Opinion

Joy Townsend
Teaching young people about consent

Content warning: This article includes discussion and depiction of sexual violence.

Australia faces a reality where porn has become young people’s choice for sex education – not because it’s a good educator, but because it’s better than what else is on offer. The federal government’s new consent education campaign is exemplary of why this is the case.

The campaign has come to be known as “the milkshake video”. It depicts a scene in which an overly enthusiastic teenage girl smears her milkshake on her male companion’s face, chanting, “Drink it, drink it all!” A David Attenborough-esque voiceover then introduces an otherwise unfamiliar concept of “the field model” to discuss consent.

In more than a decade of research and education about young people and sexual consent, I have never before come across “the field model”. I have, however, learnt and taught a number of evidence-based models for teaching consent, based on peer-reviewed research, which the government seems to have declined to draw from for this campaign.

The campaign is, at best, bizarre, heteronormative and ill informed. At worst it is alienating, infantilising and risks disseminating harmful messaging about sexual violence.

Within 24 hours, the videos were pulled down by the government. But campaigns like this send a powerful message to our young people – that they cannot be trusted to be properly informed.

For years, sex education scholars have criticised models that position young people as requiring risk-averse approaches to sex and consent education. Under these models, information is delivered in a disembodied and de-eroticised way. Discussions of active expressions of sexual desire, pleasure, non-heteronormative sexual identities and the navigation of sexual relationships are excluded.

One of the negative impacts of teaching sex education in such a desexualised way, for example using milkshakes and tacos as metaphors, is that young people are positioned as incapable of handling “the real thing”. The implication being that they are “unready for this knowledge”. In my experience, teenagers disengage from and dismiss consent training when it’s delivered this way.

Outside the classroom, so much of popular culture depicts young people as hypersexualised and sexually competent – repeatedly portraying sexually adept and promiscuous young people and sending young audiences the message that they “ought to be” sexually knowledgeable and capable.

A young research participant whom I worked with noted the disjunction between the expectation that popular media places on young people and the insufficiencies of sex education programs. “Sexual self-esteem is a huge problem, because it’s expected that we have it,” she said, “and it’s not taught how to get it.”

When formal sex education does not provide young people with the information they seek about pleasure, bodies and the logistics of sexual practices, they will seek this information elsewhere – often turning to informal resources, such as pornography, for their sexual learning.

Accounting for this reality, in parts of the United States, Britain and New Zealand, a pornography literacy curriculum is being taught in high schools – inviting students to practise critical thinking, self-reflection, and the re-evaluation of peer beliefs and gendered norms present in mainstream pornography.

Similarly, the New Zealand government’s online safety campaign, Keep It Real Online, is a stellar example of a public awareness campaign that engages with the realities of young people seeking out pornography as a source of informal sexual learning. The campaign videos do a fantastic job of engaging both parents and young people – they are informative, frank and funny.

As a sexualities researcher, I have conducted many in-depth interviews with young people. I have listened to teenagers step me through their own ethical framework for the pornography they are comfortable engaging with and why. For a research project exploring the impacts of pornography on young people’s committed relationships, I interviewed Lara*, who told me about how she “had a really negative experience of … coming into my sexuality through pornography”.

Lara was 12 years old when she had a dream, a sexual fantasy, which involved non-consensual sex. The next day, trying to make sense of it, she went online to do some research. She typed “rape fantasy” into the search engine. At the time, the search rendered “the most obscene and violent stuff that you could, certainly I as a little 12-year-old person could, possibly imagine”.

Lara was intensely disturbed by the images but more so by the fact she may belong to a sexual community that exalts such fantasies. Fearing she was somehow perverted, she searched further.

“I came across these really obscene and violent depictions of acts that I wasn’t even particularly interested in. It really kind of shook my sense of myself as a person and it was an incredibly traumatic experience,” she told me. “It’s actually taken like 10 years [for me to process it]…”

In 2021, Lara’s is a common formative sexual experience, but these sorts of events can have far-reaching implications for the kinds of sexual lives and relationships young people will go on to have.

Yet pornography also affords young people a representation of sex, and for many, it is the first place they see people having sex. Where formal education de-eroticises bodies, using cartoons and diagrams to demonstrate bodies engaged in sexual practice, pornography provides enfleshed and sexualised bodies, which are engaged in real sexual practice. And this is appealing to some young people, who as with anyone wishing to accumulate knowledge on a subject, may prefer real-life demonstrations over cartoon representations.

Porn was the first place Mel* saw two women having sex, an experience she describes as both a source of pleasure and information. “It looked fun and I wanted to do it,” she says. “It turned me on, but [I was] also just studying the mechanics of it as well so that one day, whenever this happens to me, I’m going to know what to do…”

Often when asked how they came to know what they enjoy sexually, young people mention pornography. This is especially the case for non-heteronormative young people – for whom formal sex education is most often irrelevant and alienating.

For Mel, it was the explicit representation of sex offered by porn that was so educational for her: “It’s just sort of paying attention to, I don’t know, different positions, you know the looks on people’s faces, people breathing – stuff like that to see, what’s working for them or what’s not … to see how everything works, you know, and the physical act of things.”

But in my research, I’ve also been told stories by young people who have been sexually violated – pressured into sexual activities they were assumed to “enjoy” but that in actual fact were objectifying, non-consensual and violent. Most often these experiences mirror mainstream pornography.

After telling me about one such experience, Lara made sense of it this way: “ ‘But women seem to like it’ were his exact words. And I think that the ‘women’ who seem to like it are the women [in porn] … He’d only had two sexual partners so he’s seeing countless women in porn. So to him even though his previous girlfriend and me haven’t been into it, he thinks that this majority of women are running around out there loving it.”

By not providing young people adequate sex and consent education, we risk putting them in harm’s way and jeopardising their ability to live ethical sexual lives. We owe it to our young people to do better by them, to not underestimate them. Not only can they handle the information, but they deserve it – it’s their human right in order to make informed choices around the kinds of sexual activities and relationships they might choose to engage in.

As an educator in this space, I feel a duty of care to prepare young people for the adult world. Effective and engaging sex and consent education is not some lofty aspirational ideal – it is well and truly achievable. New Zealand’s entire Keep It Real Online campaign, for example, came in at under $1.5 million.

There is no excuse for not responding to what our young people are telling us they need when it comes to sex and consent education. It’s time to get the experts in, to draw on the research and to respond appropriately.

* Not their real names.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "A job for the experts".

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Joy Townsend is a gender and sexualities researcher and educator, and the founder and chief executive of the sexual consent training organisation Learning Consent.