No means no: why teaching kids about consent is so important

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It’s been demanded for years, but in the midst of a sexual assault epidemic, nothing seems to change. Elise Unmack reports.

It’s 2015, Isabelle had just turned 17 and was at her first “grown up” party.

Beer bottles overflowed the bin and spilled liquor made the wooden floor sticky.

Dancing around to the loud music, talking with her friends, and drinking something mixed with vodka, she was hitting it off with a boy she liked, talking, flirting, and laughing in the laundry room of the house.

Suddenly he was on top of her and reaching to unbutton her jeans while he groped her.

Tipsy and a little dizzy, she tried to push him off, told him to stop, and slapped his hand away, but she wasn’t able to stop him.

What followed is an event which, according to the Australian Government, almost two million Australians can relate to – rape.

Every woman I know has a story like mine, and it doesn’t happen just once in your life.

Isabelle, who says that five years later she is still in active recovery, is attempting to heal from her experiences with sexual violence throughout high school.

Sexual violence is an epidemic that has affected hundreds of millions of people internationally, and yet, nothing seems to change. 

In late February 2020, Chanel Contos, a Sydney ex-private schoolgirl, went live with her online petition, calling for consent education to be introduced into school curriculum.

No means no: why teaching kids about consent is so important
Petition update from Chanel Contos’s instagram

After a few short weeks, the site – teachusconsent.com – had been shared by thousands on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The website, not only acting as a petition, includes testimonies from sexual assault and rape victims, many of them naming the schools where these offences occurred. Among them were some of the most elite private schools in the state.

In under two months, the site had accumulated nearly 4000 testimonies – now expanded to more than 6000 – exemplifying just how prolific this epidemic of sexual violence is in high school-aged students. 

Pushing for a comprehensive curriculum in schools sex education is the site’s key focus. With more than 40,000 signatures on the petition, it has become clear that the government needs to take action.

However, including consent in education will not be the end of sexual assault, and the site has corroborated years of ignored pleas and allegations of sexual violence in schools and associated environments. Education is the first of many steps. 

Change starts with education

Grace Tame – Australian of the Year 2021, sexual assault survivor and creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign – says consent education is essential.

 “If we’re going to stop these things from happening in the first place we really need to be focusing on education, what we can do to stop it from happening,” she says.

The #LetHerSpeak is a campaign that pushes to abolish sexual assault victim gag laws, particularly in Tasmania and Northern Territory.

These gag laws prevented Grace from speaking openly about her experiences with statutory rape, grooming, and consent violation, whilst the perpetrator was free to discuss the same events.

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Eventually, after two years of battling the Tasmanian legal system, Grace obtained a special exemption from the Tasmanian Supreme Court to speak out. She now advocates for other sexual assault survivors to do the same. 

Educating young people about this issue is not only to help potential victims of sexual violence and rape but to educate potential perpetrators about consent violation and sexual violence.

The website says that while “these are uncomfortable conversations to have with young teenagers, it is far more uncomfortable to live knowing that something happened to you, or a friend, or perhaps that you were even the perpetrator of it, and it could have been avoided.”

The “boys will be boys” attitude

While chauvinistic-like behaviour is present in all school environments, teachusconsent.com focuses particularly on testimonies involving students from single-sex private boys schools, where locker room talk is certainly not contained to the locker room. Rape culture-induced language is the new normal, and the “boys will be boys” mentality runs rampant.

Gab Seymour, an ex-student from Melbourne private school Xavier College, heard many “passing jokes and stupid lines” from the students around him during his 13 years at the school, often discussing their most recent “conquests”.

“I don’t recall any set learning or dedicated classes,” says Gab, when asked whether he was taught anything about sexual assault and consent violation.

The website, and the testimonies it has recorded names particular schools, nationwide for perpetuating the behaviour which contributes to rape culture and sexual violence.

Melbourne schools such as Carey Baptist Grammar, Wesley College, and St Kevin’s were referenced by survivors for allowing an environment of misogyny to develop within the school. Many parents of children who attend schools that were named and shamed have decided to with their children, at least until a comprehensive education curriculum is followed at the schools.

The site explains that while the “majority of signatories to this petition will have long since graduated from school”, the testimonies posted aim to help “advocate for the younger generations to receive an [sexual] education that they were either deprived of or received far too late”.

No means no: why teaching kids about consent is so important
Students at the March 4 Justice march in Melbourne.

A lack of consent education is something Isabelle feels contributed to what she experienced.

“I don’t really remember ever being taught about what consensual sex looks like, and so I still struggle to acknowledge what happened to me as rape ” she says. “I think that education is a necessary step to change the culture. It could have helped me seek medical and mental health care sooner.”

Student Abbey O’Brien, who is studying both primary and secondary education at Melbourne’s Monash University, hasn’t “learnt anything about teaching consent and healthy sexual relationships” during her two years of study.

“It has to be taught soon though,” she says. Without educators having essential knowledge of such issues, there is no way of teaching school students and teenagers how to navigate such difficult topics.

Setting a curriculum for students

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority is the head authoritarian body that works alongside the Victorian Government and is responsible for the provision of curriculum and assessment programs for students in the state.

As of March this year, the Victorian Government and Curriculum Authority has introduced consent education as a mandatory step in sexual health classes in all Victorian state schools.

The new curriculum will “build on the current program which is significant and does cover consent,” says Employment Minister Jaala Pulford.

Pulford and Education Minister James Merlino are working alongside the VCAA to implement the curriculum into Victorian state schools. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has been contacted but has given no comment. 

No means no: why teaching kids about consent is so important
Australian of the Year and survivor of sexual abuse, Grace Tame receiving her award from Scott Morrison

Queensland has joined Victoria in making this new curriculum compulsory in its state schools, and NSW is developing materials for both state and private schools. But teachusconsent.com is pushing for change nationwide. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge said in February the government would soon introduce new “respectful relationships” material into the national curriculum, and a Respect Matters program was announced in April.

Using the right language

Despite this introduction of consent into the curriculum, many worry that it will not be extensive enough to educate students. The Good Society, a website launched by the Victorian Government, aims to educate young Australians about issues regarding rape, sexual assault, and consent violation, but missed the mark, according to many. 

None of the videos posted by The Good Society explicitly use the words sex, rape, or assault, but instead, attempted to discuss these issues through metaphors and skits.

Curtin University sexual health academic Dr Jacqui Hendriks, says it wasn’t an effective way to do it.

Trying to talk about sex without actually talking about sex isn’t helpful, we need to be specifically talking about consent in an intimate and sexual relationship

The campaign cost the Australian Government nearly $4 million and has now been pulled from circulation after the backlash from the public, and sexual health and relationship experts alike.

Grace Tame said the campaign “minimises the experience of rape trauma, it fails to address the nuances of this complex issue of consent”.

It’s clear that while consent education has come to the attention of both Australian Federal and Victorian state governments, consent, in the eyes of ministers and authority, is still a “taboo” issue to teach to young people.

However, with rape and sexual violence becoming increasingly prevalent – rising 30 per cent between 2010 and 2018 according to state government statistics – “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to education is not enough.