Addressing issues of sexual consent: key considerations for schools and teachers
Wesley College refers sexual assault and harassment complaints to police (ABC News, March 2021)
Abuse Scandal Shocks St Kevin’s College (Star Observer, February 2020)
'Do they even know they did this to us?': why I launched the school sexual assault petition (The Guardian, 15 March 2021)
Outrage over Victorian high school's rape culture apology (NineNow, April 2021)
If recent media headlines are anything to go by, schools are floundering in their efforts to address the prevalence and severity of gender-based violence. For some school communities, there seems to be a general sense of surprise or shock that sexual harassment and assault happens in their schools. For others, well-intentioned attempts to address these issues have been met with a strong backlash. The reality in schools is far more complex. Most schools are inclusive spaces, and many principals and teachers are doing great equity work. But this work is difficult.
Schools have long been charged with addressing gender-based violence and it has always been fraught with contention and backlash. This is perhaps because the spectrum of gender-based violence has been so normalized that many find it difficult to see and name – whether through private school boy sexist chants, sexist language or jokes, inappropriate touching to more serious sexual harassment and assault. For a long time, the sexual harassment and abuse experienced in schools, particularly by girls and female teachers, has been trivialized and minimized. Perhaps now, with the strength and power of young women’s voices such as Chanel Contos, Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame and the sustained public and media interest in gender justice issues (post #MeToo) there will be real change in how schools are supported to address gender-based violence (Keddie, 2021).
The prevalence and gravity of sexual abuse
Recently activist and former school-girl Chanel Contos started a campaign to draw attention to the prevalence and gravity of sexual abuse in private secondary schools in Sydney. To date, her campaign has collected over 6,500 testimonials of sexual assault from females (teachusconsent.com). The stories are not restricted to private schools and the women vary in age (e.g., there is a story from a woman who graduated in 1965 and there are stories from girls who are still attending school). What is common across these stories of sexual abuse is male perpetration. The stories are harrowing. They tell of countless experiences of rape and sexual assault, of girls being raped when they clearly said ‘no’, of girls being plied with alcohol before being raped, of girls being raped when unconscious (either asleep or intoxicated), of girls being bullied or forced into performing particular sex acts such as oral sex on boys, of being coerced into sending nude images to their boyfriends, only for them to be shared without permission, of being groped in clubs, being felt up at school, of being called frigid by refusing to have sex, or more often, slut-shamed for having sex.
What is also harrowing about these stories are their long-lasting negative impacts. The women express their feelings of fear, devastation, shame, humiliation, betrayal and rage at being objectified, trivialized and used, of being over-powered physically and forced to submit, of their bodily integrity and autonomy being taken away. Some speak of the social and mental health costs arising from their abuse and their subsequent fear of men and intimate relationships.
The petition associates the high prevalence of sexual abuse within and beyond schools with inadequate sexual consent education. In many of the testimonials the young women remain silent about their experiences, blaming and shaming themselves or only coming to realise they had been victims of sexual coercion later in their lives when they were in more healthy and equal intimate relationships. The petition calls for better and earlier sexual consent education in schools that defines what constitutes sexual coercion and consent within the contexts of toxic masculinity, rape culture, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming (SBS News, 2021).
Sexual consent education in schools
Young people are critical of how sexuality education is currently delivered in schools and would welcome opportunities to explore sexual relationships, the negotiation of consent and sexual violence (Carmody & Willis, 2006; Ollis & Dyson, 2017). Integrating these opportunities into the programs, curriculum and everyday relations of schools, however, is far from simple or straightforward. Schools are adult-centred in their authority and regulatory structures and tend not to be conducive to encouraging open and critical discussions about issues of sex and sexuality (see Naezer et al. 2017). This adult-centric climate tends to control and infantilize young people’s sexual behaviours rather than recognising and addressing the complex realities of these behaviours (Ringrose, 2013; Gilbert, 2018). There is also the reality that many teachers feel ill-equipped and uncomfortable engaging in conversations about sexual consent with students. They may not feel they have the necessary knowledge and sensibilities to navigate these issues in safe and gender sensitive ways. For students, as the testimonials above make clear, such conversations are likely to be unsettling and uncomfortable for girls and boys (albeit in different ways).
The experiences recounted in the Contos’ petition highlight the significance of addressing the gendered dimensions of sexual consent. Research in this space has long expressed concern about how these dimensions position girls and women without sexual agency or desire other than to be moral gatekeepers who (through no-saying or yes-saying) restrict or allow boys’ and men’s access to their bodies (Coy et al. 2016). Young people are well aware of this ‘sexual double standard which rewards young men for having sex while passing negative judgment on young women who do so’ (Coy et al. 2013, p. 10). Challenging these gendered dimensions is crucial within the context of teaching about sexual consent. Also crucial is challenging the hetero-normative dimensions of sexual consent which do not only work to undermine the agency of girls and women but also of same-sex attracted youth who suffer high levels of gender-based violence and abuse (Hillier et al. 2010).
There are many excellent resources designed to support teachers to deliver sexual consent education. One such resource is Stepping Out Against Gender-Based Violence (Ollis, 2014). This is a comprehensive DET (Victoria) resource that broadly aims to address gender-based violence by examining issues of gender, power and respect. It is designed for Years 8-10 to accompany the Victorian Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships resources within a whole school approach to Respectful Relationships Education. A whole school approach to addressing gender-based violence is important given that institutions like schools send powerful messages about gender and sexuality through their culture and climate, their leadership and staffing, and their teaching and learning. A gender-inclusive school will greatly support gender inclusive sexual consent education.
Safe and supportive environments
Central to broaching any conversations with students about issues of sexual consent are inclusive, safe and supportive relationships and spaces where students feel able to share their views and ask questions without being judged, silenced or shamed (Ollis, 2014). This does not mean an uncritical acceptance of all views – but a guidance of conversations in ways that reflect a clear anti-violence stance. Such spaces will provide recognition and adequate support for students who may be survivors of sexual abuse. Important here are teacher knowledge and skills, especially in relation to minimizing harmful disclosures by informing students prior to these conversations that they are not required to disclose their own experiences. Teachers may need to deploy ‘protective interrupting’ strategies to remind students of this and protect them from disclosing private and distressing information. Awareness of appropriate referral and reporting services to support student wellbeing in this regard is central (Ollis, 2014). It is important that all teachers are aware of their mandatory reporting duties when engaging in conversations with students about sexual consent – in Victoria these duties are part of the Child Protection and Child Safe Standards – if teachers suspect that a child or young person in their care is in need of protection as a result of physical and/or sexual abuse they must report it to the Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protection (see VIT, 2018).
Consent and the law
The Stepping Out resource (Ollis, 2014) provides excellent guidance and information about consent and the law, including great activities for students about the age of consent and what constitutes consent. For teachers, it is important to know the following (taken from the resource, p. 123 and Youth Law Australia, 2021):
Age of consent
Under Victorian law, the general age of consent is 16. Once a person turns 16, they can legally have sex with another person who is 16 years or older (if both parties actively agree to it) except with a person who is in a position of authority (e.g., a teacher, youth worker, doctor, sports coach) or a family member. If a child is under 12, no one can have sex with them or touch them sexually. If a child is between 12 and 15, they can legally have sex. However, the other party must be less than 2 years older. If a person is 18 years and over, they can legally have sexual contact with anyone over the age of 16 who is not in a position of authority over them and not a family member. Certain professions (doctors, teachers etc.) have codes of conduct that do not allow any sexual contact with patients/students etc. even if they are over 18 (Ollis, 2014; Youth Law Australia, 2021). These laws apply to both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
What constitutes consent
Consent means a person gives their free agreement to sex. It is a crime for someone to assume consent or to force sex/sexual relations. A person can also withdraw their consent at any time during sex (Youth Law Australia, 2021)
As stated in the Stepping Out resource (Ollis, 2014, p. 123), there are many reasons why people may feel forced or pressured to engage in sexual activity and the law addresses many of them. The law defines situations where consent is not freely given, e.g., if someone:
- says yes because of force, fear or fraud.
- says yes because of the fear of harm of any type for themselves or someone else.
- says yes because of being unlawfully detained.
- is asleep, unconscious, or so affected by alcohol or another drug that they are incapable of freely consenting.
- is incapable of understanding the sexual nature of the act.
- is mistaken about the sexual nature of the act and the identity of the person.
- is mistaken in the belief that the act is for medical and or hygienic purposes.
The gendered dimensions of sexual consent
The Stepping Out resource (Ollis, 2014) also provides excellent teacher guidance and activities for students to explore the barriers to consent in relationships – a key one being, the gendered dimensions of sexual consent highlighted earlier. One of the sessions focuses on the pressures and difficulties of ensuring mutual consent in sexual relationships including fear of judgement – which is a ‘driving factor in sexual interactions’ (Ollis, 2014, p. 94). This session involves students unpacking a story of a sexual encounter told from two different perspectives: a young woman who saw the encounter as her being forced to have sex after drinking too much at a party and lying down with her male partner after feeling sleepy, and a young man, who thought her provocative dress and her invitation to lie down with him meant she wanted to have sex, her resistance construed as her wanting to be persuaded. The accompanying questions to this story invite a critical examination of gendered assumptions about sexual consent such as (Ollis, 2014, p. 95):
- Women’s provocative clothing communicates willingness for sex.
- Women want men to take responsibility for sex.
- Men should start sex and women should stop it.
- Women will speak up if they don’t want sex.
- Men have a right to sex.
- Silence means consent.
There are specific questions associated with this story for young men to examine how consent works and to encourage them to check in with their partner before going ahead with any sexual act. The questions invite young men to consider why young women might not speak up to stop a sexual encounter, what non-verbal signs might mean resistance or discomfort, what they might say to check in with their partner to ascertain comfort and willingness for sex and what the risks, consequences and benefits are in relation to asking and not asking for sex (Ollis, 2014).
Schools cannot be the panacea for the harms of sexual harassment, abuse and violence in the broader social world. However, they can be safe and inclusive spaces where students feel able to share their views and ask questions about sexual consent without judgment and shame. The guidance and content in Stepping out against gender-based violence are excellent in supporting teachers to scaffold discussions with students about the age of consent, what constitutes consent and the gendered dimensions of consent. Young people clearly would like more opportunities to explore sexual relationships with teachers who:
- centre discussions around issues that concern them.
- always guide conversations from an anti-violence stance.
- support them to examine the complex social and emotional processes of sexual consent including feelings of uncertainty, fear, discomfort and shame.
- support exploration of the nuanced and complicated forms of communication and miscommunication through which sexual encounters are negotiated.
- open up opportunities for students to critically examine the gendered and heteronormative expectations of desire and resistance within sexual encounters.
Carmody M. & Willis, K. (2006). Developing ethical sexual lives: young people, sex and sexual assault prevention. Sydney: University of Sydney.
Coy, M., Kelly, L., Vera-Gray, F., Garner M. & Kanyeredzi, A. (2016). From no means no’ to ‘an enthusiastic yes’: Changing the Discourse on Sexual Consent Through Sex and Relationships Education. In V. Sundaram & H. Sauntson (Eds.), Global Perspectives and Key Debates in Sex and Relationships Education: Addressing Issues of Gender, Sexuality, Plurality and Power (pp. 84-99). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Coy, M., Kelly, L., Elvines, F., Garner, M. & Kanyeredzi, A. (2013). “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape”: How young people in England understand sexual consent. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Ellsworth, E. (1992). “Why doesn’t this feel empowering?” Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. In C. Luke & J. Gore (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (90-119). London: Routledge.
Gilbert, J. (2018). Contesting consent in sex education. Sex Education, 18(3), 268-279, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2017.1393407
Hillier, L., Jones, T. Monagle, N. Ghan, L., Blackman, J & Mitchell, A. (2010). Writing Themselves in 3: The Third National Study on Health and Wellbeing of Same Sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne.
Keddie, A. (2021). Six things schools need to do now to stop gendered violence, EduResearch Matters, https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=9457
Naezer, M., Rommes, E. & Jansen, W. (2017). Empowerment through sex education? Rethinking paradoxical policies, Sex Education, 17(6), 712-728, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2017.1362633
Ollis, D. (2014). Building Respectful Relationships: Stepping out against gender-based violence. Melbourne: Department of Education and Training.
Ollis, D. & Dyson, S. (2017). Respectful Relationships Education: A case study of working in schools, In A. Taket & B. Crisp (Eds), Eliminating Gender-Based Violence (pp. 40-53). Routledge: New York.
Ringrose, J. (2013). Postfeminist Education? Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. London: Routledge.
SBS News (2021). A petition backed by NSW MPs from across the political spectrum calls for the school curriculum to include earlier and more holistic education about consent. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/petition-calling-for-better-sexual-consent-education-in-nsw-gets-bipartisan-backing
Teachusconsent.com (no date). Petition For Consent To Be Included In Australian Schools' Sex Education Earlier, https://www.teachusconsent.com
VIT (2018). Protecting children: mandatory reporting e-learning modules, https://www.vit.vic.edu.au/news/news/2018/protecting-children-mandatory…
Youth Law Australia (2021). Sex and dating, https://yla.org.au/vic/topics/health-love-and-sex/sex/, accessed 7 July, 2021
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 and is strongly informed by feminist theory. Her recent books with Routledge are Autonomy, Accountability and Social Justice (2019) and Supporting and Educating Young Muslim Women (2017). She has recently completed a Fulbright Senior Scholarship which focused on exploring new educative approaches to supporting gender justice in the USA.
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.1 Assessment, technology and the impact of social concerns.