Effective Sexual consent

Addressing the issue of sexual assault prevention and sexual consent at the National Press Club yesterday, former Australian of the Year Grace Tame had three key asks: one being “the implementation of adequate funding for prevention education to stop these things before they even start.”

What should these education programs look like and how do we effectively teach sexual consent?

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Kirby Institute and the School of Population Health at UNSW Medicine & Health identified several themes that reflected the complexities of sexual consent and issues in global sex and relationships education.

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By conducting a systemic review of studies examining sexual consent education programs among young people, the researchers identified several issues with current sexual consent education, including:

  • Many programs were short, one-off, 1–2-hour sessions, and in university settings.
  • They often framed consent within the context of risks and potential negative, impacts of sexual

activity, as opposed to healthy relationships.

  • Programs rarely involved young people in co-design, which is critical to meeting their needs.
  • Many programs were not inclusive enough and lacked diversity.

Senior author of the study, Dr Allie Carter from the Kirby Institute, said sex-negativity is common in fear- based school sex education.

“It’s perhaps not surprising that we found many sexual consent education programs framed consent within the context of risks and potential negative impacts of sexual activity. This approach creates stigma and shame and can make it challenging for young people to ask questions and talk about sex and healthy relationships.”

When to teach sexual consent

On average, Australians are sexually active by ages 16 -17. Dr Carter said sexual consent education should be taught in an age-appropriate way from primary school to ensure young people understand – before they are sexually active – that each human being has a right to autonomy and self-determination over their own body.

“It’s important to teach young people, including little kids, about consent and their bodies as young as possible – long before it has anything to do with sex – scaffolding into more complex issues with each year,” said Dr Carter.


“For example, early education can centre around learning the correct names for body parts, respecting a child’s choices about touch, teaching children to respect other people’s boundaries, asking for consent, and identifying and expressing feelings.”

Dr Carter said this can lay the foundation for open, frank, and informative discussions about sexual consent with teenagers, from helping them develop empathy for others to building positive relationship skills.

A whole-school approach

The researchers also recommended a whole-school approach to sexual consent education. This approach advocates that a consistent set of policies, principles and values pertaining to consent and respectful relationships is promoted and embodied across a school or college setting.

“A whole-school approach involves both formal and informal practices and conversations in and outside of the classroom, involving multiple audiences across the school that includes parents, teachers and students,” said first author of the study, Olivia Burton from the School of Population Health.

She said this approach should be more widely utilised in future programs, as reducing violence requires not just educating students, but changing culture.

“Education needs to move beyond the individual and interpersonal level – where one person assaults another – and include a critical discussion of the structural and institutional environments that enable or allow this behaviour.”

Addressing the root cause at a societal level

The researchers said changing sexual consent culture needs to be more than relying on schools to implement programs.

“It needs an intersectoral approach to ensure that governments invest in progressive programming and policies to address the root causes of sexual violence at the institutional and societal level and promote social justice, sexual agency, and health.”

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