“You need to know what to do if you feel uncomfortable”: Why school-based sex education is important for all ages
While Victoria’s Respectful Relationships curriculum has had its critics, many believe primary prevention methods are the best way to move the dial on community attitudes to gender violence. In today’s policy analysis piece, Katrina Marson (@katrinaellen72) reviews the research in this area and reports on best practice with primary school-aged children in the U.K.
In a small village in Yorkshire, I’m sitting in a kindergarten class that is being asked to name the four private areas of the body that nobody can look at or touch if it’s unwanted. As a sea of hands goes up, one five-year-old bellows “the PEANUTS!” We know what you meant, buddy.
It is my Churchill Fellowship that has me sitting in this child-sized chair surrounded by fifteen cheerful infants, in an endeavour to learn how sex education has been successfully implemented around Europe and North America. After twenty minutes, this small class can name the four areas (mouth, chest, genitals and bottom) using the correct language, and identify a variety of trusted adults they would talk to if they ever had any worries. “No!”, they enthusiastically chorus with their thumbs down when asked if we have to have kisses when we don’t want them. This is the work of Big Talk Education, a social enterprise which delivers sex education in 170 schools across England. As we leave the class, one of the children implores us “can you please come back tomorrow?”
Around the same time, thousands of miles away in Australia, the results of the most recent National Community Attitudes towards Violence again Women Survey (NCAS) examining community attitudes towards violence against women were released by ANROWS, and the usual headlines about ‘shocking’ and ‘disturbing’ rates of problematic attitudes about violence, sex and consent cropped up in response. One in seven young Australians believe a man can force a woman to have sex if she initiated it but then changed her mind. Reading these results while I wait for my train on a bright Yorkshire afternoon, I do not feel shocked at all. Every several years a survey is conducted to take the social temperature of young Australians around these issues, and every time the figures are not good. What is disturbing is that despite the consistency of this trend over the last several decades, we are still not doing enough to drive those numbers down.
It is tempting to point the finger at the rise of easy-to-access pornography, the impact of social media, video games and other elements of popular culture as the culprits for these attitudes - but that poor attitudes have remained relatively consistent over the past several decades (before, during and after the internet boom) suggests it is something else. Often we focus on the criminal justice system as the answer, and while amending the legal definition of consent is important so that our legal institutions reflect what we say the standard should be, the law is by its nature reactive.
The research is unequivocally clear that education is the only effective preventative measure when it comes to sexual violence and unwanted sex. Some key research comes out of Australia and is relied on by the international community; and yet when it comes to implementation we continue to fall short. Peering into my rectangular portal to home, I click on Australian news articles to find, in the wake of these survey results, there are already renewed calls for consent education in schools. Usually when this happens there is panic that by talking to children about their bodies and sex, it will encourage kids to engage in sex. Someone will declare “you can’t talk to 12- or 13-year-olds about sex and consent!” As Lynnette Smith, the founder of Big Talk Education, said to me some weeks ago- no you can’t, because it is already about ten years too late.
Research shows that the more you provide children with accurate and age-appropriate information, the later they start having sex and the less likely they are to have negative sexual experiences. Lynnette uses the analogy that it is like vaccination - just as you administer a vaccine so the body can produce an immunity to a disease by recognising it, the provision of safe and appropriate relationships and sex education can help young people recognise risky situations and equip them to respond safely.
Early consent education does not mean talking to children about sexual consent in the way that we understand it as adults; but it is never too early to establish concepts of bodily autonomy and consent generally. It is never too early to teach children how to appropriately articulate that they feel uncomfortable, or how to respect someone else’s wishes.
A few weeks ago in a town called Shrewsbury in the English Midlands, a class of nine- and ten-year-olds were taking part in the Shropshire Respect Yourself program. They were brainstorming different ways they might ask for consent and ways they might decline to give consent - to a hug, to a game, to lending a toy, to tickling. The answers they gave were impressive, but even more so was their focus on how to respond to someone who does not give consent, or who is equivocal. “Don’t be mean if they say no”; “Don’t threaten them by bullying them”; “Don’t tease them”; “Ask them are you sure you want to do this?” These kids get it.
When asked by their teacher why they thought she was teaching them this lesson, one child said, “We need to learn about this - if someone asks you to do something you need to know what to do if you feel uncomfortable.”
Out of the mouths of babes.