go about reviewing and implementing a schoolwide Respectful Relationships Program has been largely left to the discretion of health teachers and school wellbeing coordinators, who are already juggling impossible workloads.
It’s simply unreasonable to expect teacher’s tackle such an important issue alone. That’s why we’ve developed a suite of training to help Victorian teachers update their understanding of consent, cultivate a consent culture and help ensure students feel supported when triggered or disclosing sexual harm.
Learn more about our training programs for schools here.