Mandatory consent education, a win for all young people

Consent education will be mandatory in Australian schools from 2023, a win for Chanel Contos’ #teachusconsent movement and all young people who have called out a lack of holistic consent and sexuality education.

What does this movement towards naming and changing the dynamics of coercive relationships mean for young people in out-of-home care and the families, carers and communities that support them? Young people need safety to learn and share without judgment, a relationship-based approach and carers and families that are supported to talk about consent openly and critically with them.


Safety to learn and share without judgment

All young people need safe, trusting and honest relationships within which they feel listened to without being judged, shamed or criticised. Developing these relationships takes time and persistence, particularly for young people who have experienced relational trauma.

Trusting and supportive relationships with carers are vital in supporting young people to identify and understand what healthy and unhealthy intimate relationships look like. Carers often tell us that they don’t feel comfortable starting conversations with young people about intimate relationships for fear of crossing boundaries, being misinterpreted or having allegations of abuse levelled against them. These fears are valid, and we know if carers don’t feel safe, young people won’t either.


Relationship-based approach

Making consent and coercive control an explicit part of the national curriculum is a powerful step towards opening a conversation with all young people at a community level. Still, its success will rely on a relationship-based approach inside and outside the classroom. Young people may resist discussions about consent or coercion, particularly if they feel judged, embarrassed or frightened.

Likewise, educators and carers can revert to fear-based approaches to sex education if they don’t feel supported or resourced. Young people need consent discussions to be balanced with the positives of intimacy and safe sexual behaviour both online and offline, as a recent Conversation article points out. This work demands sensitive and attuned relationships with young people to make it relevant and meaningful to their lives.


Schools can’t do it alone

#teachusconsent showed that sexual violence can happen to any young person and schools need to teach holistic sex education earlier. But schools can’t and shouldn’t do it alone, not least because many young people with trauma living in a home away from home (residential care or other) may be disengaged from formal education.

Carers and families play a critical role in listening and talking to young people about what coercion and sexualised violence look like in real life and online. These conversations are urgent for young people with lived experiences of shame, stigma, and fear surrounding coercive and unhealthy intimate relationships.

Out-of-home care providers must have a seat at the table in this work. Programs such as Mackillop’s Power to Kids and our Safe Connections are valuable resources for carers supporting young people most vulnerable to harmful and exploitative relationships.


Porn, pleasure and an ongoing conversation

Consent, respect, mutual pleasure, and safe sex are vital ingredients of a healthy intimate relationship. They are not typically featured in the mainstream porn consumed by young people and adults alike. A recent Guardian article argued that sex education without porn is not sex education because it defines how many young people today perceive and experience sexual relationships. The author questions whether we are ready to discuss porn openly and critically with young people?

Our work with carers suggests we have some way to go, but there is great interest and motivation to keep showing up and learning more about how to best support each other and young people. We should provide a more holistic and balanced view about healthy sexuality so that young people are not left to learn from pornography – a poor teacher on what intimate relationships really look like.

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