In recent months, the media has given sexual assault the attention it deserves, resulting in, among other things, rigorous discussion about sex education for young people, with a particular focus on consent.
This discussion is important and has already seen a shift in public perceptions. In this article, Carlee Mitchell, our Leader of Wellbeing and Leonie Harwood, Deputy Principal, discuss a range of topics important to us in this area… join us while we ‘talk about sex’.
I learnt about sex through a carefully planned conversation with my mum. Mum did a good job in that one-off discussion of explaining puberty, how babies are made and how abstinence was the best, but not only option. The HIV media campaign of my childhood with the grim reaper ensured I understood that it was ‘not on, if it was not on’. And ‘Dolly Doctor’ filled in the rest of the gaps. Not that I was ever allowed to buy a Dolly Magazine – but we poured over the copies that friends had at lunchtime.
Our children today would struggle to identify the main moments that defined their sex education. They live in a far more sexually explicit world than we ever inhabited. They don’t need to wait until the arrival of a magazine once a month to extend their learning. Porn is freely accessible and sadly, many children stumble upon it accidentally.
Australia-wide, we are seeing a significant increase in inappropriate sexual behaviour among children under five, which has been linked to viewing pornography. The research is alarming – the average age of a child first seeing pornography is 11 years old. We must ensure we are actively protecting our children from early sexualisation via porn. It is essential that parents understand that online pornography is being programmed to find young people and so all children are at risk of accidental exposure, without proper filters and protections on Internet use.
Beyond pornography, our children receive confusing messages through social media. I spent my most recent holidays trying to trick the TikTok algorithm to ensure I received the content that would be shown to a 14 year old girl. While it was quick to keep defaulting me to content for middle aged women, I did enjoy a glimpse into what my daughter receives in her feed.
One of the TikTok challenges that bothered me, and didn’t even raise an eyebrow from my girls, was the ‘Escalator Kissing Challenge’. To summarise, people on the ‘up escalator’ reach across, grab the person going down and kiss them, filming the kissed (assaulted!) person’s response. I was angry on so many levels – the blasé way people were ignoring consent, that intimacy was a game, that I only saw it because I was trying to like videos that 14 year olds would like, that no one else thought it was a big deal, and that my daughters weren’t angry about it.
Unlike that one-off conversation I had with my mum, parents need to have open dialogue, constantly revisiting boundaries, expectations and perceptions.
So, the need has never been greater for parents to step with confidence into having this dialogue, from an early age, and continuing the dialogue throughout the developmental stages. The media has focused much of its attention on consent education in schools, so let’s talk about what happens at St John’s Grammar.
Education – what should ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education’ look, sound and feel like?
The call for consent education to be provided in every school in Australia has been made, and appropriately so, but only if this is seen as one part of a solution and not the sole strategy for shifting a widespread culture of disrespectful behaviours and language within relationships and toward others.
Sexualisation, objectification, coercion, manipulation, sexual harassment, sexual assault, violence, exploiting power imbalance, sexting, grooming, gas lighting and slut shaming…these are some of the concerning areas our young people in 2021 need to be aware of, and skilled to navigate in their relationships.
Consent education should be provided as part of an evidence-based, comprehensive Relationships and Sexuality Education program, guided by key curriculum including the Keeping Safe: Child Protection Curriculum (KS:CPC), the Health and Physical Education learning area of the Australian Curriculum and Shine SA programs.
At St John’s Grammar, we do just that! We are strongly guided by the KS:CPC, a respectful relationships and child safety curriculum for children and young people from age 3 years old to students in Year 12. It provides age and developmentally appropriate strategies to help children and young people keep themselves safe. It has a world-class reputation, due to its depth of content, breadth of learning, contemporary nature, and the requirement for explicit training.
Concepts focussing on consent are embedded throughout the different topics covered within the KS:CPC at an age and developmentally appropriate level. This includes:
- healthy and unhealthy relationships
rights and responsibilities in relationships
power in relationships
sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual consent
anatomical names of the body
privacy, touching and consent
online safety, dating, grooming and image-based abuse
types of abuse and dating violence
recognising, responding to, and reporting abuse
trusted networks and support services.
Please find a series of overview charts for the KS:CPC
- Early Years (ages 3-5 years)
Early Years (Reception – Year 2)
Primary Years (Years 3 – 5)
Middle Years (Years 6 – 9)
Senior Years (Years 10 – 12)
Explicitly taught from the Early Years with protective behaviours and assertive language like ‘Stop it, I don’t like it’, all the way through to Senior Years, where the focus shifts to psychological pressure and manipulation, we are helping our students develop the knowledge, understanding and skills to navigate respectful relationships both now and in the future.
This learning is a priority at St John’s and explicitly occurs in a number of places including in our Health and Wellbeing lessons, through our Wings Pastoral program, and Wellbeing Wednesday Series on the Secondary campus. However, learning about respectful relationships is part of everyday life through our culture of wellbeing at St John’s, including our whole school Wellbeing framework (specifically our Belonging & Relationships pillar) and through our CARES framework in the Junior School that focuses on key behaviours we must show in acting respectfully towards others, and ourselves within our community.
We also engage with leading professionals to complement this work and a regular presenter within our community is Dr Tess Opie from In Your Skin. Dr Opie provides a sex-positive, evidence-based, harm reduction approach to relationships and sexuality education.
We are often asked by parents to give some more information about Consent and Relationships Education. Below are just a few of the important messages that we share:
Consent is a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.
Consent needs enthusiastic participation by all people, it must be given before any intimate activity begins, and in an ongoing manner – at every stage of the sexual encounter, all people must be capable of granting their consent, and consent should be given freely and willingly.
Clear: Consent is clear and unambiguous. Is your partner enthusiastically engaging in sexual activity? Have they given verbal permission for each sexual activity? Then you have clear consent. Silence is not consent. Never assume you have consent — you should clarify by asking.
Ongoing: You should have permission for every activity at every stage of a sexual encounter. It’s also important to note that consent can be removed at any time — after all, people do change their minds!
Coherent: Every participant in sexual activity must be capable of granting their consent. If someone is too intoxicated or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, or is either not awake or fully awake, they’re incapable of giving consent. Failure to recognise that the other person was too impaired to consent is not ‘drunk sex’. It’s sexual assault.
Voluntary: Consent should be given freely and willingly. Repeatedly asking someone to engage in a sexual act until they eventually say yes is not consent, it’s coercion. Consent is required for everyone, including people who are in a committed relationship or married. No one is obliged to do anything they don’t want to do, and being in a relationship doesn’t obligate a person to engage in any type of sexual activity.
It’s important to understand that any type of sexual activity without consent, including touching, fondling, kissing, and intercourse, is a form of sexual assault and may be considered a crime.
This is one of the most common resources used to explain consent to teenagers:
Cup of Tea Consent Video
About Safe Relationships: Advice for parents
Protective behaviours and body awareness education must start in the home, and we must teach our children about their body autonomy; that their body is their own and it is not okay for anyone to touch it without their consent. These conversations need to begin at a young age, and happen often. If you are looking for appropriate picture books to start having these conversations, some ideas can be found HERE.
The digital world has meant that connections between two or more people can happen anytime and anywhere. As parents, we need to ensure we are aware of how our children are engaging in online activity; what social media they are on, what apps they are using, how the app works, who they are connecting with, and, are they sharing themselves with others safely? It is hard to keep up but starting with some agreed family guidelines for safe online behaviour could be an ideal place to start. Likewise, setting up parent controls on all online devices, changing Wi-Fi passwords regularly, checking online behaviour, including mobile phones, are all part of a host of things that parents could initiate to promote safe and enjoyable activities online. The Digital Wellbeing Checklist by Dr Kristy Goodwin is an excellent resource for families.
Smart phones – delay, delay, delay! These give young people access to the very adult-designed internet, to friends being able to access them, in some cases 24/7, to social media and a host of apps that have different functions that can make tweens and teenagers very vulnerable to predatory behaviour.
Start early with establishing boundaries for your children. In particular, ensure your child knows that you are invested in them being safe when they are out of the home. An excellent way to do this is establishing expectations early for sleepovers, social gatherings and parties. Start early with negotiations, inform others and keep informed – make decisions that are right for you and your family, not what your son and daughter has said another child’s parents are allowing. I have so much respect for those parents who phone me to find out exactly what will happen, what supervision will be in place and to share any important information when their child is coming to my house. Don’t be embarrassed to be ‘that parent’ – I think you are amazing!
There are a great range of party-safe checklists and agreements available. This one by Encounter Youth provides a series of questions to think through when hosting a party but could easily be applied to attending a party elsewhere and considering what you would like to know to help your child keep safe.
Finally, educate yourself – sign up for Parent TV (free membership is provided by the School, simply complete the membership form and enter the school code stjohns when prompted), speak with your child, speak with other parents, speak with staff, and first and foremost, come and see Dr Opie – she has taught us both so much!
Deputy Principal and Head of Senior School
Leader of Wellbeing