The Guardian Australia
Sexual consent education is too important to become a schoolyard joke
Drinking milkshakes, eating tacos and getting into shark-infested water – you could be forgiven for not understanding what any of these things have to do with sexual consent.
Yet it’s these topics – dished up as bizarre, evasive metaphors for sex – that feature in the Morrison government’s new “Good Society” consent resources for school students.
The newly launched website is part of the Department of Education’s Respect Matters program, and contains more than 350 videos, digital stories, podcasts and teaching materials.
The material that has drawn the most attention is a video (now removed) called Moving the Line, which featured a strange scene in which a teenage girl smears milkshake on her male companion’s face, telling him to “Drink it, drink it all!” Meanwhile an older male voiceover tells the viewer: “This is what we call moving the line.” Another video features a couple sitting on the beach, the young man trying to convince his partner that she should go in the water, while she points out she’s concerned about sharks. It’s hard to see how any classroom of teenagers was going to find these videos useful in a discussion on consent and sex.
While there is some good content within the 350 modules launched, many of the key resources are not only ridiculous but also confusing, concerning and sometimes even just plain wrong.
The site includes lines such as “sexual desire … can really distort our thinking”. It contains material that creates a disturbing lack of clarity around the absence of consent, emphasising a grey zone with statements like: “If a yes is not enthusiastic then it’s a maybe, even a no” and “To leave the Maybe Zone, you either need to both agree yes, or someone needs to finally decide no.”
When launched, the site also provided incorrect and inadequate information about reporting sexual abuse – instructing students they can report “any sexual violation” to the Australian Human Rights Commission (this has since been corrected). On another page, it directs young people to contact the police if they’re being stalked but doesn’t provide the same direction for any other criminal acts described, including sexual assault.
How can we expect any educator to engage students in a serious conversation about respectful relationships, and to change attitudes and behaviour, when their resources are heavy with innuendo about tacos and milkshakes? Can you imagine the follow-up questions they’ll be facing from a room of 16-year-olds after showing this content in class?
Young people are capable of nuanced conversations around these issues; they’ve been calling for clear and accurate information. Instead, the federal government has delivered some materials that are, in places, laughable.
Incoherent content like that contained in many of the videos the government has just released can create more confusion than clarity. And that makes the important but awkward conversations many parents and educators are trying to have about what’s actually involved in respectful relationships and sexual consent even more difficult.
The government claims to have worked with experts on these resources – but the nation’s key prevention organisation, Our Watch, have distanced themselves from the materials, noting the confidential nature of the process through which they were asked to provide advice, that they haven’t endorsed the materials, and that they focus on prevention education that addresses the gendered drivers of violence, and uses a whole-of-school approach.
These bizarre and confusing resources cannot be allowed to stand.
Young people want and deserve training that practically and explicitly helps them understand how to ethically navigate relationships and to recognise and challenge unacceptable and coercive behaviour. They deserve content that speaks to, and reflects all of their relationships. They deserve educators who have been appropriately trained on these topics, delivering effective content.
We know that in classrooms of senior students, there will be students who have already experienced rape. Survivors deserve trainers that will actively challenge victim-blaming attitudes and content and facilitation that will not re-traumatise them. They deserve resources that provide correct reporting information, and that creates an environment where they can expect a compassionate and appropriate response if they disclose what was done to them.
We all deserve an education system that challenges the gender stereotypes, toxic attitudes of entitlement, disrespect and discrimination that enable men’s gender-based violence.
The government should revise the entire “Good Society” website to ensure all of the content meets national violence prevention standards.We must invest in expert-led education, both to prevent future violence, and also to stop poorly designed content compounding the distress and trauma experienced by survivors who will be in these classrooms.
We need resources that will actually change behaviours and prevent abuse. We need to arm young people with tools to make ethical decisions, to navigate emotional and complicated interpersonal relationships, and with learnings they can actually apply to situations they’ll be in.
What’s more, we also need governments to reform the laws that deny student survivors justice, to resource the specialist services they rely on for support, and to implement reforms to make their workplaces safe.
This is a moment in which so many young survivors have shown such courage, insight and profound reflections on rape culture in our schools, and the need for better education to challenge toxic cultures and promote respectful relationships. The last thing students and survivors need is for consent to become a schoolyard joke.
Young people are capable of nuanced conversations around these issues; they’ve been calling for clear and accurate information