A group of preschoolers sit in a circle on a carpeted floor while an educator passes round a soft toy octopus named Hugstapus. With an animated voice (belonging to the educator) Hugstapus asks each child in the circle if they would like a hug. Some of the children nod shyly before taking the toy for a hug, others shake their heads, “No.”
It might sound like a cute game, but there is a much deeper message at play. This is consent education – the children are being taught about their bodily autonomy and how to read each other’s body language.
Deanne Carson is a co-founder of Body Safety Australia, a leading voice in evidence-based body safety and consent education for children from three years old. In her five years of running the classes, Carson has made some startling observations about the different ways children, teens and young adults see consent. “Kindergarten children know that their body belongs to them and they don’t have to kiss or hug if they don’t want to. They know who they can talk to if they are hurt, and when we practise saying, ‘Stop, I don’t like it!’ they raise the roof,” Carson says.
However, by Year 4, kids are much less willing to speak out when their personal space is compromised. “Ten-year-olds know their bodies are their own but they don’t say ‘stop’ when we role-play intruding on their personal space,” Carson says. “They tell me this is because they’re afraid of hurting their friends’ feelings, of making a fuss, of losing social standing, and other things they find hard to articulate.”
Last August, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a disturbing report on sexual assaults on university campuses around the country. The report found that as many as one in five students had been sexually harassed in a university setting and that women were three times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted.
Having uncovered the scale of the issue, the report recommended that consent education be taught on campus. But educators such as Deanne Carson say leaving consent education until university isn’t good enough. The evidence suggests she is right.
Last year, Britain’s parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee found that one-third of 16- to 18-year-old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, while nearly three-quarters of all 16- to 18-year-old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls on a regular basis. In addition, a staggering 59 per cent of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 said they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.
In part, the #MeToo campaign has given faces and names to these startling statistics. Carson says one of the positive side effects of the campaign has been a willingness in more conservative or mainstream environments to accept consent education. Despite this, there are always some people who are quick to dismiss it as political correctness. “Unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation about relationship and sexuality education on social media at the moment,” she says.
Carson has been able to address concerns through preliminary parent workshops. “We sometimes have parents who think we are giving children too many rights or sexualising them by teaching them to use accurate names for genitals. But most parents are very supportive of their children’s right to bodily autonomy and understand that consent education doesn’t start with conversations about sex,” she says.
Justin Coulson is a psychologist and author of the book 9 Ways to a Resilient Child. He is also the father of six girls. Coulson agrees that consent education is extremely important – however, he thinks the responsibility to deliver these critical messages lies with parents.
“This is a parent’s responsibility, plain and simple,” he says. “As parents, we have got to have conversations about consent, respect and intimacy. And we have got to stop separating physical and emotional intimacy. When we fail in this, we provide fertile soil for sexual miscommunication and sexual coercion.”
In practice, Coulson suggests that parents should start having conversations about consent before their children turn two. “They won’t understand a word you say, but it will give you practice working out what you need to tell them,” he says.
Coulson notes that parents need to take an active role in teaching their children about their body, their “private parts” and their personal space from a young age. “Help them know that no one should ever touch their private body parts (or mouth), except a parent while they’re being bathed or at the doctor’s with a parent present,” he says.
Crucially, he says that as children grow older, the conversations need to evolve and include sexual activity. “Change the conversation to ideas around ‘being ready’ to be intimate, the different steps and stages, and how important it is that they are clear around what permission is given, and respecting decisions of their partner.”
At present, though, for myriad reasons many parents aren’t following Coulson’s advice. This is why Lesley-Anne Ey, a lecturer in child development, educational psychology and child protection at the University of South Australia, is vehement in her position that the responsibility for consent education largely lies with schools, not parents. “You can’t force parents to educate their kids,” she says. “If we leave it to parents alone, then we are leaving huge swaths of the population vulnerable.
“[Teachers] are in the best position to deliver [consent education] because they have access to all children,” Ey says.
For research published in the journal Sex Education, Ey interviewed more than 100 teachers from government, independent and Catholic primary schools across Australia about their experiences with children’s problematic sexual behaviours and their management strategies in schools.
Ey found that 40 per cent of teachers reported witnessing problematic sexual behaviour such as simulated intercourse and attempts to coerce other students into sexual contact. Others spoke about children taking part in oral sex and, perhaps most alarmingly, one teacher spoke about a Year 4 student who had threatened to rape other students.
When it came to teachers handling this behaviour, Ey found that although teachers were clear about their mandatory reporting requirements, there was a gap when it came to preventive measures such as consent education. And while many teachers were willing to educate children about consent, they were not equipped with the skills necessary to lead the conversation. “Teachers are all calling out for more resources and more training in this space,” she says.
Naturally, there are teachers who are resistant to teaching children about consent and bodily autonomy. Sometimes this is simply because it’s an uncomfortable topic, but Ey has also encountered resistance from those who think sex education can do more harm than good. “I can understand some of the fears teachers have around teaching these sensitive topics,” she says, “however, I think if they are adequately trained they will feel more confident.”
Some schools have filled the skill gap by outsourcing consent education to an organisation such as Body Safety Australia. But Ey says that this shouldn’t “let teachers off the hook”.
“Teachers still need to be involved in the delivery of the program, so that they can manage any issues that may come up afterwards. There has to be an ongoing conversation,” she says.
Deanne Carson agrees and adds that consent education should be a partnership between schools and parents. “Parents can be modelling consent from birth and having conversations about consent from preschool ages. And by teaching consent at schools, we ensure that all students have a chance to hear their rights and responsibilities when it comes to touch,” she says.
“We need young people to have a really clear understanding of their responsibilities towards each other before they start to explore sex and relationships. We give them clear instructions on driving safely before they get their licence – why wouldn’t we equip them with the same knowledge when it comes to sex before they become sexually active?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Consent education". Subscribe here.